It has been 406 days since the Cubs dealt Jeff Samardzija to Oakland in a deal that resulted in the Cubs acquiring their current shortstop (Addison Russell), a current top-100 outfield prospect (Billy McKinney) and a pitcher (Dan Straily) who was a piece that netted the Cubs their every day center fielder (Dexter Fowler).
Today marks Samardzija’s first chance to get revenge against the organization drafted and developed him, brought him to The Show and reportedly offered a long-term extension that was turned down a few weeks before his departure via trade.
The differences between Samardzija when he left the Cubs in July 2014 and where he is now with the White Sox are striking.
Put aside his 8-7 record and note that his 4.62 ERA, 3.82 FIP and 4.06 xFIP each represent low-points for Samardzija since becoming a full-time starter in 2012. His walk rate has remained stable over the last calendar year, but his strikeout rate has dipped to 17.5 percent after being at 23.0 percent last season. His groundball rate peaked at 50.2 percent in 2014, but dropped nearly 10 percentage points to 40.7 percent while with the White Sox.
There are noticeable differences in pitch selection and execution, too.
Samardzija is throwing more cutters, evidenced by its 25 percent usage rate. That is up significantly from 11.3 percent with the Cubs before the trade. With that has come a decrease in the use of his fastball, which is down to 40.7 percent with the White Sox after being at 55.7 percent pitching for the Cubs.
Samardzija’s slider was worth 7.9 runs above average in 2014, making it the ninth most valuable slider according to FanGraphs’ Pitch Values. A year later, Samardzija’s slider is at -5.5 wSL, which ranks 60th on FanGraphs’ leaderboards, just ahead of Kansas City’s Jeremy Guthrie (-5.9) and Toronto’s Drew Hutchison (-9.9). And there isn’t a major difference in usage, throwing it at a 22 percent clip in 2015 after using it 21 percent of the time with the 2014 Cubs.
Samardzija has pitched to a 2.5 fWAR that puts him among the 30 best big league pitchers and is in the stretch run in leading up to what was to be — and what still could be — a major payday. Yet, he has been streaky at best — which might as well be a microcosm for the White Sox’s up-and-down season.
Samardzija’s mound opponent, Kyle Hendricks, is at the other end of the career spectrum.
Hendricks is navigating through his first full season and isn’t scheduled to be arbitration eligible until 2018 and won’t hit free agency until 2021. Unlike Samardzija, a proven commodity with a good track record, Hendricks — who has pitched to a respectable 2.2 fWAR this season — is still coming into his own.
Nothing exemplifies that more than the evolution of his pitch mix.
After a rough outing in late June against the Dodgers, Hendricks himself noted he needed to make changes, per ESPN Chicago saying: “I have to change something in my routine or something with my mentality on the mound. But I have to find something.”
We have previously spent time discussing his change-up and increasing strikeout rate, but maybe that something Hendricks referenced was a curveball that ranks among the best in the big leagues.
According to Fangraphs’ Pitch Value leaderboard, Hendricks’ 4.4 runs above average on his curveball rates as the eighth best in baseball. For what it’s worth, teammates Jake Arrieta (3.0) and Jon Lester (2.8) — who have pretty good curves of their own — rank 15th and 16th, respectively.
On a per 100 pitch basis, Hendricks curveball checks in as the best in baseball at 3.08 runs above average — which is better than curves belonging to Clayton Kershaw (3.03), Corey Kluber (2.93) and Felix Hernandez (2.86). No one will ever confuse Hendricks for any of those aforementioned pitchers, but having multiple quality off-speed offerings should help his development moving forward.
Hendricks obviously doesn’t have the track record, raw stuff or upside Samardzija possesses, but there is something about a steadiness to Hendricks’ game that is admirable as it continues to grow with experience.