David Price vs. Jeff Samardzija: Who Is MLB's Best Ace on the Block?

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David Price vs. Jeff Samardzija: Who Is MLB's Best Ace on the Block?
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Here's guessing that all general managers on the lookout for a stud starting pitcher this July would prefer to trade for David Price and Jeff Samardzija.

But since that's not very practical, the best choice between the two would be...

Actually, that's a pretty good question. So good that we should talk about it.

First, let's establish that, yes, the Tampa Bay Rays left-hander and the Chicago Cubs right-hander are legit candidates to be traded ahead of the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times wrote in June that it was becoming "increasingly obvious" Price's days in Tampa Bay are numbered, and general manager Andrew Friedman admitted to Tyler Kepner of The New York Times that dealing him is "our only chance for success."

As for Samardzija, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times was reporting in mid-June that the Cubs had already engaged in trade talks with multiple teams.

Now then, let's venture to ask a few super important questions. The first of which would be...

 

How's the Present Look?

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

If we keep things simple by looking at ERA, it's no contest. Where Price has a 3.50 ERA in 18 starts, Samardzija has a 2.83 ERA in 17 starts.

But let's not be that simple. Since being misleading is a hobby of ERAs, we need to consider that maybe Price and Samardzija have misleading ERAs.

Fortunately, we can turn to ERA estimators designed to tell us just what we want to know. Two good ones are FIP and xFIP, and what they tell us about Price and Samardzija is this (via FanGraphs):

Price vs. Samardzija: FIP and xFIP
Player FIP xFIP
Price 2.93 2.57
Samardzija 3.06 3.19

FanGraphs

The message here is clear: Price may not have a better ERA than Samardzija, but he should.

Which isn't too surprising. These metrics really like high strikeout-to-walk ratios, and Price's MLB-leading 9.00 K/BB is nearly triple Samardzija's 3.32 K/BB. 

However, there is a hitch in Price's advantage in the eyes of FIP and xFIP, and that's how it's really only significant in the eyes of xFIP. That's where things get tricky.

What xFIP does is try to normalize a pitcher's home run rate by assuming he should have a home run rate befitting of his fly-ball rate. To this end, it tends to favor pitchers who keep the ball out of the air.

Which is something Price isn't doing nearly as well as Samardzija:

Price vs. Samardzija: Batted Balls
Player Ground-Ball% Fly-Ball% HR/FB
Price 42.0 38.6 12.6
Samardzija 52.5 27.1 8.5

FanGraphs

"HR/FB" is home run-to-fly-ball ratio, and it's the real key here. When xFIP looks at Samardzija, it might be assuming he deserves a higher HR/FB rate and, by extension, a higher ERA. But when it looks at Price, it's definitely assuming he deserves a lower HR/FB rate.

And while that's plausible in theory, it's less so in reality.

As Brooks Baseball can show, the fly-ball percentages on Price's four-seamer and sinker have both increased greatly from their 2013 levels. That's likely a product of how, according to FanGraphs, his average fastball velocity has declined below 93 miles per hour.

And as I noted in a recent article, the sudden lack of velocity differential between Price's heat and his off-speed offerings has hurt the latter, too. After giving up eight homers on his changeup and curveball in 2013, he's already up to eight homers on them in 2014.

Point being: Price's home run problem is probably more real than xFIP wants to believe. Because of that, it's better for us to take FIP's word for it that Price and Samardzija are pretty close to each other in terms of effectiveness.

Since the edge has to go to somebody, I am going to give it to Price. Even if it is slight, I do trust his advantage in FIP more than Samardzija's advantage in ERA. Then you can add in how Price has been hot as blazes recently, and how it is worth something that his success has come in the American League.

It is a close call, though. 

Edge: Price

 

How's the Future Look?

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

More specifically: How do Price and Samardzija look for 2015? Both are due for free agency after next season, so eyeing them means having one eye on the rest of 2014 and one eye on 2015.

