You might have noticed that Will Smith has pitched rather well this year. You might have thought this was just recency bias, or your brain trying to trick you into thinking that the things you’re irrationally emotionally invested in are better than they actually are.
So to find out, you might have checked Smith’s ERA, and found out that, no, wait, it’s really good, it’s 1.25. But ERA is misleading, you might reason, so you check his FIP, and my goodness, it’s 1.30, that’s very good as well.*
Will Smith has been good. Really good. Great, even. And isn’t it nice when the numbers match what your brain is trying to make you believe?
After missing the entire 2017 season (and the start of this one) with Tommy John surgery, it was fair to wonder whether Smith would regain the full impact of the pitches that had made him such a dynamic reliever.
But that question has been answered, and emphatically so. Despite the procedure, the velocity on all three of Smith’s pitches - four-seam fastball, slider, and curve - has notably improved since 2016. And as a result, those pitches carry nearly as much velocity as Smith had in 2015, when he was both quite young, and not yet carrying the knee injury he sustained in 2016.
The movement, while not as dramatic, is also encouraging. All things considered, Smith’s pitches lost a bit of their vertical movement post-surgery, but the horizontal movement in both of his secondary pitches is much greater than in either 2015 or 2016.
But if velocity and movement are the ingredients in the cake, the outcomes of the pitches are the cake itself. And it’s a damn good cake. Smith’s strikeout rate of 12.13 per nine innings soars high above his 2016 rate, and back in the realm of his masterful 2015 season. Simply put, he’s making his pitches look appetizing and hittable, even when they’re not.
In 2016, Smith’s four-seam fastball produced whiffs 5.63% of the time. This year, that number is more than doubled, at 11.33%. Similarly, his slider increased its whiff rate from 24.68% to 35.20%.
Part of that is simply having more magic on the pitches. But part of it is being more selective in their placement. Despite the big increase in swing-throughs, Smith is actually throwing his fastball for a strike significantly less than he did in 2016. His slider, on the other hand, is thrown for a strike much more often than previously.
It paints a pretty simple picture: throw the fastball (a hittable pitch) where it can’t be hit, and throw the slider (a much less hittable pitch) where it’s tempting to hit. So far it’s working.
Smith’s numbers will regress, a little. He’s yet to allow a home run this year, and his BABIP, while majestic, is unsustainable.
But while we can expect those numbers to fall a little, his velocity, movement, and whiffs will likely hold strong. Which means the Giants will continue to employ one of the top left-handed relievers in the game.
Unless they, you know, trade him.
*If your baseball brain’s curiosity is not fully sated you might check his xFIP, and find that, at 2.73, it suggests a bit of regression is on the horizon, but shhhhh, we’ll keep that info here at the bottom of the article where no one else can see it