Deeper arsenal helped Samardzija to stick

Former Notre Dame receiver found big league stardom after struggles

Jeff Samardzija went 6-8 with a 4.40 ERA over 22 games in two stints with Double-A Tennessee. (Tony Farlow/Four Seam Images)

By Mark Emery / MiLB.com | March 5, 2015 10:30 AM

Jeff Samardzija's football ability was there for everyone to see.

As a wideout at Notre Dame from 2003-06, he set records in virtually every single-season and career receiving category in the Fighting Irish record book, garnering numerous All-American honors while setting himself up to go early in the 2007 NFL Draft.

Back then, what was less apparent but more significant was Samardzija's relationship with baseball. When he wasn't, say, catching a touchdown pass against LSU in the Sugar Bowl, he was striking out eight against the University of Pittsburgh. The 6-foot-5 right-hander's pitching ability caught the attention of the Cubs, who took him in the fifth round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft with no guarantee that baseball would be his first priority -- or remain a priority at all.

Less than a year later, Samardzija signed a five-year, $10 million contract with the Cubs, fully committing to baseball and putting football in his past. But with outings in the Minors that failed to excite followed by appearances in the Majors that at times suggested he didn't belong, the choice he made became more and more susceptible to second-guessing. Not that he had many regrets.

"Once the decision was made, that's all I was going to do," said Samardzija, an All-Star in 2014 who was traded to the A's and then the White Sox later that year. "I'd seen a handful of guys before me that had done one and switched over to the other one. And I just felt like, from what I'd seen in the past, it didn't usually work out too well. So I knew whatever decision I made, I wanted to stick with it and go all in.

"[Baseball is] the game I love to play, obviously. The situation I've put myself in the last three years -- starting and having success -- has been outstanding. I really enjoy where I'm at now."

Samardzija played his first full season in 2007, which he began at Class A Advanced Daytona. The Florida State League has a reputation for being easy on pitchers, but it wasn't for the righty, who went 3-8 with a 4.95 ERA and .323 opponents' average in 24 games (20 starts). Still, he ended the year with six starts at Double-A Tennessee, where he fared much better, at least at first.

In 2008, Samardzija again started slowly but picked up the pace as the season unfolded, getting better and better even as he dealt with more advanced levels. His first 16 games (15 starts) took place in the Southern League, where he was 3-5 with a 4.86 ERA. Then came six starts in the Pacific Coast League with Triple-A Iowa and a 4-1 record with a 3.13 ERA.

"The one thing that hurt Jeff at that time was he hadn't developed, really, his secondary pitches, and that's where it caught up to him," said Mike Mason, Iowa's pitching coach from 2008-13. "He always had a live fastball, but he didn't have a consistent breaking ball. His split, which is his out pitch, it was inconsistent enough so that they didn't have to really worry about it.

"So he ended up being a one-pitch pitcher against upper-level hitters. They can hit 95 mph if that's all they're looking for. And when you're working on your secondary pitches, you want them to work right away. ... It ended up benefiting him to the present day, but it was a struggle to try and build confidence in his off-speed pitches, because at that point he hadn't had to use them yet."

With an arsenal better suited at the time for relieving than starting, Samardzija made his Major League debut on July 25, 2008, against the Marlins at Wrigley Field, fanning two while allowing a run on two hits in two innings. It was the first of 26 relief appearances he made with the Cubs that year -- and the start of a run of success in "The Show" he wouldn't see again until 2011.

"My debut was pretty cool," Samardzija recalled. "I struck out the first guy I faced, I felt like I was throwing 100 [mph]. It was exciting. ... You're just kind of [oblivious] about what's actually happening and the severity of your situation. It's pretty cool to be in that situation of just total ignorance to what's going on. You're just out there throwing the ball as hard as you can.

"So it took a year or two to really realize what I was doing and how hard it was, really, and how much hard work it took to have success."

Double-A Tennessee skipper Buddy Bailey managed Samardzija in 2008 and saw then that he was the type of player who would work as hard as he could to realize his dream of being a successful big leaguer.

"A lot of guys wouldn't have been able to turn it into what he did," Bailey said, "if they weren't as athletic as he is, and if they didn't have the heart and dedication and determination that he has. A lot of that came, obviously, from having a football background, too. ... You knew that he was going to find a way to get the most of whatever he had in him."

