2016 Statistics: 3.45 ERA, 4.99 FIP, 6.9 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 106 ERA+, 52.0 IP
Age on Opening Day 2017: 33
Position: Right-handed reliever
The Yankees started the season with three of the best relief pitchers on the planet. The trio of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman proved to be unstoppable in the back of the bullpen, but it didn’t do much for the team’s middle relief or make the offense any better. After two blockbuster trades at the deadline, the Yankees now enter the offseason with Betances and Tyler Clippard as the only two pieces set in stone. Given the trouble they had getting the ball to the backend, Joe Smith could be an interesting player for the Yankees to pursue.
Plagued by one of the most nondescript names in baseball history, Smith has been a solid reliever over the last few years. He was brought up through the Mets system before making his way over to the Indians, signing a contract with the Angels, and then finishing out the 2016 season with the Cubs. Much of his success can be attributed to his funky delivery, where he pitches from an arm angle below sidearm but above submarine. He is primarily a sinker/slider pitcher with a fastball and changeup thrown in, which contributes to him reaching only as high as 90 mph on the radar gun. He makes up for his lack of velocity with an overwhelming tendency to keep the ball on the ground, as evidenced by his 56% career ground ball rate.
In the final year of his contract with the Angels, Smith’s numbers slipped a bit, as he pitched to a 3.82 ERA with a 4.63 FIP in 37.2 innings. He was traded to the Cubs at the trade deadline where his numbers improved, but he hit some unfortunate luck. Despite typically low home run numbers, Smith surrendered four homers in just 14 innings of work in Chicago, rocketing his rates up beyond league average. His time was also limited due to a hamstring issue that sent him to the disabled list for the second half of August.
A pitcher with a career 2.93 ERA putting up a 3.46 ERA in his age-32 season is not all that surprising. However, some of his struggles this past season could come down to mechanical problems. When you look at his release point from 2015, you see a nice uniform scattering:
This year was much more of a mess, as his arm slot for the slider ran further and further outside, and his sinker started pushing in toward the center of the plate. He also brought back the changeup, contributing to his migrating release point.
An inconsistent release point can contribute to control issues and rising home runs rates. In 2016, his 3.1 BB/9 for the year represents a drastic increase over his numbers from the previous two seasons. He also allowed a 1.4 HR/9, which is far beyond his 0.6 career average. Despite these issues, his ground ball rates remained intact, insinuating that he was still able to keep hitters off balance enough to top the ball as usual.
Because of his ability to remain productive, even when his release point was off, he might make sense as an offseason addition. If they can clean things up for him, his ground ball tendencies would play well in Yankee Stadium. By all means, they should go after a front-line closer first, but if that doesn’t work out, Smith could be an excellent, and much less risky, middle relief alternative. We all know that the Yankees love their velocity, but Smith’s arm action and contact rates could make him a worthwhile investment.