The Brewers, Will Smith, and a Breakthrough

One of baseball’s most compelling storylines during the 2013 season was the monster breakthrough campaign of Chris Davis. One of baseball’s most quietly hilarious storylines during the 2013 season was the very similar campaign of Khris Davis down the stretch. Last year, the Brewers didn’t have a whole lot going for them, but Davis shined rather unexpectedly, and the team liked what it saw. As an organization closer to rebuilding than contending, the Brewers want to see what Davis can do going forward, and with Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun also around, it wasn’t hard to see coming that Norichika Aoki could end up on the outside looking in.

Aoki’s too old for a team like the Brewers, and he’s under contract only one more season. It made sense for them to try to ship him to a contender, and that’s precisely what they’ve done, as Aoki has joined the Royals. In Kansas City, Aoki should play more than he would’ve in Milwaukee, and he has a chance at seeing the playoffs. In exchange, the Royals gave the Brewers Will Smith. It’s a low-profile transaction, considerably lower-profile even than the earlier Dexter Fowler trade, but what makes the trade worth taking about are the signs of Smith’s progress as a young lefty.

To address the Kansas City side first: the front office is still at work, but for now, the outfield looks like Aoki, Alex Gordon, and Lorenzo Cain. What Aoki brings is some proven ability to rather consistently get on base, even if he doesn’t hit like he did in Japan. The Royals claim that Aoki will bat leadoff often, allowing Gordon to shift down in the lineup. These are little things, things baseball people talk about that don’t really seem to matter that much. Current outfield backups include Justin Maxwell, Jarrod Dyson, and David Lough. Just from a WAR perspective, it isn’t clear that Aoki is much better than any of them overall. This is, probably, a very small improvement. But it is an improvement, and Aoki is good at something few Royals are good at, and there’s nothing wrong with depth. It’s not like this is some kind of Dayton Moore disaster. Aoki is steady, predictable, and more than adequate.

And he’s super cheap, even on a one-year deal. His 2014 salary is just under $2 million, meaning he has a good amount of surplus value that the Royals can turn into flexibility. By getting someone at such a low cost, the Royals could conceivably still afford to make another significant upgrade. Reports suggest they’re trying. When you remember that teams trade for value more than they trade for player names, Aoki’s short-term value is pretty clear. He does a good amount for a little.

But the Brewers didn’t do poorly here, themselves. A week or two ago, Aoki rumors came up in a chat, and I figured the Brewers might be able to land a B-prospect. Will Smith isn’t a B-prospect, in that he’s got a lot of experience already in the majors, but he’s big-league ready, he’s under control for a long time, and there’s reason to be encouraged.

He’s a 24-year-old lefty who just had a good stretch out of a big-league bullpen. Yet the Brewers say he’s going to come to camp in February competing for a rotation slot. He was a starter into the middle of last season, when the Royals pushed him to the Omaha bullpen to prepare him to come up to the majors. It would be simple to say that Smith’s 2013 success came as a result of assuming an easier job. Indeed, relieving did help, just as it helps everybody. But before Smith moved to the bullpen, he was doing something out of the rotation he’d never done before.

He was striking batters out. Smith made just ten starts last year in triple-A, but over those starts he struck out more than a quarter of the hitters he faced. Previously as a starter, he was always around league average. A comparison of 2012 Smith to 2013 Smith as an Omaha starting pitcher:

Strikeout rate

2012: 19%
2013: 27%

Contact rate

2012: 81%
2013: 75%

The samples, of course, are fairly small, so there’s only so much you can do with them, but that’s a pretty big drop in contact rate allowed. It’s enough to grab your eye, and it’s enough to want to pursue. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear what Smith changed, if he changed anything, but there are clues. An article from spring training:

“The first two were so easy that I said, ‘Man, we’ve got to give him another one,'” Yost said. “He had all three of his pitches working today. Great downhill action on his fastball, really good changeup and a really good curve. He threw all three pitches for strikes.”

Actually, Smith referred to his breaking pitches as sliders.

“Me and Sal [catcher Salvador Perez] were on a pretty good page today. We usually are,” Smith said. “We were working first-pitch fastballs for the most part and I think all the strikeouts came on sliders. It’s still kind of a new pitch but not really. I’m starting to get a better feel for it and throw it for strikes. I like it.”

Slider or curveball, it worked.

“For me, curveballs,” Yost said. “Because we had opposing hitters telling our players that it was starting over the batter’s eye and then breaking down into the strike zone. So it was pretty impressive, whatever it was.”

In February, Smith suggested he was working on improving a slider. Ned Yost figured it was a curve, but here’s confirmation that, according to Smith, he throws both pitches:

‘The slider was working and the curveball, too,’ Smith said.

By PITCHf/x, the pitches aren’t real easy to separate. Further complicating matters is that almost all of Smith’s time in the majors in 2013 was spent in the bullpen, and relievers pitch differently than starters do. But from what we can tell, Smith did throw a lot more sliders this past season than he did the season before. Implied is that the slider was better. This is supported by digging into the splits, because while Smith improved, he really improved against lefties. Lefties get terrorized by sliders from lefties.

Against righties, Smith’s strikeout rates haven’t moved that much. In 2012, Smith struck out 20% of lefties in triple-A, and 17% of lefties in the majors. In 2013, he struck out 44% of lefties in triple-A, and 50% of lefties in the majors. We’ve got some really small sample sizes, but Aroldis Chapman last year struck out 50% of lefties in the majors, and that was the highest rate in baseball. Smith matched it over a handful of innings, and that speaks to a wipeout breaking pitch. Here’s what it looks like sometimes:


Here’s that pitch against righties, where Smith likes to drop it toward the back foot:


Smith doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, and with his repertoire in the past, he was fine and somewhat unremarkable. With what seems like a better slider this past season, Smith took a step forward as a starter before emerging as a quality big-league reliever. Already, what’s known is that he can relieve in the majors. What’s more likely than it was a year ago is that he can start in the majors. He needed to improve, and he made an improvement, even if he didn’t develop, say, a wonderful changeup.

Odds are Smith will be good against lefties in any role. Obviously, he’d be less dominant out of the rotation, but still effective enough. So it becomes a matter of what he can do against righties, but all he’d need to do is survive. If a lefty starter is good enough against lefties, he can scrape by. Joe Saunders has been doing it for years. Paul Maholm, too, has been doing it for years. They’re mediocre starters, but they’re decent and guys like this are somewhat valuable when they’re cheap. Smith right now might be a Saunders/Maholm type, and maybe he’s better than that against righties. So maybe he’s even a level or half-level above.

The ceiling is low, but Will Smith might now be a major-league starting pitcher. A back-of-the-rotation type, with possible no. 3 upside. That would be the magic of improving a breaking ball between seasons. And if the starter experiment doesn’t pan out, then the Brewers have a pretty good lefty reliever for a while, which is better than nothing. The nothing that Aoki would contribute to Milwaukee beyond 2014. It made sense to cash Aoki in for what the Brewers could get, and instead of a prospect, they got themselves immediate help, in some form or another. Immediate, cheap, and long-term help.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

Nice article. This is definitely the most optimistic view from the Brewers perspective I have seen at this point.