I'll admit that I was conflicted. I was not particularly for signing Samardzija, because he has never done much in his career, other than in 2014. Hence I did not want to trade for him then, I didn't want to trade for him last season either. I was for getting Leake, because he's been a steady performer and should do even better if pitching in ATT regularly. On the surface, I didn't see why we should give up top prospects for the Shark.
I did love the Shark's peripherals though - strikes out a lot (8.18 K/9 during career, with extensive time spent as reliever), don't walk a lot (2.96 BB/9, which is the maximum you want to see from a pitcher), good K/BB ratio (2.76), and even better as a starter the past four seasons, 8.3 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 3.36 K/BB - it's way better for the Giants rotation than Leake would be, since Leake is not much of a strikeout pitcher, whereas Samardzija is an above average strikeout artist, average NL starter has 7.5 K/9, 2.76 K/BB. And if you take away his subpar 2015, he had a 8.8 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, and 3.37 K/BB. When you are at the 1 K/IP threshold, that is a lot of strikeouts! Still, the downside is that his K/9 has been dropping over the past four seasons, with a steep drop in 2015: is that an anomaly or a horrible downward trend?
Still, something I didn't know until now is that he's a ground-ball pitcher when he's not striking out guys or not walking that many. And that is a good trait to have, for the next best thing to striking out batters is getting them to hit a ground ball, as those are converted into outs a lot. That is one of the big plus points for Leake. So even if the strikeouts are declining, as long as he's able to convert them into ground outs, then his decline will not be as steep as he ages.
In addition, per the accounts I've read, he's still got a lot of velocity. Per Baggerly:
His average fastball velocity was 94.3 mph, which ranked 12th among all major league starters, according to PITCHf/x. And his ability to sustain that velocity into the later innings is a rare trait that reminded some Giants officials of Jason Schmidt...
Schmidt flourished once he found a diving changeup that acted like a splitter. Giants officials believe that pitching coach Dave Righetti, bullpen coach Mark Gardner, vice president Dick Tidrow and manager Bruce Bochy can make a similar impact on Samardzija.
“His numbers may be affected by (the fact the White Sox were) the third place he’s pitched in two years,” Evans said. “There may be some mechanical adjustments he needs to make.”That is still excellent velocity, and he ranks 12th among all major league (not just NL) starters. And to be able to sustain it into the later innings is a great trait to have, which explains why he's able to both go deeper into games as well as throw less pitches, as he can use his velocity to strike out batters quickly, instead of having to finesse a strikeout.
The beat writers talked about how some Giants officials noted how similar he is to Jason Schmidt, due to his velocity and relative lack of development upon joining the Giants. Another Giant I would compare him to is Jonathan Sanchez, as he's had a similar beginning to his career, starting off as a reliever, then moving to the rotation, and having ups and downs there. Not as good an outcome as Schmidt, but not everyone develops. So don't believe the full hype about the similarities between Samardzija and Schmidt.
Still, there is something to the comparisons with Schmidt and Sanchez. While it might not be a pitch taught him from the Giants, it could be a matter of the Giants Pitching Brain Trust helping Samardzija regain what he had in 2014. According to one analysis (Fangraphs, linked below), he changed what mix of pitches he used in 2015, changing to more of a flyball pitcher. And as we know from the Giants work with our newest prospects, the Giants have been teaching our pitchers how to be able to throw worm-eatting grounders, inducing weak contact, so it would appear that at least there is a plan, when Evans noted the mechanical adjustments necessary. If they can get him tuned back to 2014 form, this could be the best long-term free agent for the Giants since Bonds.
I Like the Samardzija Signing
Based on the analysis published on Fangraphs, I feel better about the signing. The Steamer forecast gives a starting point 2.8 WAR, ZiPS a starting point of 3.0 WAR for 2016. The first analysis, using the Steamer forecast as the starting point just have an automatic 0.5 drop in WAR. The ZiPS analysis looks like it tried to match him up with other pitchers who are similar and what their aging pattern was.
