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Carson Smith: Not a belly itcher

Wherein the author makes way too much of Carson Smith's short (albeit brilliant) career thus far.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Carson Smith has only pitched 10.1 innings so far in his big-league career. Obviously this is an incredibly small sample size, so don't read too far into the statements/numbers/optimism that are scattered throughout this post. That being said, the Mariners have gotten off to a big ol' bummer of a start - maybe focusing on one of the bright spots of this young season will do us all some good.

The Mariners drafted 21-year-old Carson Smith out of Texas State University in 2011 with their eighth round pick. He made his professional debut for the High Desert Mavericks in the spring of '12 and quickly rose through the Mariners minor league organization, receiving an MLB call up last September. This past off-season, Baseball America ranked Smith as the Mariners 10th best prospect, and so far he definitely appears to deserve this sort of praise (if not more). Although he struggled a bit in Spring Training and almost didn't make the team's Opening Day roster, he seems like he probably belongs in the Mariners 'pen.

Smith is predominately a sinking fastball+slider pitcher. He has also mixed in a changeup ~7% of the time throughout his career, but has yet to offer up any in '15. So far, Smith has thrown his sinker (94-95 mph) a bit more frequently than his slider (85-86 mph), and can proficiently paint the corners with both of these pitches. As we saw when he faced off against the Angels earlier this week, each of these offerings can be downright dominating. In fact, since last year, Smith has had the single best fastball among any relief pitcher (who has registered 10+ IP). This is certainly influenced by the relatively small number of pitches that he's thrown, but the point stands: Carson Smith's fastball, when used in combination with his slider, has the potential to be an incredibly effective pitch against MLB-caliber hitters.

It should be noted that while he was coming up in the minors, Smith did exhibit a not-small lefty/righty split. Nonetheless, Lloyd hasn't been afraid to use Smith against lefty batters; almost 40% of the men Carson has faced have batted from the left side.

Season Level vs RHB vs LHB vs All BF % PA vs RHP % PA vs LHB
2012 A+ 0.579 0.731 0.647 271 55% 45%
2013 AA 0.392 0.703 0.504 203 64% 36%
2014 AAA 0.610 0.539 0.576 211 53% 47%
All minors 0.525 0.659 0.583 685 57% 43%
All MLB 0.317 0.143 0.251 37 62% 38%

Additionally, the average MLBer that Smith has pitched against has put up a wRC+ of 108 and a triple slash line of .260/.330/.410 since 2013 (compared to an MLB average of ~.250/.315/.390 over that same period). These aren't a bunch of scrubs he's been pitching against. He's done some real damage against some very good ball players.

It's certainly early in Smith's career, and nothing I say about the likeliness of his future success/glory/domination is particularly founded. Still, it's better for him to have good numbers in a small sample size than it would be for him to have bad numbers. For reference, here are Smith's numbers through his first 37 plate appearances compared to the super early numbers put up by the top-five relievers in baseball (in terms of fWAR over the past three years). Each row represents ~10 innings pitched and/or ~40 batters faced.

Craig Kimbrel 22 11 6 2 0 11.1 41 6 2 0 11.1 2.4 0.250 67% 46% 1.59 1.35 2.35
Aroldis Chapman 22 11 0 1 3 9.2 38 7 2 0 12.1 3.7 0.333 73% 80% 1.86 1.63 1.88
Greg Holland 24 6 0 0 0 9.2 45 11 6 1 6.5 5.6 0.323 71% 36% 5.59 4.84 5.26
Kenley Jansen 22 11 1 0 2 9.2 41 7 1 0 12.1 5.6 0.318 92% 38% 0.93 2.25 3.39
Sean Doolittle 25 7 0 1 1 8.2 37 9 4 0 17.7 2.1 0.500 64% 40% 4.15 -0.14 0.71
Carson Smith 24-25 11 0 0 4 10.1 37 2 0 0 12.2 3.5 0.111 100% 72% 0.00 1.82 2.18

It's clear that, in addition to being very effective in his appearances so far, Smith has also been pretty lucky. A BABIP of .111 and a strand rate of 100% are super shiny numbers, but those will obviously regress; to see how good Smith really is we'll just have to wait and see how far they do. In any case, his early numbers certainly stack up well against these other ace relievers. Most of these gentlemen hit the ground running, and Smith is no exception. I don't mean to imply that he's definitely gonna turn into the next Craig Kimbrel, but you never know...

So what does all this mean? Maybe nothing. Maybe something. I'd love to build up the Carson Smith hype train until it resembles an awe-inspiring bullet train speeding from Tokyo to Osaka, majestically aerodynamic and sparkling in the sunshine as it blazes past, but doing so for a kid who has barely pitched one regulation-length MLB baseball game wouldn't be particularly reasonable. Regardless, I look forward to watching Carson go out there and pitch every two or three days. His arsenal seems pretty top-notch so far, but as hitters/teams get more tape and better scouting reports on his stuff he'll have to adjust if he wants to hang around and be successful. Hopefully he can do so and is able to become a dependable part of the Mariners bullpen for many years to come.

Go M's!