Taking a deeper dive into the struggles of a key bullpen cog.
Part of the bullpen plan for the Astros in 2021 was to welcome back one of the more reliable bullpen arms in recent history in Joe Smith. The veteran right-hander, who opted out of the 2020 season due to his late mother’s battle against Huntington’s disease, was to pick up his familiar role as a stabilizer for a contending relief staff. Smith’s presence was definitely missed as the bullpen generally struggled throughout the shortened season last year. In a way, his return in 2021 was akin to a free-agent signing who could produce a known quantity at a position noted for its volatility.
But volatility has been the overarching theme to start the season for Smith. Recent struggles have thrown considerable doubt on whether that past arrangement should continue, at least in the short term. Smith has allowed eight runs across his eight appearances to start the season, including two home runs while failing to record an out in two of those appearances. A 14.40 ERA, no matter how early in a season, is rather unsightly. While we’re still not close to certain stats reaching stabilization point, the lack of strikeouts and uptick of walks also creates a pause for concern.
Instead of concentrating solely on results-based stats like ERA or strikeout rate, which can sometimes lead us astray this early in a season, let’s look under the hood a bit. A good first place to start when looking further is velocity, which can sometimes assuage concerns about a pitcher. In Smith’s case, however, those concerns are only heightened.
All three of Smith’s main offerings — four-seam, sinker, and slider — have seen a noticeable drop in velocity compared to past seasons. On average, his four-seam fastball was around 88 to 89 MPH from 2018 through 2019. This season, that average velocity has dropped to 86.4 MPH. For a pitcher who didn’t possess overwhelming velocity in the first place, this development is worrisome for the long-term prospects for Smith. Of course, we can’t discount whether a full season off would cause a temporary issue with velocity, but the concern is still there. At least we can rule out pitch usage, which seems to be in line with what he has done in recent seasons.
Pitch movement and release point are other areas to monitor for changes, and we’re seeing a bit of difference with Smith, specifically between 2019 and 2021. Release point, first.
We all know that Smith’s release is in between that of a sidearm and submarine pitcher. Thus far in 2021, his release point has inched somewhat higher than what we last saw in 2019. We can also eliminate a noticeable change in where he is positioned on the pitching rubber.
Here’s a GIF from 2019.
And now a GIF from 2021.
But in terms of actual movement, we see something interesting when it comes to the horizontal break. Smith’s slider, in particular, has shown a fair bit more horizontal break in the early going this season than what we’re used to seeing from him in seasons past. Both GIFs above are of a slider, and even the untrained eye can pick up on this horizontal break change.
Smith hasn’t used a pitch more often than his slider since 2018, and it was arguably his best pitch performance-wise since joining the Astros. In fact, he allowed only nine hits when throwing a slider in his first two seasons in Houston. But, in 2021, he has already allowed five hits off of his slider, and we’re only five innings into his season. Interestingly, his slider’s average spin rate (2260 RPM) is at its lowest point since 2016 (2277 RPM) but still doesn’t explain why the sudden drop in its effectiveness.
At this point, I think we can point to the rather drastic drop in velocity as the key culprit in Smith’s performance across all of his offerings. But the slider tidbit is interesting and a development to watch. As I earlier hinted with his four-seam, his slider’s average velocity is down by roughly three miles per hour. To help compensate for the decrease in velocity, we might be seeing Smith alter how he throws his slider, hence the change in the horizontal break, less spin, and overall downturn in performance. Sure, I could be off on that assumption, but I think there could be something there.