It also fits what's been said about Samardzija, that he has low mileage on his arm and body, due to, first, his duo-focus on football and baseball in college, then, second, his usage as a reliever before moving to the starting rotation. And at 6' 5", 225 pounds, he's got a pitcher's body that scouts drool over.
I view the two as the min and max for what Samardzija might do for us. Steamer, which has a more accelerated decline rate, still adds up to $77M in value production. That's not too far away from the $90M that the Giants just signed him to. ZiPS forecasts 12.8 WAR, which at just the $8M current WAR value, which works out to $102M, and adjust over time should be closer to $110M, which looks real nice next to the $90M contract.
Another discussion of the deal was done by Beyond the Box Score. It reiterates a lot of the beat writer's points about the deal. I'm including for completeness. One good illustration of what change Samardzija can expect, though, is how much better the Giants defense is per UZR vs. the White Sox, basically day and night, Giants add roughly 4 wins, ChiSox subtracts roughly 4 wins.
Giants Taking Calculated Risk, Relying on Giants Pitching Gurus to Do Their Magic
Ultimately, I agree with this post on Fangraphs about the signing of Samardzija being a bet on him as well as on Righetti (and I would add, in reference to what I read in Baggarly's follow-up account, Gardner, Tidrow, and Bochy). The projections of Samardzija's 2016 production are 2.8 WAR and 3.0 WAR, but his production in his "breakout" year per Fangraph's was 4.1 WAR. If the Giants can figure out - like Tidrow did with Bumgarner - how to get Samardzija back to that form, that would add at least another $40M (+1 WAR per year at $8M/WAR).
If you read through the analysis, it's clear that, for whatever reasons, Samardzija changed the way he pitches and/or approaches pitching in 2016. With a catcher like Posey, who is among the leaders in framing, gaining extra strikes, and Righetti, Gardner, and Tidrow, who know pitching and mechanics, as well as an strong defensive unit, particularly infield - Crawford, Panik, Duffy, and Belt - which helps to get to grounders that the Shark gets a lot of, plus a pitcher's park, after parks like the Cubs and White Sox, it is only logical to think that Samardzija can regress back towards how good he was in 2015.
And given how healthy he's been as well as not as utilized as other pitchers (while most accounts note his lack of inning pitched overall, none of them noted that in spite of having such large IP in recent seasons, he did that with a minimum of pitches, one stat I watch is total number of pitches thrown in a season, and Samardzija, despite throwing over 214 IP the past two seasons, only had more than 3,300 pitches thrown in a season, where 3,500 is the mark that I watch), he can be expected to pitch deeper into his 30's than other pitchers. Plus, the contract covers years 31-35, and pitchers are more reliable to age 32.
In addition, SIERA is one of the more advanced ERA estimators available publicly, and except for his blip in 2015, he has done very well since joining the starting rotation full-time: 2012: SIERA 3.47; 2013, 3.53; 2014, 3.06; 2015, 4.18. If you see 2014 as a good luck year, and 2015 as the regression to the mean, over 2014-2015, his SIERA averaged 3.62, or roughly what it was in 2012-2013. That would be good to have in our rotation, especially given the number of innings he has averaged, he's averaged 214 IP the past three seasons.
Furthermore, Samardzija only needs to produce 2.25 WAR per season (@ $8M/WAR price point) to pay off his contract, and per FG, he has averaged 3.1 WAR the past four seasons as a starter, and on top of that, excluding his best year in 2014, he has produced exactly 2.7 WAR in each of the other seasons, including 2015, based on his peripherals (obviously, actual production in 2015 was not so good, basically replacement level). Greinke, on the other hand, needs to produce 4.3 WAR per season and averaged only 4.5 WAR over the past 5 years, and that includes his superlative 2015 (which was due more to luck than peripherals, though still great by peripherals). There is a lot more margin for meeting the parameters of the contract, per WAR, for Samardzija than Greinke, which is probably why the Giants did not match the D-backs offer (I recall reports that they were at 5 years and $31M AAV, or thereabouts).
