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2013 Indians Player Preview: Joe Smith

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we continue our look at the bullpen with the Indians’ 2013 seventh-inning man: 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: Smith struggled to follow up on his breakout 2011 campaign, but he was still a key cog in the Tribe’s 2012 bullpen. Smith made 72 appearances out of the bullpen last year, posting a 2.96 ERA (132 ERA+) in 67 innings while earning an impressive (for a reliever) seven wins along the way. He saw both his strikeout rate (7.1 K/9) and his walk rate (3.4 BB/9) increase from 2011 (though both were still far lower than his numbers from earlier in his career) while his unimpeachable wormburning ability remained strong (58% groundball rate). The DIPS numbers generally saw him as worse than his superficial stats would suggest (xFIP had his true-talent ERA as high as 3.77), but he has a history of outperforming his peripherals in his career.

FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus all estimated Smith’s 2012 performance as worth between 0.4 and 0.9 wins above replacement.

Key factor: Batting average on balls in play. Sabermetric theory suggests that most of what happens once the batter makes non-home run contact is out of the pitcher’s control, but Joe Smith is one of the modern game’s biggest apparent exceptions to that rule. While the league average BABIP has hovered around .300, Smith’s hit rate has been below .275 five years in a row and below .260 three years in a row. That’s what happens when you get batters to beat the ball into the ground—but how much of that is really sustainable skill?

If Smith’s peripherals ever catch up to him he’ll cease to be an effective high-leverage reliever, but if he can take advantage of the vastly improved Cleveland defense behind him he could well take his game to new heights.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

As was the case with Vinnie Pestano, there are two distinct views of Smith heading into 2013. One, that he’s a very good reliever who will continue to use his special skill set to outperform his peripherals; the other, that he is a respectable but ultimately replaceable arm who will never again be able to replicate his last two solid years.

Best-case scenario: Look back to 2011. Smith is the poster boy for inducing weak contact, sacrificing the strikeout for the weak grounder and the pop fly. Despite lacking flashy stuff he continues to stymie opposing hitters and he retakes his place as one of the elite setup men in baseball.

Worst-case scenario: Smith may have mastered the pitch-to-contact game, but even if his success to date is truly all skill, his approach leaves him highly vulnerable to the cruel mistress of bad luck. For whatever reason, noticeably more of the grounders Smith induces find holes and his numbers crash across the board. He’s still a decent option in the middle innings, but he’s no longer a significant upgrade over the several other bullpen candidates waiting in Triple-A.

What to expect: Not a whole lot different from 2012. Smith’s approach has been working for years now, and though pitching to contact is playing with fire there’s no reason to think he can’t do it again in 2013.

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