Going into the 2019 season, the prognosticators told us the bullpen of the San Francisco Giants would be good—and believe it or not, they were right! By fWAR, the Giants have the third-best bullpen in the National League, just behind the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres.
And no one has been better among Giants relievers than #EliteCloser Will Smith. So far this season, Smith has put up numbers worthy of
a top prospect in a trade his All-Star selection: 54.2 IP, 79 K, 5.27 K/BB, 1.01 WHIP, 2.61 xFIP, 2.80 ERA, 29 saves out of 33 chances, so on and so forth. He’s been the shutdown closer the Giants have been looking for since 2016—which is ironic, because he was on the 2016 team, just sitting there while Bruce Bochy let the entire bullpen implode in Game 4 of the Divisional Series and WHY THE HECK WOULD YOU USE JAVIER LOPEZ IN THAT SITUATION BOCHY WHAT ARE YOU THINKING—
But let’s not reopen old wounds. The fact is, Will Smith is certifiably good, and he’s made the 9th inning a lot less stressful this season.
That is, until recently. While the Giants have mad-dashed their way back to contention, the once surefire closer has experienced something of a meltdown. Before July 12, Smith was a perfect 23-23 in save opportunities with a gawdy 53 strikeouts, 1.98 ERA, and an opponent batting line of .168/.218/.272 in 36.1 IP. That’s not just good or even elite. We’re talking Mariano Rivera levels of performance.
Of course, as Q says in the spectacular series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, all good things must come to an end. Since July 12 (when he recorded his first blown save of the season), Smith has been far more pedestrian: four blown saves in 10 opportunities, 4.42 ERA, and an opponent batting line of .264/.325/.514. Most worrisome, he’s given up five home runs in just 18.1 IP, compared to only three home runs in his previous 36+ innings.
In fairness to Smith, not all those blown saves can be pinned completely on him—his second blown save of the season came in Colorado, where even the best of the best pitchers can look like Giants legend Vin Mazarro, and he was put in a near-impossible situation against the Philadelphia Phillies for his third blown save. Still, there’s no questioning that hitters have been squaring him up a lot more in the last month.
So, what’s going on? The easy answer is that Smith is tired: This is the first season he’s pitched more than 53 innings since 2015. Part of that is Bochy using him as a LOOGY in 2016 (WHAT ARE YOU DOING BOCHY), another part is losing a season to Tommy John surgery in 2017.
However, if he’s tired, it hasn’t reflected itself in his average velocity, which has dipped only ever so slightly as the season has progressed. Both of his primary pitches—the fastball and the slider—remain in the low 90s and 80s, respectively, where they have always been throughout his career.
Maybe his control is more erratic? That doesn’t seem to be the case, either. He’s still striking out batters at an incredible rate (26 K in his last 18.1 IP) without giving up walks.
The real issue is that opposing batters seemed to have come up with a game plan: Stop swinging at Smith’s junk.
NO, THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT, I PROMISED BRYAN NO MORE DICK PUNS.
Anyway, Kenny Kelly pointed out last week in his recap that the A’s weren’t biting on Smith’s slider. This seems to be part of a large trend in the past month.
Batters appear to have decided it’s actually a good idea to swing at pitches in the zone and lay off pitches outside of it. That’s bad news for Smith, who throws his slider nearly 45 percent of the time. Taking away his most valuable pitch is a good way to make Smith look a little more human.
It will be interesting to see if Smith can adjust in the last two months of the season. Perhaps he tries to nibble more with his fastball, or maybe he relies a little more on his curveball and changeup. Maybe he just sticks with what’s worked for most of the season and trust his stuff to get outs. At any rate, let’s hope the end of this season looks more like The Pursuit of Happyness and less like Suicide Squad.