San Francisco Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija walked off the mound Monday relishing the moment after throwing his first shutout since 2015 and winning for the fifth time in his last six decisions.
Those types of performances have been too few and far between during a surprisingly horrendous season for San Francisco, one in which the club has had to deal with ace Madison Bumgarner’s three-month absence and last year’s 18-game winner Johnny Cueto struggling before going on the disabled list.
Samardzija, who improved to 9-12 with a 4.43 ERA, had an ERA above five up until late July and is already one loss away from matching his career high. While he has credited a reliance on his fastball and an improved curveball to his recent success, a closer look suggests that there may have been more contributing to his earlier struggles than pitch selection and execution.
“The Shark” and teammate Matt Moore are perfect examples of why the Giants probably should focus on improving defensively rather than revamping their pitching staff if they hope to continue their trend of reaching the playoffs in every even-numbered year this decade following what likely will end up as their worst campaign since losing 100 games in 1985.
Samardzija’s batting average on balls in play is .317, leading one to believe he’s had more than his share of bad luck. Then again, the Giants’ staff BABIP is .316, so there seems to be more at play here. Fielding-independent pitching can help show how well a pitcher actually performed, regardless of how well his fielders did.
It’s calculated as such = ((13HR + 3(BB + HBP) – 2K) / IP) + Cx, where Cx is a league-dependent constant (subscript x representing AL, NL, or MLB) to normalize the scale with ERA for the sake of comparison. The thought behind the statistic is that pitchers only really have control over home runs, walks and strikeouts, while they rely on their defense for just about every other outcome.
So in theory, a better defense or defensive positioning is going to help a pitcher compile a lower ERA than a pitcher with a less competent defense behind him. Often times, a fielder’s positioning, route angle, and/or first step can be the difference between a hit and an out. FIP attempts to even the playing field for the pitcher in that regard by assuming league-average defense and luck.
If a pitcher has a higher ERA than FIP, he’s not getting much help from his defense and not very lucky. On the other hand, a hurler with a higher FIP than ERA has likely benefitted from some good luck and strong play by the guys behind him.
Here’s a look at the pitchers with the largest ERA minus FIP among ERA qualifiers entering Wednesday:
In case you’re wondering, Lance Lynn of the Cardinals has received the most help from his defense with an MLB-best -1.65 difference between FIP and ERA. Washington’s Gio Gonzalez (-1.49) and Minnesota’s Ervin Santana (-1.28) are also high on those rankings.
It’s quite an indictment that the Giants are not only a team with two pitchers among baseball’s top five in ERA-FIP, but that Samardzija and Moore top those ominous rankings. Moore (4-13, 5.49 ERA) had hoped to build this season on his performance in Game 4 of the National League Division Series when he held the eventual champion Cubs to one earned run over eight innings. Instead, he’s already reached a career high in defeats and is on pace to finish with the highest ERA of his seven seasons.
San Francisco’s defense doesn’t seem that bad on the surface, ranking eighth in MLB with a .986 fielding percentage, but that doesn’t account for other plays they aren’t making. STATS’ Clean Fielding Percentage helps us get a handle on this as it accounts for not only plays in which the team is charged for an error but also aspects of that play and others that aren’t ‘clean’ even though it may not be an error. Using these criteria, the Giants fall far from their fielding percentage perch down to 19th in Clean Fielding Percentage heading into the week:
It doesn’t take long to find an example of San Francisco’s sloppy play using STATS Video Solution – baseball analysis software that includes TVTI video capture, compression, video routing software and video playback. With this tool, even an amateur scout can breakdown every curveball a pitcher has thrown, watch every time a batter has grounded out this season or analyze batter vs. pitcher matchups customized by specific game situation, pitch type, pitch velocity or hit result:
Carlos Moncrief learned the hard way about playing the outfield at AT&T Park. While it’s not an error, Moncrief’s poor approach to the carom led to an inside-the-park home run instead of a double or triple. That would have given Moore an opportunity to get out of the inning with only one run scoring as the opposing pitcher was coming up.
“We worked on everything, angles coming off of that right-field wall, but that was like the only one we didn’t,” Moncrief said after the game. “I wasn’t really anticipating it to bounce like that. Now I know for next time. Hopefully, there’s not a next time.”
That said, it’s not all on Moncrief. Within SVS, you’ll notice the location of the pitch on the right side of the application display:
Moore grooved a four-seam fastball to Javy Baez, which is as much of a verifiable no-no as you’ll find. Notice the pitch speed of 93 mph. This year when facing four-seamers down the middle of 95 mph or less, Baez is 6 for 8 with four homers, a double off the wall, and a drilled fly out to the warning track. Essentially, if you throw him a fastball down the middle, he’s probably going to hit it 400 feet on the fly with a substantial exit velocity, which can all be filtered and instantly viewed in SVS:
Back to the in-the-park homer. It’s easy to assume that a veteran like Hunter Pence would have kept Baez from scoring. Pence ranks 11th among right fielders with a 92.09 Clean Percentage, but it becomes evident going through SVS that even he often takes awkward routes to the ball and tends to have poor reads off the bat.
Gorkys Hernandez hasn’t fared well out there either with a .944 fielding percentage and a .750 zone rating – an estimate of a player’s efficiency in fielding balls hit into his typical defensive zone.
Even San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford, considered one of the game’s best defensive players after back-to-back Gold Glove seasons, has had his struggles this year. Though he’s only been charged with seven errors, Crawford ranks a surprising 17th with an 88.95 Clean Percentage. Crawford’s zone rating has fallen from .841 and .846 the past two seasons to .824 this season. Spend time skimming through the video, and it’s noticeable that Crawford isn’t getting to balls and finishing off plays as regularly as he had in previous seasons.
While the Giants certainly need Bumgarner and Cueto healthy and Samardzija to keep throwing the ball the way he has of late, they’ll also have to find ways to field a defense that more consistently comes through with the makeable plays that can halt big innings if they hope to get back to winning next season.