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One Big Question: How close to his 2015 self can Carson Smith get?

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It’s among the most important questions for the team’s success.

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Carson Smith.

The Question: Can we reasonably expect Carson Smith to perform as he did pre-injury in 2015?

As we discussed earlier today on this very corner of the interwebs, this Red Sox team is very good. They aren’t going to be the favorites in the league — no one beyond willing contrarians are going to pick against the Astros — but Boston is right up there with everyone chasing Houston and certainly close enough where it wouldn’t be close enough to realistically see them winning a pennant. If the Red Sox are going to take that step, perhaps the most important question to answer is with their bullpen. It’s a group that was a major reason for the team’s success a year ago, and while the talent is still there the questions are as well. Beyond Craig Kimbrel, there’s nothing like a sure thing in the group, but instead a whole host of high-ceiling but also low-floor players vying to prove they are for real and worthy setup men behind one of the truly elite closers in the game. No one embodies that quite like Carson Smith.

MLB: Boston Red Sox-Workouts Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

We don’t really know a ton about Smith at this point, as he’s hardly pitched at all for the Red Sox since being acquired two offseasons ago in exchange for Wade Miley. Of course, at the time he was brought in by the Red Sox he appeared to be one of the most exciting young relievers in the game. He was coming off a 2015 season in which he pitched in his first (and only, to this point) full season, and he was stellar. That year Smith tossed 70 innings with a 2.31 ERA, a 2.08 FIP, a 2.15 DRA (50 percent better than league-average), just under 12 strikeouts per nine innings, fewer than three walks per nine and a 66 percent groundball rate. He was, in a word, bananas. Now, as he’s finally healthy as we get closer and closer to Opening Day, we have to wonder how likely it is that Smith can get back to that level.

As we look into that question, it’s obviously important to remember what’s happened over the last couple of seasons. As you’ll likely recall, the now-28-year-old felt some elbow pain in his first camp with the team and he was shut down to start the season. He’d attempt to get back on the mound early in the year, but that didn’t last long at all and he’d eventually undergo Tommy John surgery. He finally returned from that procedure at the end of the 2017 season and eventually earned a role in the playoff bullpen. He wasn’t quite like himself, but he was also just getting back from injury. Tommy John surgery isn’t the death sentence it once was, but some rust is always to be expected.

Rust or not, Smith was fairly solid in a very small sample size after returning at the end of last season. The righty made eight appearances and tossed just 6 23 innings. He struck out seven batters in that stretch prior to the playoffs and he walked two batters while pitching to a 1.35 ERA and a 1.93 FIP.

I think it goes without saying that we can’t really put much stock into those numbers given how small the sample is. We can, however, try to determine if we have any clue as to how close he was to his 2015 level. Specifically, it comes down to his repertoire. Smith succeeds in a very specific way that allows him to be both a strikeout machine and a groundball specialist, a wildly valuable and rare quality for a reliever. It, unsurprisingly, comes down to this repertoire. The righty needs both of his pitches working, as his power sinker generates ground balls at a ridiculous rate (68 percent in 2015) and his slider induces a ton of whiffs (51 percent of swings in 2015). The bad news is that his velocity was down a tick in 2017 as he was returning from injury, but the good news is that it didn’t affect the numbers. In a very small sample, his sinker produced a 79 percent (!) ground ball rate and his slider had a 27 percent whiff rate.

There is plenty of reason for optimism around Smith heading into the 2018 season, but I think some are overrating just how easy it’ll be for him to get back to being elite. It’s a very difficult thing to be able to generate strikeouts and groundballs at such high rates, and it’s why Zach Britton put up one of the best reliever seasons of all time a few years ago. That being said, there was no one area in which Smith fell off by a great deal in his return from injury, and one should expect him to be back to full strength with a full camp behind him by the time Opening Day rolls around. It’s probably not fair to expect the 2015 version of Smith as that would put him in the top tier of relievers in baseball, but if he can just slightly improve that slider and keep pounding away with that sinker like he did last year, he can be reasonably close. If that happens, the Red Sox could be making a deep run in 2018.