Will Smith’s Unconventional Success

If you’ve been paying close attention to my writing recently, you’ll notice a hidden theme running through my last month or so of work: frequent and bad jokes. But there’s a second theme, too: batters do really well when they swing at pitches over the heart of the plate. Splitting the plate up into the center and the corners does a lot to explain where hitters do best; when you swing at something there, it’s hardly a surprise that the results, on average, are excellent.

Will Smith is a great hitter. He gets my vote as the best catcher in the game, and while I wouldn’t fault you for picking Buster Posey, Smith leads all catchers in WAR and is doing it at a young age. He’s a perfectly acceptable defensive catcher, but he’s valuable because of his hitting, with a .267/.377/.510 line that’s good for a 140 wRC+. Those numbers are great for any hitter, but particularly for one playing the hardest defensive position.

With that in mind, you’d assume Smith is great against pitches in the middle of the plate. That’s how hitters succeed! Well, you’d be wrong. Take a look at his Swing/Take runs, a neat Statcast tool that shows the run value a player has accrued on pitches in each zone:

That’s not how this is supposed to work. What the heck is going on?

One way to accrue a pile of negative value on pitches down the middle is by taking them; since they’re never called balls, every take hurts. Smith doesn’t display wild aggression in the zone, as his 69% swing rate on pitches over the heart of the plate is in the bottom 25% of all hitters. But that hardly explains his poor performance there. José Ramírez swings only 68.7% of the time at these pitches, and well:

Ramírez has lost roughly the same amount of value as Smith by letting meatballs go by. But when Ramírez does swing, he absolutely crushes the ball, to the tune of 24 runs above average. Smith? He’s cost himself a run by swinging at pitches over the heart of the plate.

That’s deeply strange. In 110,481 swings at these middle-middle pitches (through Sunday), batters have accrued 573.5 runs worth of value relative to average. “Average” is confusing, so let’s spell it out: the average pitch, by definition, neither adds nor subtracts run value. These pitches — batters swinging at balls in hittable locations — obviously add value. That value gets lost elsewhere: on swings at pitches in the dirt, takes in the strike zone, and so on.

In that context, Smith’s poor mark is even more surprising. That’s not to say that everyone does well on these pitches; Marwin Gonzalez, for example, checks in at -15.2 runs on heart-zone swings. But he hit .202/.281/.285 on the Red Sox, good for a 56 wRC+, before they cut him. Smith will probably get MVP votes. One of these things is not like the other.

How do you lose runs by swinging at good pitches? The obvious way is by swinging through them. Despite an admirable swinging-strike rate overall, Smith is prone to coming up empty on easy pitches. It’s not a huge problem, but it’s definitely not the high point of his game; he sports a 16.1% whiff rate in the heart of the plate (it’s really hard to come up with good synonyms for this, in case you hadn’t noticed), or a tad above the league average, which is in the low 15s. That’s not a glaring deficiency or anything, but it’s a shortcoming.

That’s not to say that good hitters can’t miss over the middle of the plate; power-first guys miss plenty and still do well. Joey Gallo, Luke Voit, Shohei Ohtani, and Giancarlo Stanton come up empty far more often than Smith, and they’re all fearsome hitters. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, as the saying goes, and I guess home runs are omelettes in this analogy? It’s not perfect, but you get the idea.

Just one problem: Smith isn’t that class of power hitter. He’s got some pop, no doubt, but it’s more plus than outrageous. One way to quantify that vague assessment is barrels per swing. Take a look at this list of highest barrel-per-swing rates on pitches over the middle of the plate, and you can quickly see that it’s measuring something meaningful:

Barrels/Swing at Heart-Zone Pitches
Player Swings Barrels/Swing
Mike Zunino 216 12.5%
Fernando Tatis Jr. 338 11.8%
Max Muncy 347 11.2%
Hunter Renfroe 304 10.9%
Mike Trout 107 10.3%
Yordan Alvarez 305 10.2%
Rhys Hoskins 359 10.0%
Shohei Ohtani 363 9.9%
Miguel Sanó 296 9.8%
Tyler O’Neill 316 9.8%
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 407 9.8%
Pete Alonso 331 9.7%
Kyle Schwarber 272 9.6%
C.J. Cron 301 9.6%
Mitch Garver 147 9.5%

Those are the hitters who can give away free strikes over the heart of the plate. Smith isn’t one of those. He’s producing barrels on 5.5% of his heart swings this year, a middle-of-the-pack number. When he puts the ball in play on one of those swings, he’s hitting .351 with a .695 slugging percentage, good for a .427 wOBA.

