7/23/2014 11:10 A.M. ET
Samardzija reinvents himself to become elite pitcher
A's righty makes adjustments to focus more on throwing fewer pitches, less on K's
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
Now that the speculation about Jeff Samardzija's fate is over and the hoopla over his move to Oakland (and the ensuing All-Star Game awkwardness) has died down, it's helpful to explore just what all the fuss is about in the first place.
After all, it was a relatively short time ago that Samardzija, who will make his fourth start for the A's on Thursday afternoon against the Astros, was viewed as a solid-if-unspectacular piece of the Cubs' rotation.
Yes, Samardzija had become a workhorse, amassing 213 2/3 innings in 2013. He had a penchant for punchouts, striking out more than nine batters per nine innings from 2011-13. And of course, Samardzija had those awesome flowing locks that not only fit well with his love of '70s rock but also gave him an ace-type allure.
A true ace, however, he was not.
Samardzija had an ERA over 5.00 in each of the final three months of the 2013 season. If you talked to Cubs people last winter, they were hesitant to trade him, because his value was not yet at its height, and equally hesitant to extend him, because he had not yet proven himself to be deserving of the upper-market money he sought.
On every front, Samardzija's value rose in a big way as the first half of the 2014 season evolved, and it rose because of adjustments he consciously made -- adjustments that really got lost in the shuffle of all the trade discussion.
"[When you're on the block], every time you pitch well, all that gets talked about is how it impacts your trade value," Samardzija said. "Not much is talked about your growth and where you came from or just what happened that individual day. It's always big-picture talk, because there's so much speculation. It's a little bit of a distraction. But I just owned up and wore it and did the best I could to increase my value, because I knew it would not only help me, but help the Cubs also, and I do have love for that organization and wanted them to get a good deal out of it, too."
Executives around the game think the Cubs got a great deal -- Dan Straily, prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney and a player to be named for Samardzija and Jason Hammel. A nice haul for an organization stockpiling highly touted position players.
And in Samardzija, in particular, the Athletics got a guy who has subtly reinvented himself on the mound this season to become one of baseball's elite arms. That his competitive fire and eccentric style happen to fit in perfectly with the A's "come as you are" clubhouse is an added bonus.
"The great thing about baseball," Samardzija said, "is it's everyone's own personal career, so you have the responsibility and the duty to control what you can control. And I think Oakland epitomizes that by throwing these guys in the dugout, not surrounding them with too many rules and then letting them come together to win games. When your premise is just winning ballgames, I think everything else just kind of falls into place."
When he analyzed his own career last offseason, the 29-year-old Samardzija knew he had to make changes if he was going to become a more reliable top-of-the-rotation-type piece.
"After last year, I was tired," he said. "Toward the end of the year, I fluttered, and I thought it was because I threw a lot of pitches. If you look at it, only [Adam] Wainwright threw more pitches than I did [among National League pitchers]. And that wasn't a stat I was proud of."
Indeed, for Wainwright, the 3,533 pitches amassed in 2013 were an acceptable byproduct of the 241 2/3 innings he worked.
Samardzija threw a similar number of pitches (3,462) in substantially fewer innings (213 2/3).
"There was a discrepancy there that I needed to change," Samardzija said. "I just felt like, at times, I wore myself out throwing a lot of pitches early in the game and going for that punchout. I wanted to take it easy on myself and mentally not set such high demands of striking guys out, because you can find yourself in a hole."
Today's game is geared toward the strikeout like never before, but it is also heavily weighted in defensive efficiency. Samardzija decided he would rather go for the latter than the former. And while his strikeout rate is down almost a full K per nine (8.10 after a 9.01 mark last year), his ground-ball percentage has risen from 48.2 to a 51.4 mark that is tied for 17th among qualified starters this season.
More to the point, Samardzija has lowered his number of pitches per inning by nearly a full point, from 16.2 to 15.3. Every extra bit of efficiency counts when you're trying to extend your starts and preserve the bullpen.
"Sometimes you go for that strikeout," he said, "but the majority of the time you just throw the ball in the zone and let your defense catch it behind you."
Oakland's polished glovework fits that formula well. Samardzija's first three starts with the A's have seen him surrender eight runs on 15 hits while striking out just 14 in 22 innings, so there has been some adjustment to the American League. But the Athletics are 2-1 in his starts so far and they are substantially better positioned for advancement within October with Samardzija and Hammel on board.
To say Samardzija is excited about the possibilities is an understatement.
"You don't want to mess it up," he said. "I remember thinking about that on my way [to Oakland]. I just kind of wanted to make it as seamless as possible. I couldn't think of a better way than to just go and pitch my first day there. That was a great way to get to know your teammates, share a game with them there. They get to see how you play and how much it means to you to play this game. That puts us on common ground, because they're just a bunch of gamers and dirtballs who love to play."