WARR baseball writer Kevin Luchansky writes about the Cubs and the White Sox weekly for WARR.com.
Check out Kevin’s daily baseball betting picks on NorthSideWire.
In a fashion which Cubs management and fans are all too familiar with, their beloved team blew a 2-0 lead in the 9th inning to the visiting New York Yankees Wednesday afternoon and eventually fell 4-2 in 13 innings.
The significance of this loss — which came a day after it became the first team to beat Masahiro Tanaka since 2012 — , however, is not the fashion in which the Cubs lost, but to the pitcher to whom it prevented from grabbing his first win: Jeff Samardzija, he of the MLB-leading ERA of only 1.46.
Samardzija, whose ERA is a full .39 points greater than the next man behind him, Adam Wainwright, has an 0-4 record this season despite Quality Starts (QS) in eight of his 10 starts this season. Samardzija’s numbers have even been good enough to accumulate a win and a half (1.5) in WAR.
As baffling as the numbers themselves are, they don’t overshadow the main question I have about Samardzija’s breakthrough: how has he become such a consistently above-average starter this season?
Well, it starts with the ace’s improved walk rate, which currently sits at 2.78 this year, a number based on a nine-inning average. That number is just half of what he posted (5.11) in 2011 and a half-walk lower than last season’s mark, but it doesn’t end there. The Shark has also drastically improved his ability to keep the ball in the yard, allowing on average just 0.26 home runs per game, a far cry better than last year’s mark where he was serving up at least a home run per game.
Ironically, Samardzija is averaging almost a full two strikeouts less per game this season than he did in 2013, but with the numbers he’s thrown together, I highly doubt that’s a concern of pitching coach Chis Bosio.
More Magic in the Rotation
Speaking of Bosio, what an excellent job he’s done this season with reclamation project Jason Hammel. Hammel was an afterthought for a lot of teams after an up and down career and the fact that he’s now 33 years of age, but the Cubs saw an opportunity to turn him into a solid no. 3 starter and so far, so good.
Hammel spent his 2014 campaign with the Orioles, posting a 7-8 record and an inflated ERA of just under 5. He’s left his troubles behind in Camden Yards, as he’s already posted five wins this season and a shiny 2.91 ERA to boot. Like Samardzija, Hammel has also benefited by drastically cutting down his walks per 9 innings mark, down from a 3.1 mark to a 1.9 this season. It almost goes without saying, but a large drop in ERA can usually be attributed to handing out less free passes to first. In addition to that, Hammel’s also benefited from a much lower Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) this year, which suggests his pitches have better movement this year, and thus batters are not making great contact with the ball.
When it comes to the bullpen, however, Bosio has had his work cut out for him from the get-go. After showing a lot of promise in his first few outings in the closer’s role, Hector Rondon has been a little shaky recently, blowing a save in his most recent outing and having some control issues. Still, with swing-and-miss stuff at his disposal, Rondon should be able to find the plate again and convert most saves without too much trouble. Still, the rest of the bullpen really needs work.
The main culprits in this bullpen, which has posted a 3-12 record, are Jose Veras and Pedro Strop, but they aren’t alone in their struggles. Collectively, the Cubs’ pen is going to have to find a way to strand more runners, reduce walks and keep the ball in the yard if they expect to win any of these games with tight scores in late innings that they so often seem to find themselves in. But as Wednesday showed, that’s easier said than done.
Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; follow Kevin on Twitter @kpLUCH