Jeff Samardzija transformed. We heard about it all spring. We were to believe the transformation began in the second half of last season in which he threw about 40 or so innings. We had to put all our faith in those numbers that were as a reliever and a scout or two, which was a little silly to me as you well know.
Samardzija is off to a fantastic start this season. He's posted a 3.41 ERA, but has a very impressive 2.30 FIP. His HR/FB rate is only 4.2% so his xFIP is 2.92. He's already been worth 1.1 fWAR. rWAR is a little less friendly as it's not based on only 3 statistics. His rWAR is only .2. His gWAR is 0.3. Whether you prefer rWAR, gWAR, fWAR or averaging the three, Samardzija has had a better start to the season than the projections thought he would.
That in itself isn't too surprising. They've only played a month of baseball. There are currently two batters who have a wOBA higher than .500: Matt Kemp (.548) and Bryan LaHair (.524). The league leader last year was Jose Batista at .441. Statistics right now tell us something, but we have to keep the size of the sample in mind. Bryan LaHair is not going to hit .524 over the course of the season. Ryan Dempster is leading the league with an ERA below 1. Last year Dempster was the complete opposite as he had an ERA of something like 1 million after April.
The numbers do mean something though. Most impressively for Samardzija he's walked very few hitters. He's maintained a high strikeout rate too. His velocity has been outstanding. According to Fangraphs, his fastball velocity is actually at a career high 95.0. the previous high was 94.8 last year and in 2008. That's likely to come down as the season wears on and Samardzija pitches more innings than he ever has, but it's a great sign nontheless. His 2-seamer is 94.5 mph. That's crazy. Only Stephen Strasburg has thrown a faster 4-seamer while he, Neftali Feliz and Daniel Bard throw a slightly harder 2-seamer.
I've only seen 3 of his starts and one was OK, another was a typical F7 outing and then I saw his last dominating performance. My eyes tell me that he looks better. Batters seem to be more fooled than ever against him. Not many pitches have been squared up or hit hard. He's been able to work down in the zone as well as taking advantage of his heat by working up in the zone too. Like the rest of your eyes, my eyes are lying sacks of crap though.
We hear all the time about how unreliable eyewitness testimony is yet we still rely too heavily on our eyes in helping us form opinions. What someone sees is nothing more than what they think they saw. I think batters appear to be more fooled by Samardzija's pitches this season. I think he's been able to work both up and down in the zone as needed. That's the accurate way to state the previous paragraph because I don't have any idea if it's actually true. This is why rely on statistics.
Looking over various statistics for Samardzija would seem to confirm some of what I thought. But then I see he has a 26.7% line drive rate allowed. Infield fly ball percentage is at a career low. Batters have pounded his pitches into the ground more than ever before so maybe that's why I'm thinking batters haven't made solid contact against him. I was surprised to see his infield fly ball percentage so low. I would have thought it was higher because he's struck batters out, has seemed to pitch more up in the zone, which leads to pop ups and just that they haven't made much solid contact. But they have.
While my impression of the batted balls is wrong, he has thrown a lot of strikes. He has missed a lot of bats. He has fooled hitters enough to keep the ball in the park.
Since there is so much variance expected in early season stats, how is Samardzija performing relative to his projections? If we were to say that we know for absolute certain that Samardzija's true talent was equal to PECOTA projections, has he been so much better that we'd have to disregard them?
Based on his ERA and FIP he's performing somewhere around the 85th percentile. So while my eyes tell me he looks better, I'm not ready to completely buy into it. Then again, I don't easily buy into someone being a good ballplayer. Or a bad one either. It takes awhile for talent level to be established. I will say that I have one foot on that bandwagon, but that's as far as I'll go right now.
Out of curiosity, I was wondering how well LaHair is doing relative to his projections. LaHair already has 1.4 fWAR, 1.3 rWAR and 1.2 gWAR. He has 79 plate appearances and that .524 wOBA I mentioned earlier. 1 standard deviation of wOBA for him would be .061. He had about a .340 projection entering the season so 3 standard deviations would be .520. I feel safe saying that we can probably say that the .340 projection wasn't accurate. It's not .520 of course, but I'd lean more towards .360. ZiPS has him at .357 the rest of the way.
If LaHair doesn't collapse over the next couple months there's a very good chance he makes the all-star team. There's even an outside chance that he could beat out Joey Votto as the NL starter.
When you think about some of the seasons the Cubs players have had it doesn't seem like they should be 9-16. Dempster, Matt Garza and Samardzija have all had fantastic starts to their seasons. Starlin Castro and Bryan LaHair are off to even better starts than them. The rest of the team has sucked.