On April 28, Jeff Samardzija walked San Diego Padres outfielder Jabari Blash on four pitches. The first pitch looked like it caught the outside corner, then the San Francisco Giants right-hander threw two fastballs inside and one outside for ball four.
Samardzija didn't walk another batter until May 25, when Ian Happ of the Chicago Cubs took a 3-2 fastball a little up and out of the strike zone. Between walks, Samardzija struck out 47 batters. In fact, he may even have been pitching around Happ, or at least pitching him very carefully. There were two outs and a runner on second with Jason Heyward on deck; Happ was red hot at the time and Heyward wasn't.
Since that walk to Happ, Samardzija has struck out 16 more batters, including 10 in his last start against the Milwaukee Brewers. He has had 59 strikeouts and one walk during his past seven starts, becoming the first pitcher to have 50-plus strikeouts and one or fewer walks in a seven-start span. Samardzija starts Saturday against the Minnesota Twins and Jose Berrios in a fun matchup. I'm fascinated by this new approach. Samardzija has basically decided, "I'm not going to walk anybody. I'm not going to beat myself."
This idea isn't new; it's that Samardzija appears to be taking it to the absolute extremes, and it's hard to argue with the results. Through that April 25 start, Samardzija had a 6.32 ERA with a 35-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has a 2.98 ERA in his past seven starts.
Greg Maddux, of course, was known for his exquisite control. In 1997, he recorded 177 strikeouts while walking just 20 batters -- and six of those were intentional. His longest stretch without walks that season, however, was just five starts. Curt Schilling also took the Samardzija approach. He always had pretty good control, but at one point, he decided he was going to quit walking batters. During his 2001-02 peak with the Diamondbacks, he walked just 72 batters in 70 starts. Throwing strikes meant he'd give up more home runs -- he led the National League with 37 home runs allowed in 2001 -- but you weren't going to beat him with two- or three-run homers, and throwing more strikes meant he could go deeper into games. In his first season as a starter in 2004, Cliff Lee walked 81 batters. By 2010, he walked just 18 in 212 1/3 innings. Maybe he gave up a few more hits and home runs with this approach, but the mindset was to pound the zone and trust your stuff.
What's interesting about Samardzija is that while he's throwing more pitches in the strike zone, he's not doing it by throwing more fastballs as you might expect:
Through April 25: 47.3 percent in the zone, 55.2 percent fastballs and sinkers
Since April 25: 51.4 percent in the zone, 45.2 percent fastballs and sinkers
Instead, he's throwing more sliders and curveballs. What he is doing, however, is pounding the strike zone with the first pitch. In April, 55 percent of his first pitches were strikes, including a called strike rate of 35.1 percent. In May and June, those rates have gone up to 68.5 percent and 57.3 percent, respectively. The Brewers noticed this and started swinging a lot more at the first pitch (although without success). Let's see how the Twins attack him.
For the season, Samardzija leads the NL with 8.85 K's for every walk. That ratio, however, doesn't even lead the majors: The Cleveland Indians' Josh Tomlin isn't the same type of strikeout pitcher, but he had 44 K's and just four walks. Then there's Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen, an entirely different kind of beast: He has 41 strikeouts and ZERO walks. The modern record for strikeouts without a walk is Schilling's 56 in 2002, so Jansen has a chance to break that record -- if Samardzija doesn't get there first.
If you're familiar with baseball history, you know that these insane strikeout-to-walk ratios are a byproduct of modern baseball: Better pitchers who throw harder combined with hitters willing to trade strikeouts for home runs. For those of you who have played in any kind of Strat-O-Matic or other simulation league, you'll know that for decades a 2-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio was considered pretty good. I recently played in a 1976 league and of the 88 qualified starting pitchers that season, only 26 had a 2-1 or better ratio and only six were 3-1 or better (and many of the nonqualifiers had more walks than strikeouts).
Here's a chart of the evolving nature of the game, focusing just on pitchers who qualified for the ERA title:
Porcello's league-leading figure last year was actually pretty low for recent seasons, the lowest since Roy Halladay in 2008. Clayton Kershaw would have shattered the record with 15.64 strikeouts for each walk (172-to-11), but he only threw 149 innings.
Here's another way of looking at the dominant ratio of today's pitchers, the top 15 single-season leaders in strikeout percentage minus walk percentage:
OK, I cheated and included Kershaw's 2016 season even though he didn't pitch enough innings. Anyway, Samardzija is third this season behind Sale and Scherzer at 25.5 percent, which could crack the top 20 of all time. Only three pre-1995 seasons crack the top 50: 1965 Sandy Koufax, 1984 Dwight Gooden, 1986 Mike Scott.
Of course, despite all those strikeouts and not issuing many walks, Samardzija's season ERA is just 4.29. His strand rate of 66.7 percent is 10th-worst among starters, and he has allowed fewer than three runs just three times in 12 starts. This seems to prove there's more to pitching in 2017 than simply striking out a lot of hitters.