Heading into this season, one of the potential pitfalls on this roster was the lack of a clear bridge in the late innings to Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. There was certainly some upside at the back of the bullpen, but far from a sure thing. It hasn’t been a major issue so far this year as Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly and even Heath Hembree have been solid-to-good in setup roles. The team is also getting a potential major reinforcement in Tyler Thornburg, for whom I have little expectations but the talent is clearly there for him to be a difference-maker.
Back in March, if you’ll recall, none of the names mentioned above were the favorite to grab hold of this eighth inning role. Instead, Carson Smith was seen as the most likely candidate to take the leap given his previous elite-level success in the majors and the flashes he showed at the end of last year upon his return from injury. In hindsight, though, it seems perhaps our expectations were too high. Although Tommy John surgery is becoming an increasingly popular procedure and seems almost routine at this point, it is still a major surgery that is work to come back from. There is still the potential for permanent side-effects, to mention nothing of the (essentially) two-year layoff from which Smith is returning. Whatever the reason you want to give, the righty just hasn’t been the dominant force many of us were expecting coming into the year.
We are talking about a reliever in the first week in May, so the issue here is that we have no choice but to deal in small samples. Still, the little data that we have isn’t super encouraging. Smith has tossed 9 2⁄3 innings over 12 appearances to start 2018, and he’s pitched to an iffy 4.66 ERA with a slightly better but still unspectacular 4.13 FIP. By DRA, Baseball Prospectus’ all-encompassing pitching metric, he’s been a disaster as he’s posted a mark of 7.21 (the metric is on the same scale as ERA).
So, yeah, there are some concerns. Looking at the basic numbers it would seem that his control is the biggest problem, and it’s certainly not great. He’s walking 5.6 batters per nine innings. The strikeouts, on the other hand, look great with a rate of 10.2 per nine.
Digging a little bit deeper into that, however, leads one to believe that even the high strikeout rate isn’t going to stick if he keeps pitching like this. In 2015, his one full season in the majors and a year in which he was one of the truly elite relievers in the game, Smith struck out almost 12 batters per nine innings with a swinging strike rate of 33 percent (per Baseball Prospectus). This year, he’s inducing whiffs on only 23 percent of swings, a drop that would indicate a steeper drop-off in overall strikeout rate than the one he’s seen. Instead, he’s benefitting from passive opponents who are swinging at less than 40 percent of his pitches. Only 19 of the 358 pitchers to throw at least 150 pitches this year have induced fewer swings, and only four have induced fewer swings on pitches in the zone. On top of that, when batters are swinging at the pitches in the zone, they are making contact 98 percent of the time, the highest rate in the game. That’s a knock on his stuff, and one would imagine that batters will soon make an adjustment to become more aggressive. That will not only cut down his strikeout rate, but also potentially lead to even more hard contact.
The issues go into Smith’s repertoire as well, as both of the righty’s primary offerings have been significantly less effective than they were in that great 2015 season. Both his power-sinker and his slider have gotten worse results. The sinker has seen its velocity drop a little more than one mph, which isn’t too extreme particularly since he relies more on movement than velocity, but it’s still not great to see. It’s also supposed to be an extreme groundball weapon, and while it’s still inducing plenty the rate at which he’s keeping the ball on the ground has dropped from 68 percent in that 2015 season down to 57 percent so far this year.
The slider has probably been even more concerning, as this was his putaway pitch and the reason he was that elite type of arm. At it’s best, Smith’s breaking ball looks like a damn frisbee and makes major-league hitters look like, well, me. Batters have had a much easier time with the pitch lately, too, whiffing only 12 percent of the time he throws it compared to a 22 percent rate in 2015. It’s clear that he’s less confident throwing it, too. His overall usage of the pitch is down to 36 percent from 45 percent in 2018. It goes without saying that losing confidence in a secondary is never ideal, but it’s even less ideal when you’re also throwing a reduced version of your fastball.
As I said earlier, we’re still dealing in tiny samples with Smith so it’s entirely possible that he’s still working off a little rust and needs to get back in the swing of things. He’s still the same guy who had that elite 2015 and the one who showed flashes (particularly with that slider) late last summer. That being said, the Red Sox can no longer lean on him as their most likely eighth inning option, and with each appearance he’s moving down the depth chart. The early results haven’t been promising, and expected adjustments from opponents are only going to make things worse unless Smith can find an adjustment of his own to get his fastball back and/or find more confidence in that slider.