Caleb Smith Gives Us a Reason to Watch the Marlins

To be frank, there aren’t a whole lot of reasons to watch the Marlins this season. As of this writing, they’re just 9-21 and already eight games out of first place. Unfortunately, the FanGraphs’ playoff projections had the Marlins’ odds at a measly 0.0% prior to the season. As you might have expected based on their record, these odds have not changed after a month of play.

The Marlins, as a team, have produced just 1.2 WAR this season. Of that, left-handed starter Caleb Smith has accounted for 1.0. Yes, you read that correctly. A single player on the Marlins’ 25-man roster has produced 83% of the team’s entire WAR. I don’t know if that is good or if that is bad. Well, I know that Smith is good, and the Marlins are bad. So, I guess that answers that.

Smith has had a stellar beginning to his season. In six starts, spanning 36 innings pitched, Smith has posted a 2.00 ERA, 2.81 FIP, and a 26.9 K-BB%. His aforementioned 1.0 WAR ranks 13th among qualified starters, and his 33.6 K% is tied with Blake Snell for fourth. The only pitchers with a higher strikeout rate than Smith this season are Gerrit Cole (37.6%), James Paxton (36.2%), and Jacob deGrom (34.8%). I’ll let those names stand for themselves.

2019 K% Leaders, Qualified Starters
Name Team K% BB% K-BB%
Gerrit Cole Astros 37.6 % 8.7 % 28.9 %
James Paxton Yankees 36.2 % 7.1 % 29.1 %
Jacob deGrom Mets 34.8 % 8.5 % 26.2 %
Blake Snell Rays 33.6 % 7.4 % 26.2 %
Caleb Smith Marlins 33.6 % 6.7 % 26.9 %
Max Scherzer Nationals 32.8 % 3.7 % 29.1 %
Matthew Boyd Tigers 31.8 % 6.6 % 25.2 %
Stephen Strasburg Nationals 31.8 % 6.6 % 25.2 %
Justin Verlander Astros 30.6 % 6.4 % 24.3 %
Derek Holland Giants 29.6 % 11.9 % 17.8 %

Driving this success isn’t big fastball velocity; he only averages 92.5 mph with the pitch, putting him in the 52nd percentile across baseball. Instead, his spin rate is what makes the pitch so hard to hit. Smith’s 2404 rpm on the fastball puts him in the 84th percentile across the league. This means that his fastball “drops” less from when it leaves his hand to when it crosses home plate.

Smith has used this spin rate to his advantage, living in the upper portion of the strike zone, following the current trend that has overtaken the league. And to both lefties and righties, Smith survives on throwing the fastball up and away.

Here’s his fastball heat map to right-handed hitters:

And now here’s his fastball heat map to left-handed hitters:

As a result, the pitch has generated excellent results so far.

Caleb Smith Fastball Results
Pitches PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ K% BB% SwStr%
270 62 .179 .258 .321 .256 66 35.5% 9.7% 12.3%

In fact, as seen in the chart above, Smith has generated a ton of swings-and-misses with the fastball. Among the 66 pitchers who have thrown at least 200 this year, his swinging strike rate ranks 10th. And even when hitters do make contact against Smith’s fastball, it isn’t hit hard. His .317 xwOBA against ranks 17th-best among those 66 pitchers. Of course, neither of those numbers are elite, but they are solid.

Without an overpowering fastball, Smith has to survive with successful command and control. An easy way to spot control issues is through a pitcher’s walk rate. At 6.7%, Smith’s walk rate is better than the league-average starter, though it’s not necessarily elite. (I will say, though, that Smith can survive with a few more walks because his strikeout rate is so high; his aforementioned 26.9 K-BB% ranks fifth among all starters.) But where Smith really excels is in his command. According to Statcast data from Baseball Savant, Smith’s 48.5% “shadow” rate — or pitches that hit the corners of the zone — on fastballs ranks in the top 13% of all pitchers who’ve thrown at least 100. His 31.5% “heart” rate — or pitches that are clearly in the zone — ranks only in the top 39%.

And that’s where Smith generates many of his swings-and-misses. Of his 40 swings-and-misses off his fastball this year, 18 have been in the shadow of the strike zone, 19 have been in the heart of the zone, and his other three have been in the chase portion of the zone. Let’s compare these figures to the league-average marks for a four-seam fastball:

Fastball Whiffs By Zone Location
Zone Smith Whiffs % of Smith Whiffs League Whiffs % of Total Whiffs
Heart 19 47.5% 1184 27.9%
Shadow 18 45.0% 2528 59.6%
Chase 3 7.5% 509 12.0%
Waste 0 0.0% 19 0.4%
Totals 40 100.0% 4240 100.0%

Clearly, Smith is doing something right here. He can live in and around the strike zone, and he still makes hitters look foolish. Why might this be the case? Well, Smith does stand out in terms of fastball movement. Of the 203 pitchers with at least 100 four-seam fastballs this season, Smith possesses the second-most horizontal movement, second to only Chris Sale.

Interestingly enough, the breakdown of Smith’s and Sale’s whiffs look pretty similar. (Note, I’m using 2018 Sale data, as he has not come out of the gate looking super strong so far this year and only has 13 fastball whiffs.)

Fastball Whiffs By Zone Location
Zone 2019 Smith Whiffs % of Smith Whiffs 2018 Sale Whiffs % of Sale Whiffs
Heart 19 47.5% 52 32.1%
Shadow 18 45.0% 88 54.3%
Chase 3 7.5% 20 12.3%
Waste 0 0.0% 2 1.2%
Totals 40 100.0% 162 100.0%

This might explain why Smith is able to live in the strike zone. He is able to use his solid command, put it in the zone, and still get hitters to swing and miss. That’s impressive, and here’s a prime example of it, on a Smith strikeout of Juan Soto:

I feel like this pitch completely embodies the type of pitcher Smith has been this season. It’s up in the zone, moves well across the plate, and gets an elite hitter to swing-and-miss. That’s what makes Smith so interesting to me — so far this season he has played right to his strengths, using his high spin rate to work up in the zone, and using his elite horizontal movement in order to get hitters to chase even when the pitch is in the strike zone.

The Marlins might not have much going for them this year, but 27-year-old Caleb Smith has been pitching like an ace so far, and that’s making him must-watch TV.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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3 years ago

In a year where it seems like every elite pitcher is broken, it’s nice to see a new ace emerging, even if he’s only pitching for about 16 fans