It's an interesting question in part because both are free agents after the 2015 season. Samardzija, of course, has been part of two big trades in recent months, going from the Cubs to the A's and then from the A's to the White Sox this offseason. Fister went from the Tigers to the Nationals last winter and quietly went 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA. It was a heist of a deal for Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo.
Fister continues to be one of the most underrated starters in the majors. Over the past four seasons, compare his numbers to Jon Lester, who just signed a $155 million contract with the Cubs:
Fister: 51-38, 3.11 ERA, 750.2 IP, 142 BB, 540 SO, 3.37 FIP, 129 ERA+, 17.1 WAR
Lester: 55-42, 3.61 ERA, 830 IP, 258 BB, 745 SO, 3.56 FIP, 114 ERA+, 12.7 WAR
Lester has been more of a workhorse, averaging 20 more innings per season, but Fister has the better ERA, better FIP, better adjusted ERA and a higher WAR. Nobody is suggesting that Fister, however, is going to receive a $155 million contract next offseason (like Lester, Fister has also been an excellent postseason performer, with a 2.60 ERA in 55 ⅓ innings). The difference is that Lester is a power pitcher and Fister is more of a finesse guy, and the finesse guys are always struggling to earn their due respect. The same holds true when we get to the Samardzija comparison. Samardzija throws hard, and Fister throws balls that do a lot of bendy stuff.
Here are the 2014 numbers for the two pitchers (Fister is a year older):
Fister: 2.41 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 164 IP, .246/.280/.374, 14.6% K rate, 3.6% BB rate
Samardzija: 2.99 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 219.2 IP, .234/.279/.379, 23.0% K rate, 4.9% BB rate
Fister missed April with a strained lat muscle, so he had fewer starts than Samardzija, but their opposing batting lines are almost identical. How they got there is another matter. As you can see, Samardzija had the much higher strikeout rate, maybe not surprising considering Fister ranked 140th out of 148 pitches who threw 100 innings in average fastball velocity (his heat averaged 87.8 mph) while Samardzija ranked 14th at 94.3 mph. Of those 148 pitchers, Fister's overall strikeout rate of 14.6 percent ranked 133rd.
Fister was able to keep hitters in check thanks to a .265 average on balls in play, 32 points below the MLB average of .297 (Samardzija's average was .285).
In Fister's case, he gets a lot of movement on his pitches, including a two-seam fastball with sinking action. Last December, Fister explained his pitching philosophy to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post:
I’m going out there trying to induce ground balls, induce bad contact as early in the count as possible. My job is to get through seven innings and keep zeroes on the board for our offense to get out there and swing it. If I can get that done, that’s my main focus. If I can get past that, that’s icing on the cake and I’m excited about it. But it’s one of those things, I want to get ground balls. I want to use our defense, utilize the talent that we have out there. That’s always been one of my main goals. For me, I’d be foolish not to attack that way. My main pitching sequence is a sinker. I try to attack with that.
Fister throws that sinker more than 50 percent of the time. He also mixes in several other pitches -- cutter, curveball, changeup, splitter -- but it's that sinker that sets up everything else. Fister is 6-foot-8, giving him an unusual release point that hitters aren't used to seeing.
So he was tough to hit in 2014. However, with the Tigers in 2013, he allowed a .333 BABIP. So was he just lucky in 2014? Well, it's not quite that easy. The Tigers were a terrible defensive team, so that explains some of the high BABIP In 2013. Fister had allowed a .297 BABIP in 2012, so maybe he was just unlucky in 2013. Then you have to consider that the NL East was full of some dreadful offenses in 2014 other than the Nationals, and Fister didn't have to face them. So maybe he benefited from that.
It makes evaluating Fister difficult. His strikeout rate has dropped each of the past two seasons, from 20.4 percent to 18.1 to 14.8. Strikeouts are good even for pitch-to-contact guys, so that has to be a concern. But Fister is a unique pitcher, so it's difficult to gauge how much of a concern that decline is.
As for Samardzija, the 6-foot-5 right-hander is more of a conventional power pitcher with a four-seamer, two-seamer, slider and cutter, plus a splitter that's his two-strike weapon of destruction (batters hit .107 against it). His control improved markedly in 2014, as he cut his walk rate from 8.5 percent to 4.9 percent (in a raw totals, from 78 walks to 43 while pitching six more innings). One of the intriguing aspects about Samardzija's future is that even though he'll be 30 years old in 2015, he doesn't have a lot of wear on his arm, having primarily been a football player at Notre Dame and then pitching in relief for a couple of seasons before transitioning to the rotation in 2012.
Who's better? The Steamer projection system at FanGraphs isn't completely buying into Samardzija's improvement and forecasts a 3.94 ERA and 3.1 WAR thanks to a higher walk rate and full-time move to the American League. Samardzija did allow 25 home runs in 2013 with the Cubs and 20 in 2014 (including 13 in 16 starts with the A's), so moving to a hitter-friendly home run park with the White Sox is something to watch.
Fister is projected at a 3.77 ERA and 2.1 WAR, as his .265 BABIP is viewed as unsustainable.
I'm buying into Samardzija's improvement in 2014, and he rates the edge in durability, as well. I'd give him the slight edge as the guy I'd want for 2015, although I would predict both pitchers exceed that 50th percentile projection. Assuming both have healthy seasons, Samardzija certainly will receive the bigger free-agent contract next offseason, as well.
But Fister has exceeded expectations his entire career, from a Mariners front office that didn't buy into his success when it traded him to Detroit, and to a Tigers front office that sold low on him last winter. It wouldn't surprise me to see Fister win 20 this year and continue to produce with whatever team signs him in 2016.