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White Sox Thu Aug 06 2015

Samardzija Falling Short of Expectations

SoxAn ace is supposed to be the most dominant pitcher of a rotation. The head honcho, the anchor, the big cheese, the trendsetter. This position on the pitching depth chart is supposed to be the one fans won't sweat about when they read the day's pitching probables. The number one starter serves the role as stop gap, but he can also help tutor the other starters in the rotation and set the mood for everyone else by being dominant every five days. The Chicago White Sox have had plenty of top dogs in their rotation.

Wilson Alvarez provided mediocre, but dependable starts in the '90s. The late Billy Pierce held it down while opposing legendary lineups. And Mark Buehrle was always a sure thing, logging 200-plus innings in every year he was a full-time starter for the Sox.

When the White Sox traded for Jeff Samardzija in the offseason they had an embarrassment of riches. Coming into the season, the team had one of the best one-two punches in the league with him and Chris Sale. It seemed great then, but it hasn't been fully realized. Sale has been dominant this year, although he is a bit under his career average, and the Samardzija experiment has been disappointing for the Sox.

During his most recent outing against the New York Yankees on Aug. 2, Samardzija had his worst performance of the season. He pitched 4.2 innings, giving up two home runs, eight hits and nine earned runs. That is not the type of box score you want to see from a perceived ace. Despite being pretty stellar his last few starts, Samardzija has been inconsistent this year. He's posted a 4.35 ERA while only issuing 29 walks. These are fine numbers for a guy who is listed at number four in the rotation, but not for someone who has started on Opening Day the last few seasons. What seems to be his issue this year? Is he nervous about being in the American League for a full year or does he have hometown jitters?

The first culprit may be his pitch selection. Samardzija is a dog on the mound; he stands at 6-feet-5-inches tall and his goal is to make batters feel embarrassed when they leave the box. And what better way to do that then to throw a heater right down the plate and have a batter strike out. Nothing will get a pitcher riled up more than seeing a batter whiff with a top notch pitch. The fastball has always been Samardzija out pitch, as he has thrown it 53.9 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. That tenacity in relying on a pitch has worked: he has a career strikeout rate of 21.8 percent and a walk percentage of 7.8 percent. That is pretty respectable, if not an ace-level career line. But something has changed in Samardzija's pitch selection when he came to the South Side.

Over the course of the season, Samardzija has swayed away from using his fastball and decided to go with another pitch in his repertoire. He's only used his fastball 41.2 percent of the time this year, which is the first time it's dipped under 50 percent in his career. Instead, he has increased the use of his cutter, which has doubled from 12.3 percent in 2014 to 24.8 percent in 2015, according to Baseball Info Solutions. There is nothing wrong with a starter trying to improve his game and use other pitches. Doing this will help make any pitcher better and take them to the next level. But why fix something when it is not broken? It's not as if his fastball was failing him. Fangraphs has shown that Samardzija's fastball velocity is at 94.2 miles per hour this year, not too far from 2014's mark of 94.6.

These stats may still seem like growing pains for a pitcher who is only in his fourth full year of being a starter, but Samardzija is a free agent at the end of the year and examining all his ups and downs is integral for the White Sox upcoming offseason.

Samardzija is currently getting paid $9.8 million this year, respectable for the hype he has accrued over the last few years. When the offseason rolls around, Samardzija can just kick his feet up and relax, as teams will probably offer him deals nearing $100 million in total.

On the other hand, the White Sox are in a trickier situation. The rest of the rotation, besides Sale, is questionable for the next few years. Jose Quintana, who is due a reasonable $21.25 million over the next three years, has been fine as a middle of the rotation guy, but there are more question marks after that. John Danks' contract has been a disaster since he signed back in 2011 and the revolving door of number five starters hasn't been this bad since Dan Wright was penciled into the rotation.

Going into the offseason Samardzija will be a prime free agent target. For the Sox, they can try to re-sign him to a decent deal within their budget or make him a qualifying offer and secure a draft pick. The Sox are not a cheapskate franchise, but they may not want to overpay for a guy who may not live up to the ace label.

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