Moreover, studies have shown that the most reliable age range for pitchers are 29-34. With Shark, we get years 31-35, with Greinke, D-backs get years 33-38. So not only is he more likely to produce a positive return than Greinke is, just on an overall basis, by age, he is much more likely to produce as projected for much of his contract, whereas there is a strong potential for a shift into severe decline for the D-backs in the middle of Greinke's contract. Maybe he's Greg Maddux and produce into his late 30's, but probably he's not. We don't have to worry about that as much with Samardzija.
And I view 4.1 WAR as possible because he did it before, so it is just a matter of figuring out how to get it to happen again. And that year, he had a good defensive catcher with Cubs, in Wellington Castillo, and a so-so catcher with A's in Derek Norris. Whereas now he has a gold glove caliber catcher in Posey, who is a genius and a leader in catcher framing for gaining strikes for his pitcher.
And even if that don't happen, he has consistently produced at least 2.7 WAR (by his peripherals per FG) over the past four seasons, with no healthy problems in his history to suggest any potential road bumps (whereas, for instance, we had known about Cain's elbow chip problem for years, plus his tender elbow issue in his first pro year, so that was a ticking bomb that finally went off). That alone makes his deal look pretty good in my eyes.
Giants Going For Biggest Bang For the Buck
The way I see it, any big contract like this is a huge risk. It is just part of the game today, you just have to suck it up. Greinke would have been the biggest bang, he would have been a game changer between the Giants and Dodgers. He still might, after moving to the D-backs, though the Dodgers reportedly have signed Iwakuma away from the Mariners as a replacement, and he was pretty good too (and the Giants were reportedly after him too). Leake would have been the safer bet, because he has accomplished a lot in his career, particularly recently, particularly on the road. But Samardzija is a bet on going for the brass ring, trying to get the biggest bang for the buck, based on what he did in 2014, and that's all I can ask of the Giants and their ownership, to try to get the big win, to try to win it all, just like long ago with Vlad, when they decided on the safe route.
It's not as sure a thing as Greinke, but the lower price tag allows the Giants to also pursue another starting pitcher (who knows, maybe Leake wants to return to the Giants as much as Samardzija wanted to be with the Giants) or a starting LF like Zobrist (which right now seems more likely, based on the rumors and beat writer's sentiment, though he reportedly is factoring in competitiveness and closeness to his home in Nashville). He's not as sure a thing as Leake, but I can see the argument to be made for getting Samardzija over Leake at the same contract values, which is what the reporters are saying Leake is likely getting offers for and noting that the Giants do not want to give Leake a matching contract. As much as I like Leake and would like to see him return, at the same contract value, I too would rather have Samardzija. And I don't think Leake is worth more than $16M AAV, in any case.
And it appears more and more that being in Arizona is an important factor for Leake. And I don't blame him for that, I've lived in the SF Bay Area my whole life, I can't imagine being so far from family. But Samardzija appears to have selected the Giants over other teams, he wanted to be here, to win here, whereas Leake appears to have prioritized family. Again, that's fine, everyone has to make their choices in life. But we are talking about making the Giants strong enough to not only contend, but go deep into the playoffs. And he don't strike out that much. So that is another reason I prefer to have Samardzija over Leake, and why I hope that the Giants don't overbid to get him.
As much as I wanted Leake and been projecting that the Giants would get him, I was worried that he would get beyond the $14-16M that I felt was his proper price based on the work he has done before and his lack of strikeout ability. With the pressure from the deals signed over the past week or so, it appears that Leake is going to get beyond $16M AAV, and if so, I'm OK with letting him go, particularly now that we have Samardzija in hand.
In addition, I was not aware of how good Samardzija has been as a starter, I had been looking mainly at his career stats, which are not as sterling, plus looking more at his BB-reference's WAR and not this FG WAR, which is much better. So the peripherals are there, it is a matter of getting the results to go with them. The Giants meanwhile have been good at that for many years now. So they are taking a calculated risk where, at worse, they get a strong adequate innings eater, which helps our bullpen greatly, but if they can get him back to prior goodness, he can be a co-ace with Bumgarner for the length of his contract. I like swinging for the fences.