It's to Price's advantage that he'll be younger. Where 2015 will be his age-29 season, it will be Samardzija's age-30 season. Per conventional wisdom, that means Price will have more in his tank.

But let's not be so sure about that. 

Where Price has pitched over 1,100 big league innings, Samardzija has only pitched a little over 660. As such, the latter actually has the fresher arm.

That becomes even more apparent if we consider how the velocity of the two pitchers is trending. Samardzija's is declining, but not at the rate Price's is declining (via FanGraphs):

Price vs. Samardzija: Fastball Velocity Progression
Year Price's FB Velo Samardzija's FB Velo
2012 95.5 95.0
2013 93.5 94.5
2014 92.9 94.2

FanGraphs

Another thing to consider is how Samardzija is cultivating a fall-back option for diminished velocity in his increasing ability to generate ground balls. That hasn't happened by accident, as Brooks Baseball can show Samardzija has made his sinker his primary fastball.

Price's sinker is also his primary fastball, but his ground-ball habit is trending down rather than up. That's related to what we talked about earlier concerning his stuff getting easier to elevate. If that is indeed related to his diminished velocity, it's probably not going to get any better with even more diminished velocity.

Between his arm having fewer miles on it, his velocity holding relatively strong and his ground-ball habit going up, Samardzija deserves the edge here.

Edge: Samardzija

 

How Affordable Are They?

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Here's where one thing is clearly not like the other.

Per Baseball-Reference.com, Samardzija is earning $5.345 million in 2014. Price, meanwhile, is earning a salary of $14 million. 

Samardzija is going to get more expensive in his next trip through arbitration, but not as expensive as Price is going to get. Whereas Price could command as much as $20 million in arbitration next winter, Samardzija's salary might only double to around $11 or $12 million.

He would also be cheaper to sign to a long-term extension. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com recently reported that Samardzija turned down a roughly $80 million offer, but also indicated that something like Homer Bailey money ($105 million) could get the job done.

That certainly won't get it done for Price. Locking him up will likely require at least a $150 million guarantee.

So yeah.

Edge: Samardzija

 

What Will It Take to Get Them?

Brian Blanco/Getty Images

One thing Price obviously has on Samardzija that we haven't yet discussed is a better track record. He won the AL Cy Young in 2012, finished second in voting in 2010 and has been an All-Star three times.

And you'd better believe the Rays are going to take full advantage of this in trade talks.

For example, ESPN.com's Jim Bowden (subscription required) could be right in thinking that the Rays would start trade discussions with the St. Louis Cardinals by asking for Oscar Taveras, who is one of baseball's five best prospects. With other teams, the Rays will surely be asking for several top prospects.

Let's not overlook another motivation the Rays have: Their farm system desperately needs help. According to Baseball America, they only entered the year with the No. 20 system in MLB.

With Baseball America's No. 4 farm system, the Cubs aren't as desperate. Also, Jon Heyman isn't even sure the Cubs could get for Samardzija what they got for Matt Garza last summer, thanks to three factors:

  1. Teams "aren't as desperate for pitching as in past years."
  2. Samardzija's apparent inferiority to Price.
  3. Thanks to Samardzija's rejections of the Cubs' advances, there "would appear to be no hope" of extending him.

The Cubs aren't going to give Samardzija away for spare parts, but Heyman could be right. At the least, here's guessing that the Cubs won't be insisting on prospects as good as Taveras in talks.

Edge: Samardzija

 

Overall

If all a team cares about is acquiring the best pitcher it can possibly get for a possible championship run, that team is probably better off targeting Price. He's had his issues in 2014, but not enough of them to overrule what he's accomplished.

But if a team is looking to make the best trade for a pitcher it can make, Samardzija's the guy.

A team won't have to gut its farm system to get him, nor will it have to write supersized checks to pay him. Add in how it's not impossible to argue that Samardzija is on Price's level in terms of talent now and that he should age better, and you're looking at a considerably lower-risk venture.

Either way, here's hoping they both actually get traded. As fun as it is to talk about how things will work out, it's more fun to watch things actually work out.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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