The reliever with the boring name turned into a tremendous asset in the Angels bullpen last season. Can Joe Smith build on his career year?
What happened in 2014?
Joe Smith was signed to a three-year, $15.75 million deal to provide something resembling stability in the Angels bullpen. It was a questionable signing at the time because Dipoto had vowed to never heavily invest in relievers. Also, his name is Joe Smith and casual baseball fans had never heard of him.
Well, Smith reward Dipoto for his philosophical departure and became a top notch setup man for Ernesto Frieri. Then when Frieri flamed out, Smith became a high quality closer. Then when the Angels traded for Huston Street, Smith went back to being a top notch setup man.
Overall, it was a career year for Smith who had the best (deep breath) ERA, FIP, xFIP, K/9, K%, BB/9, BB%, batting average allowed, BABIP, saves and innings pitched marks of his career. (and exhale).
Yeah, he had a pretty good year.
*The MWAH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research (my wOBA calculation is approximate because my math skills are only “meh”)
What do the projections think he will do in 2015?
Joe Smith, meet regression. Regression, meet Joe Smith. Smith was just so excellent in 2014 that there is no realistic way he can repeat that and the projection systems all agree. Some systems agree more than others as Steamer seems to be a bit down on him, but all the systems generally agree that he’ll still be pretty good. The nearly halved walk rate isn’t going to persists and his whiffs will come back to the mean a bit, but I looking deeper into these projections, it seems a big chunk of the regression is going to come via Smith being unable to sustain a .214 BABIP allowed.
Does the Monkey agree or disagree?
My projections hedge towards the more optimistic side of things, but not wildly so. There are just some elements of his game that I think can’t help but regress. The aforementioned .214 BABIP just can’t be sustained, not for someone who induces so many grounders and is playing in front of a worse infield defense this year.
I’m also not buying that he can sustain his strikeout rate. As we’ll talk about in a minute, he made some pitch mix changes that might be responsible for that, but he also had a 7.9% swinging strike rate, which is actually below his career norm. Fewer whiffs and more strikeouts usually don’t go together.
I also think the walks will regress, but not all that much. Smith really pounded the zone this year, throwing his highest percentage of strikes in years, so there is evidence of sustainability.
THREE OPEN QUESTIONS FOR JOE SMITH IN 2015
1) Where did all those extra strikeouts come from?
Joe Smith has never been and still isn’t a big strikeout pitcher, but he was able to affect a 3+ percentage point increase in his strikeout rate last year. That’s a pretty neat trick for a 30-year old in his eighth season in the majors. So where the heck did that come from?
The velocity on his sinker actually trended down, so that wasn’t it. He didn’t add any new pitches, nor did he scrap any old and ineffective ones.
No, it looks like this was the result of a change in pitch mix. Smith had been using his four-seam fastball more and more his final few years in Cleveland as a way to neutralize left-handed batters. He’d been in the 27% to 32% range with his four-seamer the last previous four years. However, last season, he scaled it back to just under 21% which allowed him to ramp up his sinker usage to about 50% usage. The sinker is his best pitch, so using it more is definitely a good thing.
That doesn’t yet explain his increased strikeouts though. As mentioned above, he actually generated fewer swing-and-misses. Much of that seems to stem from his sinker which dropped in whiff rate from the last two years. However, his whiff rate on his slider and four-seamer both went up. I can’t prove it, but what that suggests to me is that Smith used his sinker more but did a better job of using it to set up his slider and four-seamer to put batters away. With him throwing more strikes than years past, that also meant being ahead in the count more to have more opportunities to strike batters out.
2) Where did all those walks go?
Honestly, I think a lot of the same principles apply. Smith’s sinker is his best pitch. He commands it the best, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that throwing it more leads to more strikes and thus fewer walks. His sinker is also a pitch he throws to induce weak contact. Naturally, when guys are swinging and making contact (and they swing at his pitches more than ever this year), they aren’t walking. That’s a pretty simplistic explanation, but it makes sense to me. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong this year.
3) Is Smith actually the best reliever on the team?
Shh, don’t mention that. It might give Scioscia a crazy idea to install him as closer.
But seriously, Smith probably isn’t quite as a good as Street, but he is much more versatile. He can get you a strikeout. He can avoid the sac fly. He can get you a GIDP. He can go multiple innings if need be. So, yeah, Street is probably “the best” reliever, but you could make a strong case that Joe Smith is the most valuable.
The Final Word (and GIF)
Joe Smith infamously missed out on a save opportunity early on last year because he was too busy barfing in the bullpen. To me, that is a very gross metaphor for what will happen to the bullpen this year if Smith doesn’t have a strong season. He is arguably going to be the workhorse of the relief corps and a the big bridge between the starters and the closer. Heck, he might even close a few games if/when Huston Street gets hurt. If Smith is even league average this year, the Angels bullpen figures to barf all over their playoff hopes.