Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer… and Caleb Smith?

Through the first month of the season, no starting pitcher has struck out more batters per nine innings than Gerrit Cole. Cole is a talented pitcher whose fastball sits at nearly 97 mph. He also seems to have made some improvements since joining the Astros. His appearance at the top of the strikeouts leaderboard isn’t a surprise.

Next on that same list is reigning National League Cy Young-winner Max Scherzer. Scherzer is routinely considered one of the three best pitchers in baseball. Last year, he recorded the 13th-best strikeouts-per-nine mark ever. His appearance near the top of the strikeouts leaderboard isn’t a surprise.

After those two, one finds Marlins pitcher Caleb Smith. Smith is left-hander who was acquired in the offseason in a trade featuring international pool money from the Yankees as New York went after Shohei Ohtani. Smith neither throws 97 mph, nor has he won a Cy Young Award. It would be fair to characterize Smith’s performance so far this season as surprising.

Smith has struck out nearly 13 batters per nine innings this year. Walks and homers have depressed the value of those strikeouts somewhat as Smith’s 3.82 FIP is roughly average when factoring in league and park. A league-average FIP from a player who was nearly free in acquisition and development cost — as well as salary — would prove to be a very pleasant outcome for the Marlins, who are sorely lacking in the pleasant-outcome department of late. More notable, in the present case, are all those strikeouts. Here are the pitchers with the highest strikeout percentages in baseball through last night.

MLB Strikeout Percentage Leaders
Rank Name Team K% BB% HR/9
1 Gerrit Cole Astros 39.4% 5.2% 0.65
2 Max Scherzer Nationals 38.0% 6.0% 0.46
3 Patrick Corbin D-backs 36.7% 4.7% 1.13
4 J.A. Happ Blue Jays 34.0% 4.8% 1.50
5 Caleb Smith Marlins 33.9% 13.2% 1.26
6 Noah Syndergaard Mets 32.9% 3.6% 0.78
7 Chris Sale Red Sox 32.6% 5.8% 1.03
8 Justin Verlander Astros 32.4% 5.4% 0.91
9 Lance McCullers Jr. Astros 31.7% 8.6% 0.79
10 Hyun-Jin Ryu Dodgers 31.2% 8.3% 0.95
Through Monday, April 30.

The presence of J.A. Happ here might unexpected, Travis Swachik discussed the Toronto lefty’s performance about a week ago. Patrick Corbin has added a slower version of his slider, and Jeff Sullivan noted the effect that greater usage of offspeed pitches might be having on the lefty’s numbers. In terms of name recognition, Caleb Smith really sticks out. His high walk total also sticks out — and, despite playing his home games in spacious Marlins Park, he has given up a decent amount of home runs.

In terms of comparables, Smith actually bears the greatest resemblance to a pitcher who would appear here if the innings threshold were lowered slightly — namely, Arizona starter Robbie Ray. Ray, just placed on the disabled list, bears similarities to Smith beyond this year’s strikeout and walk numbers. Both pitchers are lefties standing around 6-foot-2 and weighing 200-ish pounds. Ray and Smith rely on a four-seam fastball sitting in the low to mid-90s. They each utilize a slider as their primary secondary offering. They pitch from roughly the same arm slot and give up a lot of fly balls. Both have a third pitch that they use more often against righties than lefties. For Smith, it is the change — a pitch he has used less often this year than in the past –while Ray throws a curve.

Ray’s slider is a classic lefty wipeout slider, while Smith’s lacks that kind of movement. It’s still pretty effective, though. Here it is against David Dahl on Sunday.

That slider serves him well, particularly against lefties; however, he’s also gotten righties to whiff on it 20% of the time. It’s possible, that once he gets around the league a time or two, the slider won’t work quite as well against righties. In that case, Smith might be forced to rely on the change a bit more. In a vacuum, the change doesn’t look particularly impressive, staying up without much downward movement. Here it is against Nolan Arenado.

The change works, though, because his fastball has a fairly high spin-rate and stays elevated. It doesn’t require much movement to be different than the fastball. Earlier in the same Arenado plate appearance, we see the fastball that sets up the change.

That’s a good 94 mph fastball on the outside edge of the zone that works against righties. He’s significantly decreased the changeup’s usage compared to last season in his brief callup with the Yankees. It is working thus far. Whether he can keep going down the Robbie Ray path remains to be seen, however.

Obviously, when considering a pitcher with an unexpectedly good performance, the natural question is if the performance can last. The walks and homers are a warning sign. A little bit of bad luck on batted balls, and those added baserunners lead to runs — not unlike what happened to Robbie Ray in 2016 when he put up a 3.76 FIP but an ugly 4.90 ERA. That result might have been bad luck, but the walks and homers make those bad outcomes possible. In Smith’s case, the most worrisome issue might be the league catching up to him. Smith had the worst start of the season against his former team. Anybody might struggle against the Yankees, so we can’t make too much of that start, but it is worth mentioning.

I looked into his fastball usage in and out of the zone on the first pitch because Smith has done a fairly good job of getting ahead in the count, but it doesn’t appear Smith is out of the ordinary compared to the rest of the league. One area where Ray and Smith differ in results is how the two get their swings and misses. Here are the plate-discipline numbers for both players.

Plate Discipline: Robbie Ray and Caleb Smith
Name O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
Caleb Smith 32.2 % 68.0 % 47.7 % 62.8 % 76.8 % 71.4 % 43.2 % 64.5 % 13.6 %
Robbie Ray 27.4 % 60.9 % 41.0 % 41.0 % 84.9 % 67.5 % 40.6 % 60.5 % 13.3 %

Both get the same number of swinging strikes, but they do so in different areas. Robbie Ray excels at getting batters to miss when they swing outside the zone. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t induce that many swings outside the zone: hitters are so bad at making contact against Ray, pitching out of the strike zone is still a worthwhile pursuit. In contrast to Ray, Smith has an excellent contact rate in the zone. When hitters swing at pitches in the zone, they are missing often relative to most pitchers.

The only pitchers with a lower zone contact rate than Smith this season are Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. It’s great that Smith is succeeding in that fashion right now, but that performance probably isn’t sustainable. Last season, no pitcher recorded a mark less than 79% for the season, and only three pitchers — Jacob deGrom, Chris Sale, and Scherzer — were below 81%, meaning hitters are likely going to make more contact in the zone against Smith.

How much more contact will determine Smith’s success going forward. He has a somewhat limited repertoire, so hitters might get a better read on him with increased exposure. Once hitters improve in the strike zone, Smith will need to get ahead of batters and get them to chase would-be balls. The projections say he’s going to strike out a batter per inning and walk half that number, ending up somewhere close to league average. That feels about right. It also feels like an incredibly good outcome for the Marlins after getting rid of almost all their good players this offseason.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago

What is it that makes an opposite-handed slider work for some pitchers? Does it tend to be the more cuttery ones, or what?

6 years ago
Reply to  Jetsy Extrano

See Caleb Smith’s slider to Dahl, the ball is moving away from him. It looks like it is coming straight at him, then slides to the outside corner. It would be a lot easier to hit as a righty, which makes the 20% swing and miss rate against rhh impressive. He must be good at catching the outside corner with it.