Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Josh Smith.
2019 in One Sentence
That Josh Smith pitched enough to make it into this series says less about how Smith pitched and more about how the year went for Red Sox pitchers
Not to be overly dismissive of a guy who has clearly worked very hard and is in the top tenth of a percentage point of people who have tried to be a major-league baseball player, but relative to those who did play in the majors, Smith was more of a body available to pitch than someone who was a real contributor to the Red Sox in 2019. He made it and served a role, but his production on the field was less important and valuable than him simply being on the field at all.
I say all of that because, well, you’re not going to be very impressed by the few positives I talk about here. For example, Smith was a much better strikeout pitcher than anyone could have expected. His stuff certainly doesn’t jump off the screen when you watch him and he’s been a middling strikeout arm throughout his professional career. Over his 31 innings in the majors, though, he struck out just under a batter per inning. In 67 1⁄3 Triple-A innings he struck out just over a batter per inning. Now, part of the major-league rate was that he faced a lot of batters per innings, and his percentage rate was just over 20 percent, which is still probably better than expected but not as impressive as the K/9. Again, the positives aren’t going to be overly impressive here.
Want another example? I know you do! How about his splits against righties and at home?! Against righties, who made up 56 percent of his opponents in 2019, Smith struck out 27 percent of his opponents while walking only four percent. They hit just .247/.295/.493 for a .328 wOBA. That’s not overly dominant and the power was very real against him, but this is all relative and it was solid compared to his overall numbers. Meanwhile, at Fenway Smith struck out 26 percent of his opponents with a seven percent walk rate while holding hitters to a .226/.304/.387 line for a .293 wOBA. Those are actually good numbers, albeit over a grand total of 17 innings.
Where do I start here? I suppose you could just tell you the overall numbers where Smith finished the season with a 5.81 ERA, a 6.60 FIP and a 7.24 DRA. Even in a year where runs were being scored all over the league Smith was well below average in all of these categories. In fact, he was close to 50 percent worse than the league-average in terms of both FIP and DRA. It’s not great when both of the peripheral numbers indicate your season could have been much worse when your ERA was already bad at 5.81 (20 percent worse than league-average).
There were, of course, a lot of contributing factors here. You don’t put up these kinds of numbers if you have only one real flaw. That said, if you were looking for the biggest issue you have to look at the long ball. Again, this was a wild year across the league and that was particularly true with all of the home runs that were hit. Basically every pitcher suffered in this area. Smith was on another level, though, allowing ten homers in 18 appearances at a rate of 2.9 per nine innings. That’s absurd. In fact, of the 457 players with at least 30 innings in 2019, only five allowed dingers at a higher rate.
Smith had always been something of a neutral pitcher in terms of groundball-to-flyball ratio, but in 2019 he started to allow a lot more balls in the air. Perhaps this was by design as the Red Sox had a much stronger outfield defense compared to their glovework in the infield, but if that’s the case it was poor design. Smith should be getting balls on the ground as much as possible, because his stuff just isn’t very impressive. Put another way, it’s very easy for him to get hit hard, which according to Fangraphs happened 37 percent of the time. With the ball flying like it was, combined with the lack of impressive stuff, it’s only natural for a lot of these balls to leave the yard.
The Big Question
Smith was outrighted off the roster shortly after the season and elected free agency. He’s certainly not going to get a major-league deal this winter, and I would be very surprised if he was back with the Red Sox at all. The big question for Smith is whether or not he wants to play affiliated ball. It’s a question I can’t really answer for him, but I think in a vacuum it might be better for him to go overseas. I don’t see his stuff working in the majors, but maybe he can carve a solid career for himself in Japan or Korea. Life is not a vacuum, though, and it’s easy to say a guy can should go, play overseas and uproot his entire life. Do what you feel, Josh.