Those are good numbers, but context makes them less impressive. This is the most valuable subset of swings you can imagine: only pitches in the easiest-to-hit part of the plate, and even then only the ones that didn’t result in a foul ball or whiff. The league as a whole is batting .355 on these with a .645 SLG and .418 wOBA. In other words, Smith is roughly average when teeing off on the best pitches to hit.

I feel like I’ve explained one thing pretty clearly: the middle of the plate does Smith no favors. He doesn’t swing very much, which starts him off in the hole. When he does swing, he misses more than average. When he connects, he produces like an average hitter, not an MVP candidate. None of that sounds very good.

Next question, then: how is he an MVP candidate? The numbers don’t lie: Smith is having a great season, production in the heart of the plate notwithstanding. Where’s that value coming from? As the chart at the top showed, more or less everywhere else.

The shadow zone, which Baseball Savant defines as the edges of the strike zone and the area just outside it, works roughly like the inverse of the heart of the plate. That’s where pitchers have the edge, pun intended. Swing? Take? They’re happy either way. Batters don’t do a great job telling strikes from balls around the periphery of the zone, and they don’t do damage on contact either.

Smith has been nine runs to the bad in the shadow zone this year. That sounds bad; it’s negative, and I also literally used the word “bad” in the last sentence to describe it. But that mark is actually excellent, because again, it’s relative to all pitches, not relative to how batters do in the shadow zone. That’s actually meaningfully better than batters do in aggregate; face as many pitches as he has there, and the league would be 13.5 runs in the red.

Still, this doesn’t sound like an elite hitter. Maybe he picks up four or five runs by not swinging at close pitches, but that can’t possibly make up for his poor performance on good pitches to hit. Go back up and look at Ramírez’s heart zone production again. The two of them have similar batting lines this year (Ramírez has added more runs in more plate appearances, but they have similar wRC+’s), and he’s 21 runs better between the two zones. That’s an enormous gap; runs are weird units to think in, but 21 runs over 400 plate appearances is a difference on the order of 40 points worth of wRC+.

What does Smith do so well? He doesn’t give anything away that he shouldn’t. When pitchers try to get him to chase, he has them right where he wants them. First, he doesn’t chase much! In the chase zone, which is basically competitive pitches that aren’t right on the edges, he swings only 16% of the time. The league swings 22% of the time, and given that roughly a quarter of all pitches are in that zone, that’s a lot of improved counts.

Even when Smith does swing, he’s better than most. He makes contact 60% of the time; the league as a whole checks in at 45%. That’s a lot of spoiled two-strike pitches, and even if he just makes weak contact, it’s often foul, and he can do it again. He also strikes out only 11% of the time when pitchers throw him chase pitches seeking a third strike; the league as a whole is close to 20%.

Finally, when he keeps the contact fair, it’s been loud. The sample is small enough that the numbers would confuse the issue, but he’s already hit two homers (out of 11 fair balls) there this year, and his swing path just looks like it was designed for this:

And if you throw Smith a non-competitive pitch, he will take the free ball. He’s swung exactly once at the 164 he’s seen this year, and honestly, it wasn’t even that bad of a pitch:

One out of 164 is about 0.6%; the league swings 5.4% of the time there. That’s another bundle of free balls, and that adds up over time. Want to know why Smith runs an admirable walk rate and miniscule swinging-strike rate despite middle-of-the-pack contact skills in the strike zone? He never meets pitchers on their own terms.

This is a really boring way to describe a great hitter, which I think helps explain (along with his name being literally Will Smith) why he still feels less famous than he should be. Smith is an excellent hitter with average bat-to-ball skills. That just makes his production more impressive to me, though; without prodigious power or the ability to consistently turn meatballs into home runs, he makes it up on volume, forcing pitchers to give him good pitches to hit and then doing enough with them — and just enough — to make the pitchers pay.

All stats current through Sunday, August 29.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Smiling Politely
2 years ago

This is…weird and fascinating? Would we expect him to improve as a hitter (given that hitting pitches in the heart should “regress” upwards?), should we expect him to fare more poorly (Is this skill sustainable or luck? Not hitting meatballs is bad!), or is this not useful in projecting the future?

Either way, love to see Will Smith get some attention, and you see why the Dodgers were willing trade Ruiz. On a team of superstars, he’s been the most consistent and healthy guy (and perhaps will emerge behind Realmuto and Grandal nationally).

2 years ago

I couldn’t stop thinking “REGRESSION!” while reading, but he’s been good in 2 other seasons as well, and he was highly touted prospect, too. I’m wondering if this was similar the last 2 seasons and we just didn’t notice as much because now he’s just even better.