The Cubs’ bullpen is awful. The Braves’ bullpen is awful. The Dodgers’ bullpen isn’t good at all. The Red Sox could use bullpen help. The Nationals’ bullpen, if they even count as anything but a joke at this point, is cataclysmically bad.
It seems as if every year, every contending team needs bullpen help. Yes, Craig Kimbrel is still out there, but there’s a pretty good shot he isn’t in 24 hours. He’s also not lefty. And, the most important part, he’s also not as good as the best available arm, a guy whose baseball reference page isn’t even on the first page of Google when you search his name.
The Giants have next to nothing working for them, but they do have a stronghold on the relief pitcher trading market. Will Smith, the highly touted lefty, has been unquestionably elite since he was dealt from Milwaukee to San Francisco in 2016. However, better than Craig Kimbrel elite? Yes.
Smith has historically been a lot like Josh Hader in the sense that he is incredibly tough to hit, but if you hit him, you generally hit him hard. However, that hasn’t been the case this year. There’s only one zone of the plate in which Smith’s xISO (expected isolated power) is above .120, and it’s perhaps his biggest problem area.
From the outside looking in, it feels as if Will Smith has been failed by the Giants’ coaching staff. He throws his curveball 16.5% of the time, despite it being in the bottom 8% of the league in spin rate. While it does move quite a bit horizontally, his curve moves 1.7 inches less vertically than the average curve.
He also seemingly has trouble locating that curveball, speaking that the most common location for that pitch is up and away to righties, the exact quadrant you do not want to throw that pitch.
Should he learn to command the curve better, or get it to move a lot more, Smith can be even more deadly than he is right now. His slider has an xwOBA of .111 this year, an almost unheard of level of success for a pitch. His fastball hasn’t been anywhere near as good as the slider, but that is to be expected of a reliever with a slider like Smith’s.
I’m not sure of the sudden insistence on Smith throwing the curve, which he has thrown at a higher rate this year than last. It doesn’t appear he has the confidence in it as a putaway pitch, but rather an early-in-the-count get me over. The curve hasn’t come around to bite Smith yet this year, but that’s the biggest weakness I can find within his game. Quite frankly, that’s the one thing stopping him from being baseball’s best reliever.
Smith’s xwOBA this year is .215, second in baseball to only Ryan Pressly among pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances. He is yet to give up a barrel, though has gotten hit a tiny bit harder than he did last year. All in all, Smith is putting up a repeat of his performance from last year, one in which he was in the top 1% of pitchers around the league.
In terms of xwOBA, Craig Kimbrel’s season in 2018 was in the top 8% of baseball, with a .264, 36 points higher than Smith’s 2018. Kimbrel didn’t have the shaky third pitch either, which makes what Smith has done the past few years just that much more impressive. Will Smith trailed only four players in xwOBA last year, none of which were Ryan Pressly, meaning that no one has done better than him in both of the past few seasons.
Kimbrel did have that crazy 2017 campaign, one in which he struck out almost 50% of hitters. However, in that season, he still didn’t have an xwOBA close to either of Smith’s 2018 or 2019 seasons. This isn’t a knock on Kimbrel, a guy who is probably headed to Cooperstown, but rather to open eye as to just how good Will Smith has been.
So far in 2019, Will Smith is in the 93rd percentile of xBA (expected batting average), the 98th percentile of xSLG (expected slugging percentage), and the 100th percentile of xwOBA. He is also in the 97th percentile of K%. He has, by almost any measure, been one of the two best relievers in baseball this year. He has also been better than even the best season in Craig Kimbrel’s career.
The one thing Kimbrel has going for him is that starting at 12:01 AM on Monday, he won’t cost anything but money to acquire. However, Kimbrel is a downgrade, not to mention more expensive, from what you would be getting from Will Smith.
Smith is an impending free agent, and he should be one who commands a massive contract this winter. When acquiring Aroldis Chapman, a lefty on Smith’s level, back in 2016, the Cubs gave up one of baseball’s top 30 prospects in Gleyber Torres. Smith likely doesn’t command that much, given the less saturated trade market, but he is going to be anything but cheap.
And he shouldn’t be.