In July of 2010, the Royals traded Alberto Callaspo to the Angels for Sean O’Sullivan and Will Smith. O’Sullivan didn’t amount to much in Kansas City, making 23 starts with a 6.63 ERA, 53 BB, and only 56 K in 129 innings. Smith, on the other hand, has found some success.
After spending the first two seasons with the Royals’ organization in the minors, Smith made his major league debut on May 23, 2012. Smith made 16 starts that season, and was less than impressive. His 5.32 ERA, coupled with very pedestrian strikeout and walk rates, gave some fans the impression that the big lefty would be yet another prospect turned disappointment.
With the acquisitions of Ervin Santana, James Shields, and Wade Davis, Smith found himself back in Omaha for the start of the 2013 season, where he made some adjustments and became an incredibly dominant pitcher. Smith made 10 starts with the Storm Chasers last season, and he had excellent results. In 59.1 innings, he struck out 65 batters, walked just 18, and had an ERA of 3.19. But in June, the Royals decided Smith may be able to help the team more out of the bullpen, so he was shifted into a reliever role at AAA to get him adjusted for the different workload. Immediately, the move seemed to work. In Smith’s first 8 appearances out of the pen, he threw 13 innings, allowed 1 earned run, walked 3, and struck out 10.
Smith spent the next couple of months bouncing between Omaha and Kansas City, and he continued to pitch extremely well, regardless of where he was. At one point, Smith struck out 23 batters in a stretch spanning 14.2 innings. In late August, Smith was called up to the big leagues for good, and he rewarded the organization’s faith in him by striking out opposing batters, hot dog vendors, fans, and parking attendants. Ok, so that’s a slight exaggeration, but Smith did strike out 20 batters in his final 11.1 innings of the season, including a game against the Mariners in which he struck out 8 of the 14 batters he faced in 4 innings of work.
So what was the secret to Smith’s success?
It was a combination of a few things. First, as one would expect when a starting pitcher is converted to a reliever, Smith’s velocity went up. Prior to the move, his fastball sat between 91-92 MPH. After moving to the bullpen, Smith’s fastball averaged around 93 MPH.
Also, Smith significantly increased the usage of his slider, while throwing far fewer fastballs. He threw a fourseam fastball roughly 39% of the time in 2012, and his slider about 6% of the time. In 2013, however, his fastball usage dropped to 34% and his slider usage spiked to nearly 28%. It made sense to throw the slider more frequently when Smith was able to generate a whiff percentage of almost 34% on that pitch. Batters swung at Smith’s slider approximately 60% of the time, but they made contact less than 50% of the time. His whiff/swing rate was 56.3%, which is just absurd. To give you an idea of how good that is, keep in mind that Greg Holland’s slider had a whiff/swing rate of 51.7%. When Smith threw a slider, the batter typically wound up looking silly.
Smith’s numbers at the end of the season were quite impressive: an ERA of 3.24 in 33.1 innings, 43 strikeouts, and just 7 walks. Because of those eye-popping numbers, there has been some mention from Dayton Moore about the possibility of Smith being moved back to the rotation. While I do think Smith’s second round as a starter could be better than his rookie season, I’m not sure he would fare well enough to be more than a 3rd or 4th starter in a good rotation. He’s been extremely successful relying on only his 2 best pitches, and since he doesn’t possess an above average changeup, right-handed batters may be able to have more success against him in a larger sample. The team could certainly do worse for their 4th starter, but it would probably be best to keep him as a reliever, with an occasional spot start.
The Royals were able to find a perfect role for Smith. His ability to miss bats out of the bullpen is another huge weapon Ned Yost can call upon in the later innings, and Smith should be poised for another solid season in 2014.