Game 93, The King vs. The Shark
Felix Hernandez vs. Jeff Samardzija, 7:10pm
While some have complained that the M’s haven’t responded to the A’s massive, season-defining trade to pick up Jeff Samardzija with a move of their own, the truth is that they made a tiny move to give Tom Wilhelmsen a spot start and to give Felix (and us) tonight’s game. The M’s are contending for the post-season, but they’re pointedly not contending with the Oakland Athletics. The A’s only competition for the division title, and their only competition as the best team in the American League, is the LA Angels. That’s not to diminish this series and this game in any way – this is a great measuring stick for both teams. The M’s want to demonstrate that they can hang with the best teams in the league, a desire they probably feel more keenly now after being shut down by the likes of Kyle Gibson and Yohan Pino. But the A’s need to demonstrate that the lack of front-line starting pitching that helped cut short their playoff runs the past two years is a problem they’ve solved once and for all. That even if a Felix, or a Scherzer or Verlander throws a gem, they can scratch out a win thanks to Sonny Gray or tonight’s starter, Jeff Samardzija.
It’s kind of amazing to reflect on Samardzija’s journey from bust to just-about-David-Price’s-equal in trade value. The ex-football player’s straight fastball and the glacial pace of his breaking ball development left him a hittable pitcher in the low-minors. A guy who’d signed a near-record bonus who put up a lower K/9 than Kevin Correia’s this year…in the high-A Florida State League, a league as pitcher friendly as the California League isn’t. Inconclusive big-league trials in 2008, 2009 and 2010 (you can’t say the Cubs didn’t try), the Cubs moved him to the bullpen for 2011 and watched as he blossomed into an intriguing set-up man. That’s not what you spend millions buying someone away from the NFL for, but it’s also not the nothing I think we all assumed they’d wring out of that deal. The Cubs gave him one more shot to start in 2012, and the results have been better than the Cubs’ could’ve hoped for.
That’s not to say they’ve been unambiguously great, though. He followed up his breakthrough 2012 season with a 2013 that showed flashes of brilliance, but a heck of a lot more runs allowed than you’d want from an ace or even a #2. By FIP, he was worth 2.8 WAR, which is solid, but nothing special. By RA-9 WAR, he was below average; a 4.34 ERA in today’s National League just isn’t all that special. This year, though, he’s taken another clear step forward – he’s halved his HR/9 rate thanks in part to a career-best GB%. He’s cut down on walks, which had been a struggle for him since his days in the minors. He’s not throwing a new pitch, but much-improved command of his two-seam/sinker seems to be key for him. He’d thrown balls with about 36.5% of his sinkers in both 2012 and 2013, but he’s trimmed that to 30% in 2014. It’s not exactly a weapon against lefties, but the command has helped him keep lefties in the ballpark. Now, somewhat shockingly, his ERA’s lower than his FIP and he’s the centerpiece of the biggest in-season trade in years. The A’s are all-in for 2014, and they obviously see Samardzija as an important step in building a team capable of winning short playoff series.
All of that said, there are warning signs here. Tony Blengino’s analysis shows that Shark’s K rate and the slightly below-average authority hitters impart to their balls-in-play against him make him a solid #2. That may be, but remember that he racked up that quality-of-contact in the National League. How to measure league quality is still somewhat tough, as league-wide factors can often get swamped by the particulars of specific players and specific contexts (ie. pitching in the Oakland Coliseum). But one striking difference between the leagues, and between the AL West and NL Central in particular, concerns the platoon advantage. Dave mentioned this a while ago and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since: hurlers in the NL Central have seen line-ups that are more righty-dominant, and thus pitchers like Samardzija have enjoyed the platoon advantage in a majority of their plate appearances. For some pitchers, that wouldn’t matter so much, but Samardzija’s splits are pretty prominent. This year, lefties are putting up a .316 wOBA against him, compared to just .271 for righties. That .045 gap is right in line with his career splits, and his splits since moving to the rotation in 2012. They’re not gigantic, but its his performance against right-handed bats that make him stand out. Against lefties, he’s been roughly league-average, perhaps a touch worse.
The AL will not afford him the luxury of facing a few more righties than lefties (Samardzija had the platoon advantage in 53% in 2013, and 55% this year) – ask Felix, who’s faced a right-hander in just less than 42% of his PAs this year. And it’s not just a case of BABIP or a HR or two creeping over the fence that produce Samardzija’s platoon splits. He’s a different pitcher depending on who’s in the batters box. His walk rate against lefties is a bit better than his 2012-13 average, but not much. His GB% against lefties hasn’t moved either. It’s 43.8% in 2014, a touch better than 2013’s 43.3%, but worse than 2012’s 45.5%. The big increase in his GB% overall has come exclusively against righties, and perhaps not coincidentally, Samardzija saw a greater percentage of righties in 2013 and then again in 2014. Put all of it together, and I wonder if the quality-of-contact numbers Blengino posted are at least partially the product of the platoon advantage. None of this is to suggest that Samardzija’s bad, or that he’ll struggle in the AL. A guy who holds lefties to league average moving to a spacious ballpark with excellent defenders behind him is probably going to pitch well. But it’s also not clear that he’s worth the high price the A’s paid. I admire Beane’s guts in pulling the trigger and attempting to build a dominant team for 2014, but Samardzija may have been lucky in the first half of 2014; the A’s need to hope he’ll be lucky in the playoffs, too.
Here’s tonight’s line-up. The AL West likes to throw a lot of lefties at you, Shark.
1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morrison, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: King Felix
Eight lefties. As you can see, Justin Smoak’s been brought up from Tacoma with Michael Saunders DL’d after suffering a strained oblique. The choice of Smoak over, say, Montero was probably an easy one for a team that values match-up data as much as this one: Smoak homered off of Samardzija the last time he pitched against Seattle, back in 2013.
Erasmo Ramirez, Stephen Landazuri, Dylan Unsworth, Seon Gi Kim and Noel de la Cruz start tonight for the M’s affiliates. Thanks to last night’s win, only Pulaski has a winning record among the M’s seven US-based affiliates (though the DSL and VSL teams have losing records too). The minor league teams have been pretty solid most years under GMZ; not sure if this is a deliberate shift in promotion/placement process for players – that is, if they’re challenging young players a bit more – or if it’s just one of those random things that happens now and again.