Most professional players, pitchers in particular, wind up being successful in baseball because they are, 1) blessed with amazing athletic abilities, and, 2) learn to practice and use the proper mechanics and science behind maximizing the likelihood of repeatable success with those amazing abilities.
Carson Smith is not most professional players.
The amazing athletic ability is still there for Smith. The 6-foot-6 right-hander throws a fastball that can touch the mid-90s and a slider in the mid- to upper-80s that both have incredible whiffle ball-esque movement. But he slings the ball from a nearly true-sidearm slot with an equally odd and hasty looking herky-jerky delivery. Back before his 2012 debut with Seattle, before anyone had really seen him in game action, I was told by one M’s staffer, "just about everything with him is bad, but he gets good results."
Those results so far for Smith have actually been more than just "good". After posting a 2.90 ERA (2.64 FIP), 11.2 SO/9 and a 2.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 62 innings during his 2012 debut in the hitting paradise of the California League the big Texan improved to a 1.80 ERA (1.76 FIP), 12.8 SO/9 with a 4.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 50 innings in Double-A Jackson in 2013. And to put a cherry on the top of those numbers, he has induced a ground ball rate of 60.9% in his 112 innings, 67.3% this season – good for the second best rate in all of minor league baseball among qualifiers, just barely lower than the 2013 MLB leader, Brad Ziegler’s 68.6%. 351 MLB pitchers have thrown 200 or more innings over the last five years and only 4 of them -- Jonny Venters, Ziegler, Ronald Belisario and Scott Downs -- have a groundball rate over 60.0%, so this type of skill is a big deal.
After impressing in the Arizona Fall League as an exception player (from below the Double-A level) last October, Smith is back with the Peoria Javelinas again this fall, and while the stats aren't pretty this time around, he is once again turning heads of scouts and coaches. Through the fall season’s first 18 games, Smith has surrendered seven earned runs on seven hits and four walks in his five outings of one inning each for Peoria, but most of that damage came in his last appearance on Saturday, when he allowed five earned runs on three hits and three walks, throwing just 15 of 32 pitches for strikes.
It seems counterproductive for a 6-foot-6 pitcher to throw from a low slot as it not only eliminates any advantage that could be gained by creating that coveted downhill plane on the fastball, but also is more likely to lead to the issues with command and consistency, which happen to Smith at times, like Saturday. But the truth of the matter is, again, that Smith isn't your typical arm. The movement that he generates on his pitches from his current arm angle is very good, and it probably makes for a much tougher at-bat for opposing hitters than if he had a typical delivery and release point. The fact that he is still able to regularly reach the mid-90s with his fastball with that movement and release point make him much harder to hit than a regular pitcher with comparable stuff in the opinion of some scouts I spoke with this week.
"The delivery is so fast and the ball just explodes. The fastball has a different spin on it, too. It’s really tough to pick fastball or slider out of his hand," one said to me.
Carson’s struggles with his command seemed to disappear in the second half of last season as his strike percentage went up and his pitches-per-inning went down while he allowed only one earned run in his final 22 games (0.31 ERA). Right-handers hit just .158 and managed only two extra base hits -- both doubles -- in 130 plate appearances while striking out nearly 40% of the time. And, oh, that ground ball rate.
The pitching staff of the Seattle Mariners improved from 27th in baseball to 9th in ground ball rate from 2012 to 2013, an evolution that certainly saved runs when considering the altered Safeco Field dimensions, but a pitcher like Smith could be a real game changer for any bullpen. So while he is just two seasons into his professional career and definitely still needs some refining at this point, don’t be surprised if Carson Smith is getting ground balls at an insane rate out of the Seattle bullpen at some point in 2014.
Rick Randall regularly contributes on Mariners prospects here at Lookout Landing. You can catch his more frequent and more detailed takes on those prospects, and the entire Mariners system, at his website SeattleClubhouse. He can also be found on Twitter, where he loves to answer questions, at @randallball.