Caleb Smith will likely be one of the names you’ll hear a lot as we close in on the trade deadline. It is not a foregone conclusion, but the Marlins probably won’t be playing meaningful games in late September. Derek Jeter and Co. make no bones about their willingness to trade talent, and Smith, who turns 28 years old three days before the deadline, might be the best trade chip Miami will have.
Smith is still in pre-arbitration and could be very appealing to a contender with budget concerns looking to add an arm. Depending on where the emerging staff ace might land, Smith could serve as a strong No. 2 or No. 3 starter. Should the Marlins make him available, what could Smith provide, and would he be worth the haul Miami may ask for?
Smith landed on the injured list back in early June and returned to the Marlins rotation on July 6th. He went six innings and gave up three earned runs on five hits with six strikeouts and one walk, earning his first victory since May 1st. He had a great first half, striking out at least six hitters in 10 of his 12 starts and currently stands ninth overall in K-rate at 31.5% (min 70 IP).
Smith works with three pitches — a four-seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup. His overall called-strike plus whiff rate (CSW) for all three is 31% (28% is average).
The most-used pitch in his repertoire is the four-seamer (48.6%), which sits in the 39th percentile for velocity alongside a higher-than-average spin rate (80th percentile). It gets some decent vertical break with a lot of horizontal action as a result of its 138-degree average spin axis.
His changeup (rarely thrown to lefties) can play off his fastball pretty well, with similar horizontal movement and an additional 10 inches of drop (plus gravity). Under Baseball Prospectus’ tunneling metrics, when used sequentially, the average distance between the four-seam and changeup is about 1.50 inches at the decision-making point (league average is 1.54). What’s more, the distance ratio between the perceived separation at the decision-making point and the resulting separation when they cross the plate is also above average (Plate PreMax ratio of 13.5).
The overlay below demonstrates how well they work together.
As for Smith’s slider, he produces a CSW-rate of 33% (30% is average), which is the highest rate of all his pitches. It’s also his best pitch in terms of value when looking at Pitch Info’s data, residing in the top 40 (min 70 IP).
Unlike the changeup, the pitch doesn’t pair well with Smith’s four-seam as they have a pretty sizable release point differential and their tunneling data isn’t ideal. That doesn’t mean its not an effective combo, but in terms of deception, a good hitter can probably identify the difference as early as the release point. I address this because the slider-fastball tandem is usually one of the better offerings for most pitchers.
In the overlay below, you can see the release difference and complete lack of tunneling. The orange dot is the slider and the yellow marks the four-seam release point. Be aware that this is a pretty extreme example but not an uncommon action from Smith, either.
Paring the slider with his changeup is a different story, though both average about a mile per hour difference in velocity. I typically suggest around a six-mph difference with back-to-back pitches as needed, but if you’re able to generate efficient movement (regardless of how accurate their timing is), it can make hitters look foolish.
Observe how well his changeup works with his slider. Considering the sizable spin axis variance, this can create some effective separation at or near the decision-making point.
As for his experience, Smith has only 30 starts under his belt since he debuted with the New York Yankees in 2017. His cumulative WAR is 2.0 with a 4.28 ERA (4.25 FIP).
Smith’s .236 BABIP and 4.20 FIP in 2019 is a bit disconcerting when you consider that Marlins Park isn’t a hitter-friendly stadium. However, his home turf isn’t the issue; it’s his numbers away from Miami that skew his metrics. Digging a little further, we see that his FIP is approaching a run higher than his ERA (3.41), most likely due to an 18% HR/FB ratio that is one of the highest percentages in the league (of pitchers with at least 60 IP).
Using FanGraphs’ +Stats, Smith leads all pitchers (min 60 IP) with a 138+ FB%. Inducing a lot of fly balls with roughly one out of every five evolving into home runs might deter organizations from making a (strong) run at him. If you’re a team like the Yankees or any other organization with a homer-friendly park, proceeding with caution (or moving on altogether) might be the best course of action.
This pitch chart from Baseball Savant displays the location and pitch type of all the home runs Smith has allowed. Savant’s pitch type breakdown sheds a little more light on the situation. Many pitchers tend to give up the long ball when behind in counts. Smith is giving them up almost exclusively in pitchers counts. Being that he’s able to consistently beat hitters in the zone, that gift can also bear a curse of higher home run risk (just over 50% are via the four-seam).
In Smith’s defense, he’s given up two earned runs or more in just three of his starts in 2019. And 52% of those runs are the result of homers, with only two of his 13 allowed with a runner on base (one on, in both cases).
What makes Smith an interesting option for teams in need of a back-end playoff-roster starter are his plate discipline metrics. Arguably the two most important facets of FanGraphs’ plate discipline metrics are O-Swing% (chase) and Z-Contact% (contact on pitches in the zone). You obviously want the O-Swing number to be high with the zone contact ratio low. Figuring in SwStr% (swinging strike rate) is also worth adding in for further context.
Smith is basically a 50/50 in/out of the zone pitcher, landing sixth overall in zone contact rate (79%), 23rd in chase rate (33.3%), and fifth-best in swinging-strike rate (15.1%). In regards to his chase rate, he’s 19th overall on his out-of-zone contact at 52.7%. When that happens, Smith only allows an opposing wOBA of .237.
As an aside, Smith’s Command+ data indicates his ability to hit his “expected” spots is a bit below league average (97), which places him just outside of the top 100 (343 total) pitchers with at least 200 pitches thrown. But his 7.5% BB-rate puts him inside the top 150, so he has decent control.
I want to interject by defining the difference between command and control (from my POV), as those phrases are sometimes used interchangeably. Control is the ability to throw strikes and command is being able to hit your spots as intended. The intent, of course, is hard to measure, but knowing the tendencies of where certain pitches are typically thrown by a pitcher helps make it more tangible.
An element of command involves being able to hit the edges of the strike zone (the merits of which are debatable). Smith is 42nd in baseball with 45.9% (min 500 pitches) of his pitches landing in the shadow of the zone (wOBA in those locations is .220). Smith’s pitch ecosystem is well represented here, as you can see with his elevated fastballs, changeups down and away, and his slider down and in for righties.
Smith has the makeup of a starter that could be an x-factor that a team will need to make the push into October. Looking over his leverage history on Baseball Reference, Smith has shown he can handle big spots. Obviously big spots in the summer are different than big spots in October. He possesses some great tools and ability which a pitching coach familiar with his pedigree could build off of. Smith has ace potential, but he’ll need to be more careful with the way he attacks hitters, or else his upside could turn into a liability very quickly.
Pitching strategist. Driveline Baseball pitch design-certified. Systems Administrator for a high school by day, I also provide ESPN with pitching visuals and am the site manager for SB Nation's Bucs Dugout.