The Ever-Changing Joe Smith

The Cleveland Indians found themselves party to an inherently commonplace trade deadline deal; sacrificing two interesting long-term investments for a short-term, modest improvement of their bullpen. In this purchase of an expiring and ultimately fleeting baseball player, Joe Smith, the Indians acquired a relief pitcher achieving success similar to his prior seasons but for reasons different than those of yesteryear. Smith, like many other pitchers, is experiencing a sort of late career or career twilight evolution except it is different than the normal aging pitcher.

Joe Smith is 33 years old with significant mileage on his funky below the waist release point. However, strangely, Smith is posting a strikeout rate of 35.4%, whereas, his career strikeout rate is 21%.1 Smith’s strikeout rate is so good that he is No. 14 in all of Major League Baseball among relievers (though second to Andrew Miller on the Indians).  Smith has added 14% to his strikeout rate year-over-year, which is nearly unheard of for a young pitcher- let alone one in his early thirties.

For instance most relief pitchers begin to see a rapid decline in strikeout rate shown in the chart as converted to K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) when they approach 30 years of age.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Smith has made a radical profile shift from ground ball dominant, contact manager to one carried by an elite strikeout rate and a declining ground ball rate. Despite Smith’s declining ground ball rate, he still does a phenomenal job of eliminating hard contact to limit base runner damage. The strikeouts, though, are the major driver of Smith’s success.

It is time for a fun pitcher forensics review. In 35 innings of 2017 Joe Smith became a completely different pitcher and the questions facing the Indians are:

  • Why?
  • Will it last?
  • Is he the same pitcher since coming off the DL a week before the trade deadline?

At first glance, Smith’s stuff has become more devastating as his O-Contact rate and Z-Contact rate have both decreased rapidly which means that he is inducing significantly more swing and miss inside and outside the zone. With this understanding, the logical progression is to consider the following three potential causes for the strikeout rate change:

  1. A usage change
  2. A release point change
  3. A movement change

The first has certainly occurred as Smith is undergoing a usage change.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Smith has become a three-pitch pitcher, significantly increasing his usage of his four-seam fastball while leaning on his heavy sinker less. His decreasing usage of his sinker is the root cause of the ground ball percentage decline. With the transition to three high-usage pitches, Smith is getting improved swing-and-miss on each offering likely due to the increasing guessing for hitters caused by a shift in the game theory choices.

There is not a velocity change that would belie this sort of strikeout spike, which further points to the expanded mix being the driving force. However, in Smith’s release points may also be a clue of his dominance, perhaps deception is rearing its head.

While Smith’s vertical release point2 does not raise any immediate suspicion, his horizontal release point3 has been altered.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Smith has been releasing the ball much further right of the rubber in 2017 which can alter a hitters ability to track the baseball. By extending his arm further towards third base in the path to release the baseball, Smith is starting the ball out farther from a hitter’s normal field of vision. Indeed, starting the ball closer to the third base side will make it more difficult for a right-handed hitter to pick up the baseball as it would appear to start almost behind a right-handed hitters back and end up coming across the plate.

Smith becoming increasingly deceptive because of an altered release point is supported by his O-Contact and Z-Contact rates. Further, playing sinker and four-seam fastball off each other from a more deceptive arm slot can create increased challenges for the hitter to make contact.

It is also worth noting that Smith spent five weeks on the DL from June 15 to July 22 due to shoulder inflammation, but it is unclear if the change in release point or usage caused this issue. Further, small sample sizes are part of the game when it comes to evaluating relief pitchers with month-to-month samples limited even moreso. Smith has only pitched four innings in the week since his activation, so there are no definitive statements that can be made. His elevated walk rate (12.5%) is due to walking one batter in two of his appearances, which could be due to using his fourseam fastball just a bit more as seen above. His strikeout rate is also down closer to his career norm (25%), but it is too early to tell if it is telling or perhaps the result of having an umpire with a tight strike zone or pure variance.

The exact component driving Smith’s strikeout spike is impossible to isolate, but, by altering his usage and changing his release point, Joe Smith has changed his profile as a pitcher and perhaps improved an already impactful profile. With the Indians giving up two intriguing low-level prospects for up to just three months rental of his services, the team is betting on it.

Mike Hattery on The Nail in the Coffin Podcast talking the Cleveland Indians trade deadline. Have a listen.

  1. K% represents strikeout percentage which is the percentage of batters faced that are struck out []
  2. Distance of baseball from the ground upon release []
  3. Distance of the baseball from the center of the rubber at release []