Chicago Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija threw six innings of scoreless baseball against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday. He was not awarded a win, however, because Ervin Santana managed seven scoreless of his own. The feeling of futility, emptiness and despair that might reasonably accompany this outcome is nothing new for Samardzija: Three times this season, he's managed a quality start in which he left the game tied. In two other instances, he gave up two and three runs and left the game with his team trailing. On April 29, in his worst start of the season, he gave up three runs in 5⅔ innings and exited down one. Most gallingly, Samardzija threw 7⅓ innings on April 23 and gave up two runs, bequeathing his teammates a 5-2 lead. Pedro Strop, James Russell, and Justin Grimm promptly combined to give up five runs and blow the game in the ninth.
In sum, Samardzija has thrown quality starts in seven of his eight outings (missing the eighth by just one-third of an inning). He came into Saturday's start against Atlanta with the second-best ERA in baseball (1.62), has a nasty, mid-90s fastball at the head of a five-pitch mix that includes one of baseball's few splitters, and he'll go to sleep Saturday night with the same 0-3 record that he woke up with.
The individual pitcher win has been rightly discredited in wider and wider circles over the past 15 years (Felix Hernandez won a Cy Young award in 2010 despite a 13-12 record, after all), so it's not just stat-nerd bloggers like me who can see past Samardzija's winlessness and recognize that he's having a fantastic season. Still, the 0-3 is striking: Of those pitchers currently qualified for the ERA title, the only others without a win are Josh Beckett (2.80 ERA, 32nd in the league out of 114 qualifiers), Charlie Morton (3.45, 54th), Kyle Kendrick (3.58, 62nd), Francisco Liriano (4.64, 88th) and Brett Oberholtzer (5.68, 111th). Clay Buchholz has been awful, with a 6.44 ERA that comes up last among qualifiers, and he has two wins. Jenrry Mejia is 3-0 with a 5.06 ERA.
Not to belabor the point, but Samardzija has really been unlucky.
The culprit for unlucky pitchers can vary, but in Samardzija's case, it's crystal clear: He's getting some of the worst run support in the league. Samardzija came into Saturday's action receiving just 1.88 runs per game of support, and the Braves' 2-0 shutout of the Cubs will depress that figure further. Samardzija is the Cubs' best starter and was their Opening Day starter, so it might stand to reason that he's faced a tougher group of opposing pitchers this season, but that's not really the case. The list:
The weighted average ERAs of these pitchers is 3.30. The NL average ERA is 3.54. Samardzija, in other words, hasn't faced a crew of aces so much as he's faced solid No. 2 or No. 3 starters. The Cubs as an overall offensive squad aren't all that terrible: They've scored 3.9 runs per game, ranking 10th in the NL. Tenth ain't great, but it ain't 15th, either.
No, Samardzija has just been a victim of bad timing, and the only question is whether his luck can turn around in time to put him in contention for the postseason awards that he might deserve if he keeps pitching this well. The win's decline in importance has been sharp, but when assessing a list of candidates, 8-12 (to take a stab at where Samardzija's win-loss record could end up) surely has a psychological effect, no matter how rationally a voter considers ERA and strikeouts, BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and run support, just as a voter can't help but be impressed by 21-3 or 20-5. A negative record won't cost Samardzija all consideration, as evidenced by Chris Sale's fifth-place Cy Young finish last season with an 11-14 record, but it's worth noting that Sale finished second in the AL in Baseball-Reference's pitcher WAR (wins above replacement), so the White Sox's failure to support him almost certainly did cost him votes.
Beyond awards, the salary arbitration process still relies notoriously on old-school counting stats (wins and losses, RBIs and runs) more than WAR or other advanced metrics. As Samardzija has one more arbitration-eligible season left before free agency, there's a very real sense in which Junior Lake (83 OPS+), Ryan Kalish (78), Darwin Barney (14!), and the like are costing Samardzija money.
In a lost season for the Cubs (they're already 10 games out of first place, and their playoff odds stand third lowest in the NL), Samardzija doesn't have a whole lot else to look forward to, so one hopes he takes GM Jed Hoyer's recent words to heart: "Hopefully, he realizes you don't need wins in this day and age to be considered a top-of-the-rotation pitcher."
Jason Wojciechowski writes for Beanball on the SweetSpot Network.