Roughly two weeks before the 2016 trade deadline, the Chicago Cubs acquired left-handed reliever Mike Montgomery from the Seattle Mariners, and we quickly got to know him.
Then, about a week later, the Cubs also acquired left-handed, power-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees, and we got to know him, as well.
Lastly, on August 1, the Chicago Cubs acquired their third deadline reliever, Joe Smith, and, if you’re following along, you’ll know that means it’s time to get to know him!
Smith, 32, was acquired at the deadline in exchange for pitching prospect Jesus Castillo. Broadly speaking, the Cubs are thought to like Smith because his sidearm delivery offers a different look out of the pen from their other relievers, he’s particularly tough on righties, and he’s adept at inducing ground balls. But let’s dig a little deeper and really see what there is to like (or not) about the newest Cubs reliever Joe Smith.
First, the pedigree: Joe Smith was drafted by the Mets in the third round of the 2006 MLB Draft, after attending Wright State University. He stands at 6’2″, 215 lbs and was the second player from his draft to reach the Majors (debuting in April 2007). After two seasons with the Mets, Smith was traded to Cleveland, where he pitched for a few years, before signing a three-year/$15 million deal with the Angels in November, 2013. Smith stuck with the Angels until he was traded to Chicago at the deadline, just a few days ago. And, as a nice aside, Smith was reportedly quite excited to be traded to Chicago, as he’ll now be much closer to his mother in Cincinnati, who is battling Huntington’s disease. There’s more on that aspect of the story here at Cubs.com
For his career, Smith has enjoyed his fair share of success, and has always out-pitched his peripherals. He was particularly good at doing this from 2011-2014 with the Indians and Angels, but held his own last season, as well. Check out his numbers from those five years:
- 2011: 67 IP, 2.01 ERA/2.91 FIP
- 2012: 67 IP, 2.96 ERA/3.50 FIP
- 2013: 63 IP, 2.29 ERA/3.60 FIP
- 2014: 74.2 IP, 1.81 ERA/2.85 FIP
- 2015: 65.1 IP, 3.58 ERA/3.15 FIP
He’s not much of a strikeout pitcher (career 20.0%) and he isn’t much of a control artist either (8.1%), but clearly he’s found a way to consistently get the results he needs without the traditional weapons in his bag. So let’s investigate that a little bit.
Joe Smith has consistently been a ground ball overachiever. His career mark of 56.6% is well above average and would be the fourth highest ground ball rate in baseball this season. In addition, Smith has always been able to induce a good amount of soft contact (21.9% career rate), while limiting the hard stuff (24.8%).
Oddly enough, however, all of those skills have diminished here in 2016. Don’t get me wrong, his ground ball rate is still really good (54.8%) but it’s lower than his career rate, and his soft hit rate has fallen dramatically (16.2%) while his hard hit rate has spiked (39.3%). Worse, his already low strikeout rate has dropped even further to 15.6% through his 37.2 innings pitched. Adding all this up, it’s not hard to see why his numbers this season look a heck of a lot worse than they have in years past (both results and peripherals):
- 2016: 37.2 IP, 3.82 ERA/4.62 FIP
But the Cubs wanted him for a reason, and it isn’t too difficult to see why. Aside from a nice long history of success (hey, you can’t just throw that out), and his ability to get ground balls, Smith has been very good at getting out righties. It might sound silly, but it’s possible the Cubs just picked up a ROOGY.
Throughout his career, Smith has been frustrating righties to the tune of a .265 wOBA. Indeed, in 353 IP, righties are hitting just .211/.285/.301 against Smith, and a lot of that holds up into this season, as well (.298 wOBA v. righties). And, although Smith doesn’t really throw the heat (88.6 MPH average on his fastball), he’s compensated by utilizing a vast repertoire.
In 2016, for example, Smith has thrown four different pitches at least 28 times. Operating primarily sinker/slider/fastball, Smith will occasionally toss in a change-up, as well. He doesn’t have the look, velocity, delivery, or pitch-mix of a typical reliever, but maybe that’s precisely why the Cubs wanted to take a look at him. If Smith can continue getting a near-elite number of ground balls and continue to be tough on righties, there will be a place for him in the Cubs bullpen.