Opinion

The Carson Smith resurgence

Carson Smith has rejuvenated himself since his early struggles

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (April 4, 2018 – Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America)

The last time Boston Red Sox reliever Carson Smith allowed an earned run was on April 26th against the Toronto Blue Jays. As of this writing, that was 18 days ago. More impressively, Smith has allowed just one earned run since April 5th, which is considerably longer than 18 days ago.

Ever since Smith’s early-season struggles, he has been everything and more for the Red Sox. I mean, the whole one earned run since April 5th thing probably told you that, but this table should drive home the point.

IP ERA K% BB% FIP
 Post-April 5th 10 2/3 0.84 30.4% 8.7% 1.65

It is not just the run-suppression that has made him so impressive over this stretch, but the peripherals look stellar, too. His strikeout numbers are phenomenal, which means an abundance of the outs he generates are not being left to batted-ball chance. That is conspicuously a good thing. Meanwhile, he has not surrendered a homerun throughout the entirety of this period, which may not be sustainable going forward, but it is still damn impressive.

So-called “peak (2015) Carson Smith” ran a commendable 11.83 K/9 in 70 innings of work, while this 2018 variation has exceeded him in this area with a superb 12.15 K/9 in 13 and 1/3 innings thus far. His walks have ballooned a tad (2.83 BB/9 to 4.05 BB/9) in the same span, however, he has not offered up a free pass since April 18th against the Los Angeles Angels. Everything is trending in the right direction for the right-hander.

Moving away from the peripherals, Smith shines even brighter in terms of quality of contact. In other words, when hitters put bat on ball against him, it usually is not all that hard. In fact, the 28-year-old has produced the 4th-highest percentage of soft contact (Soft%) among qualified relievers in the MLB this year. His 33.3 Soft% is actually superior to his co-worker Craig Kimbrel‘s (32.4%), who, if you did not know, is pretty good. On the other side of things, he has compiled the 18th-lowest percentage of hard contact (Hard%) at 22.2%.

This is probably attributed to the fact Smith yields an extraordinary amount of groundballs (55.6% this year). Logically, groundballs go for outs a much higher percentage of the time than fly balls and line drives while not doing nearly as much damage (on average) because they almost never go for extra base hits. The MLB pitcher average GB% in 2018 has been 43.5% and, yeah, the former 8th-round pick has exceeded that. Not to mention, Smith ran a 64.8 GB% in 2015, so could we potentially see even more groundballs from him in the future?

Groundballs are not the only way Smith has limited damage on contact. He has also spawned a ton of infield fly balls this year, which end up being hits much fewer times than groundballs. His IFFB% (infield fly ball percentage) is an insane 22.2%, ranking 13th among qualified relievers. Granted, the stat IFFB% is measured over the amount of fly balls one has induced (or hit if you are a hitter, which Smith isn’t). If, say, Smith has gotten 15 infield fly balls out of 60 total fly balls his IFFB% would be 25%. Considering Smith has only churned a 25.0 FB%, he is not getting as many infield fly balls than what meets the eye. Still, when he has created fly balls, a big heap have been of the infield fly variety. Good stuff.

Now that we have established that Smith’s peripherals and the quality of contact against him have been, quite frankly, exceptional, it is time to dig into the pitch-mix behind his success.

If you were unaware, he features two impact pitches, the sinker and slider, sprinkled with an occasional changeup. The two impact offerings are the focus, though. In 2018, he has utilized both the sinker (126 times) and slider (109 times) very frequently. The sinker is his main pitch, by a narrow margin, and is a big-time groundball-inducer. In fact, the GB/BIP on the pitch is an outstanding 62.50%. The slider is no slouch to groundballs, either, with a 50.00% GB/BIP but not nearly as prolific as the sinker. For a sinker, it also gets a lot of whiffs with a 7.14 Whiffs%.

Talking about whiffs, the slider has made hitters look ridiculous, as they are whiffing 15.6% of the time they see the pitch. Considering it is thrown so frequently, it is amazing hitters are fooled by the pitch as much as they are. The pitch has an amazing amount of depth, contributing to the mind-blowing .148 average and .148 slugging percentage hitters have produced off it this year. If you are adept at interpreting baseball stats, you should understand that Smith’s slider has not gone for an extra-base hit at all in ’18. Wicked awesome.

Despite the early-April scuffles, Carson Smith has resurged and has been the guy Boston traded for all those years ago. He is finally healthy and everything about his profile looks sustainable and encouraging. There have been talks about Boston’s bullpen issues all year, but with the lethal 7-8-9 punch of Smith, Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel, I would argue this group is a lot more formidable than people think, especially when Tyler Thornburg returns. Regardless, Smith is an integral part of the bullpen and, with the way he has been dealing, he may very well be one of the best relievers in baseball.

All stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball. 

 

 

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