Friends, Coloradans, baseball fans, lend me your eyes – I come to bury Greg Smith, not to praise him.
Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but a eulogy for the near term success of Smith’s career is probably not out of place. For Rockies fans hoping that they just got a solid young starting pitcher in return for Matt Holliday, I’m sorry, but I have some bad news.
Yes, Greg Smith just posted a 4.16 ERA in 190 innings as a 24-year-old rookie. But unfortunately, those results just aren’t all that predictive, and the markers that we look for in identifying his true talent level, which is predictive, are not nearly as positive.
Here’s what we know about Greg Smith that could inform us about his future in Colorado.
He doesn’t throw very hard. His average fastball was just 87.6 MPH – the 9th slowest average fastball of any pitcher in baseball who threw at least 180 innings last year. Toss out Tim Wakefield because of the knuckleball factor, and the guys with sub-88 MPH fastballs are all command artists who pound the strike zone and don’t walk anyone.
That doesn’t describe Smith, unfortunately. 40.1% of his pitches thrown were balls, which is below average. Compare with fellow soft-tosser Andy Sonnanstine, who threw just 32.9% of his pitches out of the strike zone. Because Smith doesn’t throw hard, and he doesn’t throw strikes, he combines the bad mixture of both an above average walk rate (4.11 BB/9) and a below average strikeout rate (5.25 K/9).
It’s possible to succeed without a great BB/K rate, but it’s not easy. You have to limit the amount of home runs you allow, and the easiest way to do that is by pitching low in the strike zone and not allowing fly balls. If they hit it on the ground, it’s not going over the wall, after all. Well, Greg Smith isn’t very good at that, either – he posted a 45.5% FB% last year, third highest in baseball. Only Oliver Perez and Wakefield allowed more fly balls last year, and both of them have struggled with the long ball throughout their career.
So, we could describe Smith as a soft-tossing flyball machine with below average command and no out pitch. That’s not a great package to start off with, but then you transport that particular set of skills to Coors Field, where lazy fly balls go over the wall and breaking balls don’t move as much, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Honestly, I feel bad for Smith. After a successful rookie season, he has to be thinking that there’s some good stuff in store for him in the major leagues. In reality, he’s now been put into the absolute worst context he could possibly try to survive in, and his uphill battle to fight regression has now become something like climbing Mt. Everest.
Good luck, Greg – you’re going to need a lot of it.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.