One of the great things about the internet (besides this) is its ability to preserve statements forever. And by great, I really mean the worst thing about the internet ever. It was about a year ago that I had the following exchange with Cubs Den blogger John Arguello regarding Chicago pitcher Jeff Samardzija:
— John Arguello (@CubsDen) March 1, 2012
@cubsden I’m not even convinced he can make it as a reliever.
— Jack Weiland (@jackweiland) March 1, 2012
Arguello went on to make his case (which was reasonable) and I backtracked slightly, but ended with the following statement:
@cubsden It’s true, but there’s a long way to go from “competent bullpen arm” to “top of the rotation starter” …
— Jack Weiland (@jackweiland) March 1, 2012
In hindsight, this makes me look quite bad. We know now that Samardzija easily cleared the “competent bullpen arm” bar I set last March, throwing 174.2 quality innings for a mostly hapless Cubs team, with an ERA of 3.81, a FIP of 3.55, and an xFIP of 3.38. His strikeouts per nine innings (9.27) and walks per nine innings (2.89) were similarly strong. The Notre Dame product even ended the year as the Cubs’ ace (because every other candidate was injured or traded, but still). Just this week he turned down a Cubs’ offer of “well above” $30MM to sign him through his next three years of arbitration and first two years of free agency. In April he will make the first Opening Day start of his career. And so on.
The dude had a solid year, okay?
So, what happened? And how did I miss it? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, because as much as I hate being wrong, I value the ability to learn from such missteps more. Being wrong is not the enemy. Being wrong happens, especially in a venture like this, where so much luck is involved, our information on these players is far from complete, and even Hall of Fame hitters get out as much as they reach base.
So why did I whiff?
Very simply, I took my eye off the ball. I stopped collecting data because I had already decided what Jeff Samardzija was and what Jeff Samardzija wasn’t. He was the football guy from Notre Dame, the one the Cubs threw too much money at. The one with the stupid (okay, awesome) hair. He was the pitcher with the good fastball, an inconsistent slider, and poor command. He was the guy who laughably saw himself as a starter heading into camp last spring when most thought he was competing for a bullpen job. He certainly was not a starting pitcher. Not hardly.
A cursory check of Samardzija’s statistics told me all that I knew I already knew. The problem being, as is often the case, things were more complicated than that. Too often in sports we forget that each athlete is a human being, with a unique set of circumstances behind their personal evolution. Yes, we’re also barraged with stories that mean nothing and have no effect on that player’s performance going forward, but sometimes that stuff isn’t bogus. Sometimes the 27-year-old prospect really is still developing after having split his interests between two sports on college. Sometimes coaches make a tweak that dramatically alters a player’s career arc. Sometimes the numbers are trying to tell us things that we are too busy talking over to hear.
I won’t go into too much detail here, because Samardzija has been covered well enough here, here, and here. What concerns me now is the data from 2011 that I missed because I glanced at Samardzija’s 5.11 BB/9, saw an unsustainably low BABIP of .253, confirmed my bias, and moved on with my life. What I missed, were the details. Specifically, just how much Samardzija’s control improved during his time as a reliever in 2011. Yes, the final tally wasn’t pretty, but it belied strong and steady progress throughout the season.
Samardzija dropped his walk rate virtually every month. His ability to do that while maintaining his strong strikeout numbers make it all the more impressive. There were other signs of his progress from 2011, as well, including jumps in his ability to elicit more swings on pitches outside the strike zone, and more swinging strikes in general. It’s clear that, by the end of 2011, the Jeff Samardzija coming out of the pen was not the same one who was doing so the previous April. He already was more than a “competent bullpen arm” and was well on his way to last year’s breakout. My eyes were just too closed to notice.
That said, he made even more progress last season:
There’s one obvious outlier there (June) and it’s fair to wonder if that was related to the curveball he was screwing around with. When he dropped it, his walk rates were downright elite.
Where do we go from here? The cat is well out of the bag on this particular player, and I was smart enough last year to realize the folly of my ways before it was too late, acquiring Samardzija for virtually nothing in my dynasty league. And now, having reflected on my past error, maybe (just maybe) I’ll think before I scoff next time.