Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Carson Smith
The Question: Will Carson Smith be a second-half weapon?
It seems like forever ago, but it was just last offseason when the Red Sox acquired Carson Smith from the Mariners. The move resulted in some serious excitement for Boston’s bullpen, which was projected to feature Smith, Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa in the late innings. It was also a surprising move, given that they only had to give up Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro, while also getting Roenis Elias. In fact, some idiot proclaimed that Miley wouldn’t fetch Smith in a trade mere minutes before the full deal was reported.
Obviously, things didn’t end up going according to plan for Smith and the Red Sox. The righty started feeling discomfort during the spring, and was shut down for much of March and all of April. He was finally able to come back, but only made three appearances before being shut down for good and eventually going under the knife for Tommy John surgery. He’s still rehabbing, but is expected to be healthy and back to the mound around mid-season. One of the most important questions for Boston’s bullpen is whether or not he’ll be able to come right back and become a weapon. PECOTA believes he will, but it’s far from a guarantee.
While we’re now two years removed from it, Smith was incredible the last time he got an extended run in the majors. In 2015 with the Mariners, he was one of the best relievers in all of baseball. That year, he threw 70 innings over 70 appearances and took over the closer role by the end of the year. He struck out just under 12 batters per nine innings while walking less than three and allowing just two home runs all year thanks to a 66 percent ground ball rate. He finished the year with a 2.09 ERA, a 2.12 FIP and a 1.79 DRA. It was these numbers that had us all so excited for Smith in the first place. The best part is he was only 25, and will still just be 27 this season.
Of course, he’s coming back from major surgery which throws a major wrench in just projecting from his 2015 statline. While Tommy John is commonplace in the game now, and pitchers come back from it all the time, returning to form is not a guarantee. Rehabbing from the procedure is still a rigorous journey, and one that can often include roadblocks and permanent mechanical changes. As I wrote about last month, there are counterexamples to the long list of Tommy John successes. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know how worried we should be about the effects of this injury without seeing him throw.
It’s not just the injury and subsequent surgery that worries me here, though. As amazing as that 2015 season was for Smith, it was his only full season. Outside of that, he had a strong nine-appearance run in 2014 and a bad three-appearance stint last year that can safely be thrown away due to the injury. We’ve never seen him bad at the major-league level when healthy, but we’re also not talking about a huge track record. It’s always risky to be overconfident in a player who only has one year under his belt, never mind one who is also coming off a lost season.
The good news in this regard is that there is every reason to believe Smith’s performance was sustainable. His high strikeout rate was backed up with the 13th highest swinging strike rate among the 255 pitchers who threw at least 1000 pitches. His low walk rate was backed up by the 31st highest zone rate among that same group. His low home run rate was certainly helped by playing his home games in spacious Safeco Field, but it was also backed up by a 66 percent ground ball rate. No part of his season was a fluke.
He was also beyond your typical rookie breakout. This wasn’t a reliever who simply impressed in his first season, but one that dominated unlike many others. In fact, here is a list of the relievers over the past 20 years who have been comparable to Smith in their rookie seasons. The names are those of some of the best relievers we’ve seen in the last two decades, including Craig Kimbrel, Greg Holland and Dellin Betances. Ken Giles is also poised to join that tier in 2017. In fact, the only possibly worrisome names on the list are Al Aburquerque, John Axford and Mike Gonzalez. The first two had much worse control than Smith even in their first season, and thus aren’t great comps. Gonzalez, though, probably represents the worst-case scenario here. He watched his BB/9 balloon from 1.2 his rookie year to 5.6 in his second year. Even despite that, Gonzalez remained a good-to-solid reliever through his age-32 season. None of the players on this list had to come back from surgery like Smith, but it at least helps quell any fears regarding his lack of a track record.
Even without Smith, the Red Sox have the potential for a strong late-inning core. Kimbrel is still a great reliever despite those control issues, Tyler Thornburg looked great in 2016, Joe Kelly looks like a new man in the bullpen, and Matt Barnes has real potential. Adding Smith to that group in the second half could take the entire unit to the next level. If he is able to come back, he’d not only add that extra element, but he would prevent the organization from having to dive into the always-inflated reliever market at the trade deadline. The Red Sox have a good enough roster to win with or without an all-the-way back Smith, but his return would give them a monstrous second-half weapon.