Will Smith Improves Against Righties, Raises Ceiling

When the Brewers acquired Will Smith for Nori Aoki, no one really knew what to expect out of the left-handed pitcher. Multiple reports and projections pegged him as anything from a lefty specialist to a closer. Some reports even thought his ceiling was as a mid-rotation starter, citing his three-pitch repertoire and sturdy frame.

However, despite dominating left-handed hitting, he has struggled against right-handers. Those issues, of course, have ultimately limited his usage to the bullpen thus far. He had pitched out of the bullpen for the Royals, but last year with the Brewers was the first time he had been converted entirely to relief.

Often, failed or marginal starting pitchers will see a boost by converting to relief, due to their stuff playing up in shorter stints, but instead of improving versus opposite-handed hitting, he only got worse. Last year was easily his worst season versus righties as a major leaguer. I even worried he might be devolving into a lefty specialist. That’s why this year has been such a nice surprise. Not only has Will Smith improved against righties this year, he’s utterly demolishing them.

Take a look at these numbers versus right-handed batters:

2012  283  .291 .355  .480  1.50 14.1% 8.5% 4.99
2013 77  .222  .273  .412  1.11 20.8% 6.5%  4.21
2014 180 .295 .391  .481  1.72 21.7% 11.7% 4.31
2015 76  .130 .211  .159  0.75  34.2% 7.9% 1.53

The change is drastic. As can be readily seen, his strikeout rate has jumped more than twelve percentage points than his previous career high. In fact everything in the above table, with the exception of his walk rate, is a career best. Of course, it’s only a half season of a reliever’s workload, so there’s probably some small-sample-size effect going on. But nothing statistically suggests Smith will return to his struggles versus righties. Even if he regresses, it’s still unlikely this will be his best full season against them. That type of progress is encouraging.

How is he doing it?

I’ve noticed three changes in Will Smith’s approach against righties over his career. First is an overall reduction in the usage of what Brooks Baseball classifies as his sinker. In 2012, he used it 33 percent of the time. In 2013, he used it 37 percent of the time. Last year, though, he started to reduce his usage of the pitch by throwing it just 10 percent of the time versus right-handers. This year, he has continued the negative trend, using it only seven percent of the time.

Secondly, he has increased usage of his curveball as his 0-0 pitch against righties. In 2012, he threw it 13 percent of the time as the first pitch. In 2013, he threw it 15 percent of the time. Neither of those are huge numbers, but we again see the change take place in 2014. His usage of the curveball as the first pitch jumped to 37 percent. This year he’s using it 31 percent of the time.

Conversely, he’s decreased his usage of the curveball as an out-pitch:

Year Pitcher Ahead Two Strikes
2012 37% 30%
2013  16% 11%
2014 8% 5%
2015  7%  4%

And finally, in lieu of using a curveball as an out pitch, he’s gone to his slider:

Year Pitcher Ahead Two Strikes
2012 12% 15%
2013 33% 46%
2014 51% 53%
2015 55 % 62 %

Will Smith has nearly eliminated his sinker usage against opposite-handed hitting, altered when he uses his curveball, and increased his reliance on his slider as an out-pitch. At least in this year’s relatively small sample size (77 total batters faced), he’s found remarkable success.

There has been some thought that Michael Blazek’s success out of the major-league bullpen has earned him a shot to pitch out of the rotation. I have to wonder if perhaps Will Smith hasn’t earned that chance as well. It was always his struggles against right-handed batters that relegated him to the bullpen. If he’s truly overcome that, perhaps he has a chance to still reach that aforementioned mid-rotation upside.

Short of that, he’s still become a quality reliever capable of handling high-leverage situations. His 2.31 DRA ranks 29th in baseball (min. 33 IP) and his 77 cFIP ranks 26th. That’s entirely thanks to his incredible improvement versus right-handed hitting.

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