Proposal
In 2009, Jeff Samardzija had a 4.35 ERA as a starter at Triple-A Iowa and a 7.53 ERA as a reliever in Chicago. (Brent Asay/MiLB.com)

Samardzija didn't just want to be a pitcher -- he wanted to be a starter. From 2009-10, he bounced between the Majors and Minors, entering from the bullpen in one place and taking turns from the rotation in the other. All the while, the numbers he put up were less than stellar. The 2.28 ERA he fashioned with the Cubs at the end of the 2008 season began to appear more exception than rule.

"The year that he went up as a reliever and did really, really good, he basically was kind of effectively wild with just his good fastball and a split," said Mason, now the Cubs' assistant pitching coordinator. "But Jeff's always been determined to be a starter and he knew from being up there firsthand that he was going to need other pitches to make him a quality starter."

Beginning in 2009 at Iowa, the Indiana native was called up and sent down twice before earning a third promotion that allowed him to finish the year in Chicago. He started 2010 in the Windy City, although he wasn't around long enough for the weather to get warm. Samardzija gave up 11 runs -- seven earned -- in four April appearances, leading to a demotion to Iowa that lasted until September.

"See, that's the thing about Jeff," Mason said. "Things like that never really deterred him. It basically made him concentrate harder. ... I mean, I've been in Triple-A for a long time, and most guys at that point would be bitter, frustrated, whatever. It just made Jeff more determined. In fact, basically when he came down, he said, 'All right. I'm ready to work. Let's get this thing going.'"

Over 35 games (15 starts) at Iowa in 2010, Samardzija recorded a career-high 11 wins against three losses. Over 111 1/3 innings, he had 102 strikeouts and 67 walks, recording a 4.37 ERA and .212 average against. He ended that season in the Majors and hasn't seen the Minors since.

"Triple-A is full of guys that throw hard with live fastballs," Mason said. "But the reason why they're not Major Leaguers is because they don't have something to go with it. And that's kind of where Jeff fell into at first, when he started bouncing between Triple-A and the big leagues. ... Most guys don't make the adjustment because mentally they just keep trusting their fastball almost too much. But in Jeff's case, he had an out pitch other than his fastball -- his split.

"When his split was on, Jeff pitched good; when the split was off, Jeff struggled a little bit. So when he came up with a slider and then a cutter, it gave him pitches that made him way more diverse to the hitters, and in turn, he was making it way easier for himself to get outs. He became a four-pitch pitcher rather than a two-pitch pitcher, and he really didn't have to change his mentality, he didn't have to change his mechanics. He just changed his pitch selection."

One thing Samardzija never had to worry about as a baseball player was performing in front of large crowds. Saturday afternoons in South Bend helped prepare him for that.

"I think in some ways it toughens people up," Bailey said. "He played at Notre Dame, which has crazy crowds, full all the time, national TV most every week. ... Those arenas toughen you up and give you a lot more emotional maturity, to where the big stage doesn't set you back or overwhelm you."

Samardzija has pitched before big league fans exclusively since 2011. That year, he made 75 relief appearances for the Cubs, compiling a 2.97 ERA with 87 strikeouts against 50 walks over 88 innings. He was added to the rotation in 2012 and has become such a reliable starter that last year the A's parted with top prospect Addison Russell as part of a deal to acquire his services.

Unlikely to afford re-signing Samardzija after his contract expires in 2015, the A's flipped him to the White Sox in December, sending him back to the city where his Major League career began. Things are different now than they were then: He's no longer a former college football standout seemingly not cut out for the big leagues but an All-Star pitcher sure to torment American League Central foes. The early struggles he had in the Cubs system are long gone.

"I think it was just the confidence in all my pitches," Samardzija said. "I think when you don't have confidence to throw all of your pitches at any time in an at-bat, there's just a little bit of tentativeness that comes with that. In baseball, that's the last thing you want. The most important thing is conviction and being sold-out on with the pitch you want to throw. So when you're throwing a pitch 75-80 percent, it just doesn't work out that well, and I think that is what I was stuck on.

"So I needed to repeat my mechanics, on my off-speed pitches mostly, and my fastball -- my fastball location wasn't great. I needed to improve all that, and that took time in the Minor Leagues. And once I felt like I could make the pitches that I needed to make in the big leagues, then I could start stringing them together in the big leagues and have success."

Belief in his pitches is one thing, belief in himself is another. As Mason can attest, the latter never wavered.

"A lot of people gave up on him as far as ever being a starter. They said he didn't have any feel," Mason said. "And that's the one thing about Jeff -- you can tell him how he'll never do that, that'll make him more determined. That's the beauty of Jeff. I mean, he's got the swagger. He's got the confidence that's going to make him successful for a long time."

Mark Emery is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @Mark_Emery. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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