Josh Smoker's story is one of the best in baseball. He was a first round pick with the Washington Nationals in 2007, but injuries derailed his path to the big leagues. Smoker was released in 2012 and was pitching in independent ball as recently as 2014. The Mets saw a bullpen session he threw before the 2015 season and were impressed with his stuff, so they signed him to a minor league deal.
Smoker continued to impress in the Mets organization and earned a call-up to the big leagues in the middle of August. To come back from that adversity to pitch in the big leagues is an incredible accomplishment, and he flashed some ability in his rookie season that makes him an intriguing player going forward.
Smoker's rookie season spanned 65 batters faced over 15.1 innings. The results weren’t so great in terms of run prevention, as his 4.70 ERA and .790 OPS against were both worse than league average for a relief pitcher. But there are a lot of things on the periphery to be encouraged about.
The stuff that caught the Mets’ attention was there. Smoker's fastball velocity was one of the best in baseball for a left-handed pitcher. The average major league left-handed relief pitcher sat around 92.9 mph with his four-seam fastball in 2016. Smoker sat 95.4 mph, which ranked 7th-best out of the 183 left-handed pitchers in MLB in 2016 and 6th-best among left-handed relievers. His max fastball velocity topped out at 98.4 mph, making him one of only 11 left-handed pitchers to throw a pitch over 98 mph in 2016.
Smoker’s high fastball velocity helped generate a strong swinging-strike rate by the standards of a normal four-seam fastball. At 14.6%, that rate ranked 12th-best among all pitchers in baseball, well above the major league average of 7.6%.
His breaking ball—a slider—flashed potential. Smoker recorded 12 swinging strikes on 57 sliders thrown, a 21.1% rate, which is excellent. His slider was a good put-away pitch for him, too. Smoker threw his slider 30 times in two-strike counts and got a strikeout with it 8 times, a 26.6% rate, which is also excellent. When Smoker located the pitch well, he had the ability to make good hitters look foolish with it. Here's Smoker getting 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper to chase one out of the strike zone with two strikes.
Smoker’s third pitch is his split-change. He threw it 31 times last year, 12% of his total pitches. It was his third-most-used pitch behind his slider, which had a 22% usage rate. PITCHf/x occasionally misclassified his split-change as a slider, which is not corrected in some databases. 73% of his split-changes were thrown to right handed batters and 27% to left handed batters.
Below is a table of Smoker’s swinging strike rates by pitch type, with the league averages for those pitch types includes in the table. Both his four-seam fastball and slider generated swinging strikes at a well-above-average rate.
Smoker’s high-octane fastball velocity and slider success contributed to a 38% strikeout rate, which is incredible. The average major league relief pitcher struck out 22.7% of the batters he faced last year. Smoker's strikeout rate ranked 7th-best among all pitchers who threw at least 10 innings. Strikeout rate stabilizes very quickly for pitchers—around 70 batters faced—so Smoker’s sample of 65 batters faced is right around that number. That doesn’t mean it will continue going forward, but it does mean there’s some signal to it.
Both Smoker's control and command of his pitches were above average by the metrics. Control is the ability to throw strikes/limit walks. His 6.2% walk rate was better than the major league average walk rate of 8.2%—and well above the average relief pitcher walk rate of 9.0%. Command is putting the ball where you want it. Baseball Prospectus' new command statistics graded him slightly above average with his command at 0.59% runs above average. Here's Smoker perfectly commanding 96 mph on the corner to strike out Bryce Harper (again):
Here is a table of Smoker’s outcomes on his pitch types.
The split-change was by far his least effective pitch by slugging against, batting average against, and swinging-strike rate. What could be driving the poor results on Smoker’s split-change was location. He only got 39% of his split-changes down in the strike zone or below the strike zone. The average major league pitcher gets 71% of his splitters or change ups down in the strike zone or below the strike zone. Smoker has room for improvement with better split-change location down in the zone.
On the surface, Smoker’s 4.70 ERA, .790 OPS against and homer proneness do not exactly inspire confidence. His fly balls tended to be hit harder at a higher rate than the average pitcher. But what is encouraging is that some of his contact quality peripheral statistics indicate that he probably deserved better outcomes for most of the contact he allowed. His Statcast derived expected batting average on balls in play, which takes into the account the exit velocities and batted ball angles of every batted ball a hitter recorded against Smoker, was .305, 82 points lower than his actual BABIP of .387 (via xStats.org). His expected home run total based on his exit velocities and batted ball angles was 3 rather than his actual total of 4; Christian Yelich hit a “just enough/borderline” home run with a low exit velocity on a warm summer night that just barely missed being caught by left fielder Michael Conforto. Statcast expected formulas are not gospel, but there is some evidence that Smoker may have deserved better outcomes for most of the type of contact he allowed, which would have driven his OPS against and ERA down to a more respectable number.
What does the future hold? If Smoker can just cut down on the mistake pitches a little, he has a shot to be a really good major league relief pitcher. He’s showcased the stuff and ability to miss bats, and he’s combined it with above average control. The split-change has potential long term if he can locate it better. And if the contact quality statistics are accurate, Smoker didn’t get knocked around as badly in 2016 as the run prevention and outcomes might suggest. I’m a big fan of Josh Smoker, and I think he has the ability to be a successful major league reliever for the Mets.