2012 Preview: Starting Rotation [Part I]

I previewed the Cubs corner infield over a week ago with one meaningful question regarding LaHair and Stewart. In this post, I do the same for the Cubs 2012 starting rotation. This is the first in a three part series.

Matt Garza | Has Garza become a more efficient pitcher? Does he throw fewer pitches per inning?

During the Cubs vs. Rockies broadcast, Keith brought up the fact that Garza needs to cut down on his pitches per inning in order to provide more innings for the Cubs. I recalled Garza going deeper in games during the last month of the season, and wanted to see if he had become more efficient near the end of last year.

Here is a graph with Garza's pitches per inning by start in 2011.

As we can see, there is a slight downward trend in the number of pitches he threw per inning. In his 15 post-All Star Break starts, Garza threw less than 16 pitches per inning in 9 of them. Why is 16 such an important number? Let's look at Garza's pitches per inning in his career.

As we can see, Garza has averaged over 16 pitches an inning in each of his four full seasons. The fact that he broke that mark in 60% of his post-All Star break starts is interesting, but not conclusive evidence that he has become a more efficient pitcher. Since 16 pitches is his career average, we would expect Garza to be above that 50% of the time and below that 50% of the time. Looking at his post-All Star break starts, we would expect Garza to be below 16 pitches per inning in 7.5 of his starts and above 16 pitches per inning in 7.5 of his starts. In actuality, Garza was below 16 pitches per inning in 6 of his starts and above it in 9 starts. This isn't a large enough variation to indicate a change in Garza's pitch efficiency, but it's definitely something to keep tabs on as the season gets going.

Jeff Samardzija | Did Samardzija turn the corner in 2011?

Samardzija was very lucky in 2011. He sported a career-best .253 BABIP, (.300 BABIP is league average), career-best 75.0% LOB%, (70% LOB% is league average), and a 5.3% HR/FB rate, (9.5% is league average).

While Samardzija benefitted from good luck in 2011, there are some signs that point to skill-based improvement and not just luck-based improvement. First of all, Samardzija put up his highest strikeout rate of his career, 8.9 K/9, along with his highest swinging strike rate of his career, 9.9%, (8.5% is league average). Furthermore, though he ended the season with a pretty awful 5.11 BB/9, the majority of his control issues occurred early on in the season: in his first 18 appearances, (24.1 IP), Samardzija walked 23 batters. As we can see from the chart below, Samardzija ended up hovering between a 3.0 BB/9 and 4.9 BB/9 for the majority of the rest of the season. If we split the difference, we see that Samardzija's true talent level is likely closer to 4.0 BB/9 than 5.0 BB/9, which would be good for a strikeout-to-walk ratio greater than 2.

Samardzija's Pitch f/x data provides us with some interesting information regarding his pitch frequency and effectiveness.

Samardzija threw his changeup half as often in 2011 as he did in 2010. Furthermore, over the past three years, he has been phasing out his curveball, as he threw it only 1.3% of the time last year. He threw fewer changeups and curveballs last year in favor of more fastballs (65.6% in 2010 versus 71.6% in 2011), and sliders, (13.7% in 2010 versus 17.7% in 2011).

Samardzjia's fastball and slider were his best pitches in 2011. For the fist time in his career, he had a fastball that was above average in effectiveness, (1.43 wFF/C - weighted average of all of his fastballs). Furthermore, his slider, (1.59 wSL/C), and changeup, (.61 wCH/C), both had above average effectiveness levels. While Samardzija had three above average pitches last year, he was primarily a fastball and slider pitcher as these two pitches accounted for over 90% of his pitches in 2011. Starters usually need more than two effective pitches - if Samardzija really wants to start this year, he might need to begin throwing that changeup with more regularity.

Lastly, I looked at some Pitch f/x velocity charts, which plot the velocity of his pitches by appearance.





If we look at Samardzija's fastball velocity over his major league career, we see that it really picked up this year. In his first three years, Samardzija threw his fastball between 91 and 95 mph. He did the same for about the first 25 appearances of 2011, but then began consistently throwing between 95 and 98 mph for the rest of the season.

Samardzija's uptick in velocity, change in pitch frequencies, and more effective fastball and slider helped him turn the corner in 2011. It will be interesting to see whether or not he can develop that changeup to the point where he's comfortable throwing it more often. If he can, Samardzija could finally become a capable major league starter.

As always, let me know what you guys think. I'll get to Part II within the next week. If you have any suggestions for questions you'd like me to answer about the rest of our rotation or bullpen, then please let me know in the comments.


* Here's a short primer on pitch values.

Thanks to FanGraphs for Pitch f/x Pitch Values data.

Thanks to Joe Lefkowitz for his Pitch f/x data.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of SB Nation or Al Yellon, managing editor (unless it's a FanPost posted by Al). FanPost opinions are valued expressions of opinion by passionate and knowledgeable baseball fans.

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