I love the very beginning of baseball season for a multitude of reasons. Small sample sizes make for fun numbers, like guys with OBP’s lower than their AVG’s, players with more home runs than entire teams, guys who haven’t walked or struck out all year, the dudes that are on pace for 300 RBI’s, it’s great for nonsensical stuff like that. It’s also fun for identifying who actually watches baseball vs. who is a football fan and is just killing time complaining about things that don’t matter. To be clear for all you football fans, the MLB season is a 6 month (7 if your team is good) long odyssey that begins as nature wakes up from it’s slumber, thrives as the world around it gets greener and warmer, and finishes when the outside world dies. It’s cyclical, natural, and takes a long fucking time to complete. They play 162 games in a season. Some teams are gunning to win this year, some teams are caught in the middle of rebuilding and competing, and others are instituting a plan that revolves around youth and smart spending.
I’m talking to my fellow Cub fans. Yes, yes, Theo was hired this year, but as some ignorant White Sox fans are quick to remind me, he doesn’t play a position (BTW, White Sox fans, I’m aware of this. He doesn’t swing a bat nor throw a ball for the Chicago Cubs. I don’t need to be reminded of this). The team this year is awful. They told you they were going to be awful all off-season. They made no major moves, they acquired no impact talent, they did not change anything from last years squad that was also awful, really. So why are you so surprised about their struggles? Is it hard to watch? Yeah, nobody likes blown leads or bad fielding or an anemic offense.
“DEN WHAT DA FUCK AM I GONNA WATCH FOR TREE FUCKING MONTS UNTIL DA FOOTBALL COMES BACK AND DA MIDWAY MONSTERS OF HALAS HALL COME CRASHING BACK WIT DA VENGEANCE OF A TOUSAND MINI DITKAS?!?!?!?!?!”
I have no idea. I can’t help you.
“Good sir, if I may inquire, what shall I remain vigilant for this season on the North Side?”
Soccer, go back to Europe. Try again.
“Dude, they suck, is there anything that I can look for as a reasonable Cubs fan with realistic expectations for this year and the next three years?”
On the Major League roster there are a few players you should be watching for a myriad of reasons. I’ll be doing my best to update you guys on them as the season drags on, but for now, here’s my list.
- Starlin Castro – Nobody makes me say “That’s a great play,” and “That’s a dumbass play,” in the same game quite like Starlin.
- Marlon Byrd – If he manages to get his average up he will be a valuable piece to a team that’s in contention. Players with solid contact skills and good defense don’t fall out of trees these days. Could bring back an ok haul of prospects if a team decides to buy high at the deadline.
- Matt Garza – The goal is to either extend him because of the thin crop of FA starters in the coming years, or to bring back a better haul than you gave up to acquire him. I still think he ends up a Tiger.
- Darwin Barney – It’s debatable, but I think he might be on the Cubs the next time they are ready to compete. TheoCo (thanks Short-E) values defense a lot, and I think his bat might stick as a 2-hitter.
- Bryan LaHair – If his bat is legit, he can play in left and then you can have a 3-4 of Rizzo and LaHair. That’s awesome to think about.
Which brings us to who I think is the most intriguing Cub, Jeff Samardzija. The Cubs did the right thing and stuck Shark (Jeff’s rather unfortunate nickname) in the rotation. He had some interesting gains last year as a reliever, but if he was going to be worth anything to the organization, it was going to be in the rotation. As I stated before, I love small sample sizes, they’re fun, and when we talk about Shark’s numbers it’s in the tiniest of sample sizes, but dating back to last year he’s gained something valuable; the ability to miss bats.
See, dating back to his minor league days, Shark was always a bit of a mystery. He had good-great stuff, and a 98 MPH heater, but he never consistently posted legit prospect K/9 numbers.
His fastball was described as fast and straight, which is an issue. Major League hitters will time up fast if it’s straight, just ask Armando Benitez. Since 2011 however, his K rate jumped to 8+ and it looks like it’ll stay there. Begs the question, what’s different?
Well, this year he’s walking less people. His BB/9 rate is dramatically slashed so far this year, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The difference is that his stuff is just, better. Let’s look at his PitchF/X data for a second.
PitchFx tracks the movement and speed of pitches thrown. In this case it’s illustrating Shark’s improved movement on all of his pitches. SL=Slider, CH=Changeup, and FT=Two Seamer, something that is a relatively new classification and can be misleading. Before ’11, Shark’s slider wasn’t moving across the plate much, it was simply spinning and dropping with gravity. In 2011 however, that pitch improved, and it’s clear when you watch him. I don’t know for a fact if he improved his grip on the slider or if he just has a better feel for it, but it’s a real pitch now. It’s become a wipeout pitch. The Changeup has also greatly improved, even if he limited his use of it in 2011. This year it has legitimate drop to it and it looks like it comes out of the same slot, with similar arm action, as his fastball. The Two-Seamer is a bit of a mystery, PitchFx did mis-classify this pitch as a regular fastball until around 2010, but it has live action and is a few ticks slower than his 4 seamer. All of his pitches have good movement on them, with his two fastballs being his best pitches. The slider is now a legit weapon and the changeup is coming along. That alone explains the uptick in strikeouts, but there’s also one more trend that appeared during spring training and has some people (myself included) optimistic about his future as a starter.
He’s walking less people.
Let’s go back to his Baseball Reference card
During Spring Training Shark walked 1 batter and struck out 16 in 20 innings of work. Spring Training stats are misleading sometimes, but I don’t think they were with Samardzija this year. His command has dramatically improved this year in limited innings. To properly illustrate that:
That’s shark in a nutshell. Drop in ERA, rise in K/9, cliff dive in BB/9 and a rocket trip in K/BB ratio.
He’ll probably have some missteps over the course of a long season, but the improved control and the improvement on the movement of his pitches are all reasons to be optimistic. Shark’s change in approach will raise his ceiling, the questions for the remainder of the year revolve around the durability of his arm, I think. Can he throw 150+ innings? Can he retain the gains he’s made in control? Can he be a dependable starter? I don’t know for sure, but I’m finally optimistic about Samardzija.