Giants’ Holiday Spending Spree Part 1: Jeff Samardzija

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This past offseason, the Giants completed three major free agent signings in an effort to shore up a couple of big holes and keep the team’s even-year championship streak alive. I was going to combine all of the signings into one post here, but since the preseason has already started and this started to get a little long, who’s down for a trilogy? Let’s start with the Shark…

The first big present left by Santa for Giants fans this winter was big right-handed starter Jeff Samardzija. The Giants signed the impossible-to-spell former White Sox starter to a five-year, $90 million deal. $19 million per season might seem like a lot for a pitcher coming off of a season where he led his league in hits and home runs allowed, but the Giants are clearly under the belief that the 2014 version of Samardzija, the one that starred for the Cubs and A’s, was the real deal. Perhaps more importantly, the Giants also see the 216 innings pitched that Samardzija has averaged over the past three seasons and figure he fills a big, inning-munching hole in a rotation that saw only one pitcher (Bumgarner, of course) eclipse the 180-inning mark.

In seven seasons with the Cubs, Samardzija threw exactly 666 innings, which is neither interesting nor particularly informative but is just plain creepy. More interesting, perhaps, is that Samardzija, due to injuries early in his career, has less mileage on his arm than most 31-year-old free agent starters typically have. Samardzija was handled with kid gloves early on by the Cubs, easing into a starting role in 2012 after a solid full 2011 season in the bullpen. Due to some ugly control problems early on in his career, Samardzija didn’t become a full-time starter in the big leagues until his age-27 season. The fact that he has relatively less major league wear-and-tear on his arm in his early-30’s makes the number of years on this contract a bit easier to swallow.

As A’s fans surely recall, Samardzija was excellent in half a season in Oakland in 2014, putting up a 114 ERA+ and pitching deep into games in most of his starts (he averaged exactly seven innings per start with the A’s). Samardzija was brought in by the A’s in their mid-2014 “all-in” trading binge designed to win it all. When they did not, in fact, win it all, the team turned around and traded Samardzija to the White Sox in the offseason (rather than pay him $9 million in arbitration) for a shortstop with a dirty last name and a penchant for unforced throwing errors.

Things immediately got dicey. Samardzija was pretty horrible with the Sox in 2015, right from the get-go. His 4.96 ERA was the fifth-worst in the American League and, as mentioned before, his 29 home runs allowed led the AL as well. He stopped striking out batters and he was particularly crummy in the season’s final months (6.29 second-half ERA!). It was a nightmare season on an awful team, one I’m sure Samardzija would just as soon pretend never happened.

Fortunately, there are ample reasons to believe that Samardzija’s sudden suckiness was due, in large part, to adverse environmental conditions. For one thing, U.S. Cellular Field has historically been friendly to the home run ball, and wouldn’t you know it, Samardzija gave up seventeen of those 29 home runs at home. He gave up twelve home runs in seven second half starts at home. You would have to think that Samardzija would come nowhere near that total pitching at notoriously power-hating AT&T Park.

Next, Chicago’s defense was rancid last season. Fangraphs had them ranked as the absolute worst defensive team in the majors. How good is Samardzija’s ERA supposed to be when he has a team playing to the Benny Hill theme behind him? The White Sox outfield defense in particular was gawdawful (look at the UZR numbers of Adam Eaton, Melky Cabrera, and Avisail Garcia and try not to retch), and with Samardzija giving up more fly balls than ever last year (for whatever reason), it was just the perfect storm of mediocrity and no wonder his ERA swelled.

With the Giants, Samardzija is now with a better franchise and pitching in front of a much better defense. While his 3.69 FIP since 2012 is unremarkable, he is just a year removed from an All-Star season and is about as reliably durable as they come. While Samardzija may have pitched like number two last season, there’s serious potential here for the Giants to get number two starter-level production for below-number-two starter price.

I’ve never been a big fan of deals greater than three years for pitchers, and this one raised my eyebrows when it was announced, but if Samardzija pitches like he did with Oakland for the majority of the five years that the Giants signed him for, this will be a heist. I don’t think that’s a particularly big “if”, either.

Speaking of multi-year contracts for pitchers…stay tuned for Part 2.

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