Will Smith spoiled Brewers fans to start the 2014 season. After coming to the Crew in an off-season trade, Smith scorched opposing batters through the season’s first two months. Fans were so ecstatic about his performance that when Smith allowed his first home run, as a Brewer, it felt like there was a glitch in the Matrix. That first home run was a wall scraper courtesy of Billy Hamilton on June 14th. Since then, it’s been a very different season for Smith.
So, how good was Will Smith to start his Brewers career? Well, his numbers prior to Hamilton’s home run were stellar — 0.88 ERA / 2.23 FIP / 3.05 xFIP. His ability to avoid the long ball was elite. His 34 appearances before allowing his first home run as a Brewer is one of the longest such streaks in franchise history. Only four other pitchers have made more appearances before giving up their first round tripper –
|Jamie Easterly||Apr. 11, 1981 – Apr. 14, 1982||46||64.0|
|Ken Sanders||May 30, 1970 – Sep. 13, 1970||40||71.0|
|Trevor Hoffman||Apr. 27, 2009 – Aug. 13, 2009||36||35.0|
|Bob McClure||Apr. 10, 1977 – July 4, 1977||35||34.0|
|Will Smith||March 31, 2014 – June 12, 2014||34||30.2|
Since Hamilton’s home run, it’s been a tale of two seasons for Will Smith. From June 14th on, Smith’s numbers have been a stratospheric 8.50 ERA / 4.75 FIP / 2.91 xFIP.
Yet, the picture isn’t so simple. First, note how Smith’s xFIP actually dropped while his ERA and FIP skyrocketed. For the uninitiated, xFIP normalizes a pitcher’s home run rate and focuses on a pitcher’s ability to miss bats while limiting walks. In that regard, Smith has pitched better since June 14th than before. That’s an encouraging sign that things will turn around for Smith.
According to FanGraphs, “xFIP has one of the highest correlations with future ERA of all the pitching metrics. Only SIERA out-paces it.” So now let’s check on Smith’s SIERA to see how that tracks over the same splits. In his 30.2 IP prior to June 14th, Smith had a 2.75 SIERA. In the 18.0 IP, prior to Sunday’s game, Smith has a 2.63 SIERA. Again, a pitching metric that strongly correlates to future performance still likes Smith a lot. So what should we expect going forward?
To help us answer that question, let’s continue to split Will Smith’s season at the June 14th game where he gave up his first home run. By focusing on these two extremes (great before and struggles after), maybe we can clearly see what’s changed in the underlying metrics and, more importantly, if Brewers fans should be worried about it.
|3/31 – 6/12||30.2||0.88||2.23||3.05||2.75||.211||.316||87.5%||18.5%||53.9%||0.0%|
|6/14 – 8/1*||18.0||8.50||4.75||2.91||2.63||.319||.475||59.9%||21.7%||38.1%||26.7%|
*Numbers don’t include Smith’s scoreless 1.0 IP on Sunday.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the reasons to be optimistic. Again, Smith’s xFIP and SIERA have actually improved over the last month and a half. Part of the reason is that Smith’s K-BB% has risen from 18.5% to 21.7%. In fact, Smith has fanned 33.7% of all batters faced since June 14th. So Smith’s swing-and-miss ability is not only intact but improving.
Also encouraging, for a different reason, are Smith’s recent LOB% and HR/FB numbers. Lately, both have been so bad that they are destined for a bounce back. Smith has stranded only 59.9% of base runners since mid-June. Well below the league average of 74.2% LOB%. Meanwhile, after a strong start limiting home runs, Smith has allowed four dingers across his last 18 IP. That has translated into an unsustainable 26.7% HR/FB ratio. For reference, this season’s league average is 8.9% HR/FB.
These dramatic swings in LOB% and HR/FB have statistically negated Smith’s impressive start. On the season, Smith now sits with a 76.0% LOB% and 11.4% HR/FB. Both those rates, overall, have now regressed his numbers back to league average. If they stabilize around the league, and his career, norms then Smith should improve on his recent performance.
