Non-closers don’t have a whole lot of value and that will remain true for both Jeff Samardzija and James Russell, but both of them have quietly put together strong seasons in relief for the Cubs. Russell was a starter early in the season and was banged up before moving back to the pen. Since then, he’s thrown 41 innings through Wednesday, allowed 31 hits and 12 runs. Only 9 of the runs have been earned so his ERA is below 2. He’s also struckout 28, which isn’t exactly a lot, but he’s walked just 8 and 2 of those were intentional. He has also hit a batter.
Jeff Samardzija has thrown 72 innings this year, allowed just 51 hits, struckout 72, and allowed 32 runs. Only 26 of them have been earned resulting in an 3.25 ERA. His RA, on the other hand, is 4.00. The Cubs aren’t known for their quality defense so we can forgive some of that, but surely not all of it. Samardzija has also walked 43 in those 72 innings. His 5.4 BB/9 rate is equal to his career rate. He has seen a jump in his strikeout rate, which gives him a passable K/BB ratio. He’s also allowed a .246 BABIP though his career average is a bit below .280.
It’s been a pleasant surprise to see both be productive this season, but the more important question is whether or not they will be next year. If Samardzija can continue to miss bats, there’s a chance he could remain a productive reliever. He’ll regress somewhat of course, but perhaps a new strikeout rate for Samardzija will allow him to be a decent reliever.
Russell’s stats are more interesting, though. As a starter he was just terrible. ZiPS includes that in their projections, as well as last year’s unimpressive rookie season. In order for a lefty reliever to stick around, he really only has to be good at one thing: getting lefties out. Russell has been very good against lefties this year. He’s faced 99 lefties this year. He’s struckout 22 of them and walked only 2. For the mathetically challenged, that’s an 11 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio. Lefties have hit just .214/.255/.331 against him. That’s good for a 68 sOPS+.
In 2010 he wasn’t nearly as good, but in his career vs lefties he has struckout 27.3% of them. He’s walked only 3.2% of them. His strikeout rate is very good and he’s not walking many at all. That’s a 51 to 6 K to BB ratio. Lefties have hit .231/.255/.410 against him.
If he can match that career rate vs lefties, he’s probably got a spot on in MLB bullpen as a LOOGY. If he can improve upon it and be somewhere between his career and his 2011 numbers, he’ll be a good one.
This ignores a lot of other information like regressing, which in small samples is very important. I’m not saying that’s what Russell can do, but there’s no denying he’s been great against them this year and good overall in his career. The strikeout to walk ratio is outstanding and that gives us a good reason to be optimistic.
I’m not sure there’s as much reason to be optimistic about Samardzija. The past numbers have been really bad and he walks way too many hitters, but like I said, if he can miss enough bats, he could be a decent reliever. He’ll never be a closer and probably never even a setup man, but if you can get some production out of him, that would be fantastic.