Eric P. Mull-US PRESSWIRE

2012 Player Preview: Joe Smith

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to a key piece of the Tribe’s “Bullpen Mafia” who celebrated his 28th birthday yesterday: Joe Smith.

Background: The New York Mets picked Smith, an Ohio native, out of Wright State University in the third round of the 2003 MLB amateur draft. Smith was on the fast track to the big leagues and earned a spot on the Mets’ Opening Day roster after just 32.2 innings in the minors. He came to Cleveland in the massive three-way 2008 trade in which the Indians also acquired Luis Valbuena and lost Franklin Gutierrez. Interestingly, the Mets traded Ezequiel Carrera to the Mariners in that deal, a year and a half before Seattle flipped him to the Tribe for Russell Branyan.

Last year: It was a career year for Smith, who went 3-3 with a sterling 2.01 ERA and 16 holds in 67 innings for the Tribe. Especially impressive was his 27-game scoreless streak that lasted over two months. As late as July 16 his ERA was below 1.00, and until the final game of the season his ERA was under 2.00. Part of Smith’s success was due to his .258 BABIP and 2.2 percent HR/FB rate (both of which are probably unsustainable, though he has a history of holding hitters to below-average BABIPs), but he also set career highs in DIPS estimators FIP, xFIP, and tERA.

Baseball-Reference estimated Smith’s 2011 performance as being worth an incredible 2.1 wins above replacement, putting him behind only Justin Masterson and Vinnie Pestano among Indians pitchers. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs pegged him at a still-impressive but not outstanding 0.8 WARP and 1.2 WAR, respectively.

Key factor: Controlling the walks. It’s no coincidence that Smith’s breakout year coincided with his lowest walk rate to date. After posting a 5.4 BB/9 rate and walking over 14 percent of opposing hitters in 2010, Smith—simply put—started throwing more strikes. According to Pitch f/x, 57 percent of Smith’s offerings in 2011 were in the strike zone, up from just 49 percent the year before. As a result, his BB/9 rate fell to 2.8 and he issued free passes to less than 8 percent of opposing hitters.

Smith can be an effective pitcher even when he’s looser with the walks—that he’s never posted an ERA+ below 104 is a testament to his pitching prowess. But in Smith’s case, stinginess with free passes (or lack thereof) is the difference between a decent bullpen arm and a relief ace.

2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs:

That the spread of projections for Smith is so big shouldn’t come as a surprise. Relief pitchers are particularly volatile, even those who don’t come with big questions about their abilities to outperform their peripherals or whose ERAs just dropped by almost two full runs. If there’s anyone whose projected ERAs would be a full run apart, it’d be Smith.

What shocks me isn’t the disagreement, it’s the skepticism. Bill James’ predictions are obviously fairly optimistic and RotoChamp and Marcel’s numbers look a lot like how Smith has pitched for most of his career. But Steamer and ZIPS don’t just see Smith regressing: on the heels of a career year, they both see his ERA shooting up higher than it ever has before. Anything’s possible, I suppose, but it’s hard to see such a dramatic downturn as the most likely result.

Best-case scenario: Encore! Smith plays like it’s 2011 all over again. There’s no way his 2.2 percent HR/FB rate is sustainable, but he makes up for the couple extra dingers by reclaiming some of the strikeouts he lost last year (6.0 K/9, down from his 7.9 previous career mark) and gives the Indians 70 more innings with an ERA in the low 2.00′s.

Worst-case scenario: Steamer’s projections might be overly pessimistic, but they don’t actually represent the worst plausible scenario. If Smith’s walk and HR/FB rates return to their usual above-average levels and his depressed strikeout rate holds steady—well, it won’t be pretty. An 150 percent increase of his 2011 ERA (i.e., too 5.00) wouldn’t be out of the question before he loses his job to someone from Triple-A.

Most likely scenario: Smith’s strikeout, walk, HR/FB, and hit rates all rise at least a little bit. The added strikeouts and walks basically cancel each other out, but the extra balls falling in for hits and leaving the yard take their toll. RotoChamp and Marcel’s projections look like good bets, though James’ projection isn’t out of the question.

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