Yet, the key to Smith’s second half success could be hidden amidst his AVG and BABIP splits. Prior to June 14th, Smith held opponents to a .211 AVG / .316 BABIP. Since, opposing batter have been barreling him up to the tune of a .319 AVG / .475 BABIP. That’s crazy high when almost one out of every two balls in play is a hit. Some of it might be bad BABIP luck but that cannot account for all of it.
ESPN tracks stats called “Hard Hit AVG” (HHAV) and “Soft Hit AVG” (SHAV). Simply, it tracks how many balls were “Hard (Soft) Hit”/AB off a pitcher. Let’s see how Smith’s HHAV and SHAV splits correlate with his AVG and BABIP –
|3/31 – 6/12||.211||.316||.088||.377|
|6/14 – 8/1||.319||.475||.267||.240|
So Smith’s spike in AVG and BABIP is not just all luck. Batters have been producing more hard contact since mid-June, which also accounts for the uptick. ESPN even drills these numbers down to each individual pitch. One look at these numbers spells out exactly where Smith has struggled. Smith throws his curveball and change-up sparingly so I’ve removed them from this chart. Here’s how his two main pitches (fastball and slider) have fared –
|3/31 – 6/12||.115||.377||.044||.222|
|6/14 – 8/1||.409||.318||.067||.100|
Batters have feasted on Smith’s fastball in June and July. Visualized another way, here is a graph of opponent’s SLG against Smith’s fastball and slider between April and July, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
Right-handed batters, in particular, have thrived. Their season 1.081 OPS against Smith’s fastball has pushed their season splits against him to a .383 wOBA. Well ahead of left-handed batters’ .225 wOBA.
I went in search of a plausible explanation for RHB’s recent success against Smith fastball. My first stop was to look at his heat maps. Maybe Smith was leaving more of his fastballs to RHB over the plate? Not according to the heat maps. Below is Smith’s fastball locations prior to June 14th. Right handers have managed a .451 SLG on these pitches –
Now here is where Smith placed his fastballs since June 14th. Right handers have managed a .931 SLG on these pitches –
So what has changed? If anything, Smith has done a better job in keeping his fastballs away from right-handed batters. So I continued to scan Smith’s stats in search of an answer. Nothing jumped out until I looked at Smith’s slider. Considered his best pitch, the slider has been extremely effective for Smith this season. Opponents have managed only a .133 AVG against it all season.
Yet, look at Smith slider location to right-handers before June 14th.
Now check out where Smith’s slider location moves to June 14th and after –
To start the season, Smith’s sliders bore in on the hands of right-handed batters. It was a knuckle buster that made them protect the inside corner. Since mid-June, Smith’s sliders to right-handers haven’t had the same cut. For the most part, the pitch has stayed down in the zone, thankfully, but more over the middle of the plate. Could Smith’s slider having less of a horizontal break be the issue? Does consistently leaving his slider middle-in make it easier for batters to get to a fastball on the outside corner?
During Smith’s Sunday appearance against the Cardinals, Brewers’ color commentator Bill Schroeder suggested that Smith had lost his feel for breaking pitches and things would turn around once he could consistently find the zone with them. According to ESPN that can’t be the case. Prior to June 14th, Smith threw 54.5% of his breaking pitching in the strike zone (Strk%). Since, Smith’s managed a 54.2% Strk% on his breakers. If anything, I want to see more of Smith’s breaking pitches, especially the slider, in on the hands of right-handed batters. If he can make them afraid of the inside corner than maybe he can keep them off his fastball on the outside corner.
In the end, expect Smith to improve down the stretch for the Crew. He won’t reach the same heights as he did earlier this season but he should improve on his recent performance. Smith, and his wipe-out slider, will be the essential arm against left-handed batters down the stretch. If he can keep right handers off his fastball, Smith could return to the all-around relief ace that the Brewers need.