07 January 2017

What To Know About Seth Smith

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Our long, citywide nightmare — also known as The Yovani Gallardo Experience — is over. The owner of the fourth-highest cFIP in the majors will weigh down Seattle's rotation in 2017, as the Orioles dealt Gallardo to the Mariners yesterday in exchange for Seth Smith. The 34-year-old outfielder will make $7 million in 2017, thereby saving the Birds at least $6 million (Gallardo is due $11 million this year and has a $2 million buyout for next year).

Aside from salary, Smith appears to differ from Gallardo in three key regards:
  1. He's a hitter;
  2. he's a lefty; and
  3. he's a competent major league baseball player.
On that last note, let's elaborate! Smith brings a career triple-slash of .261/.344/.447 to Charm City, which has been good for a .343 wOBA and 112 wRC+. Thanks to that dependable bat and a not-terrible glove (more on that below), Smith's been worth 13.1 fWAR and 11.7 rWAR across 3,711 lifetime plate appearances — he's been just about an average player, which the Orioles will gladly take as they try to contend in 2017.

He has a good eye, and possibly a great one.

The Orioles, as you may have heard, don't walk very much as a team — they've placed in the bottom half of the majors in free pass rate in the last four seasons. Strikeouts have become a problem as well in recent years: After putting up the 11th-highest K rate in the majors in 2014, Baltimore's been in the top 10 in 2015 and 2016. Plate discipline, in other words, is something for which the Orioles are wanting.

At the beginning of his career, Smith had some plate discipline. From 2007 to 2013, he swung at 27.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone (the 214th-highest mark out of 429 qualified hitters), along with 61.6 percent of pitches inside the strike zone (233rd-highest); simultaneously, he made contact on 78.2 percent of his swings (134th-lowest). All that resulted in a 10.0 percent walk rate and 19.3 percent strikeout rate across those years — respectable figures, albeit nothing impressive.

But Smith became quite impressive in 2014, when he arrived in San Diego. That campaign, he reduced his O-Swing rate to the 18th-lowest among 146 qualified hitters, at 23.2 percent, while his Z-Swing rate dipped to the 34th-lowest at 59.2 percent. And he accomplished that as he made far more contact, posting the 69th-lowest figure in the majors at 81.1 percent. A more patient approach and better judgment on his swings gave Smith a superb 13.2 percent walk rate and 16.7 percent strikeout rate. His 0.79 BB/K ratio was on par with David Ortiz, and better than Edwin Encarnacion and Andrew McCutchen, among many others.

Did Smith undergo a legitimate breakout? That was the conclusion drawn by MLB.com's Corey Brock, FanGraphs' Matt Klaassen, The San Diego Union-Tribune's Dennis Lin, and others. These writers attributed Smith's improved plate discipline — which boosted his wRC+ to a career-best 131 — to the Lasik surgery he'd undergone the previous summer. It certainly seems that being able to see would help a hitter out. Maybe with sterling vision, Smith was finally reaching his potential.

Sadly, that narrative has deflated after two campaigns in humid Seattle. During 2015 and 2016, with his eyes presumably still intact from the surgery, Smith walked in 10.7 percent of his plate appearances, while striking out in 21.1 percent. His O-Swing rate (24.6 percent), Z-Swing rate (58.2 percent), and contact rate (76.4 percent) all began to regress toward his prior career levels. The breakout faded, and Smith returned to normal.

For 2017, what does this mean? The rational expectation is that Smith will maintain his 2015-16 level of play; that's what Steamer foresees, calling for a 10.7 percent walk rate and 21.2 percent strikeout rate. Still, the potential for a resurgence remains in place — plate discipline doesn't necessarily fade with age. If Smith remembers how to judge pitches again, he could again reach the Ortiz level of plate discipline.

He doesn't fare too well against fellow lefties. 

Last offseason, after the Pirates non-tendered him, the Orioles reeled in Pedro Alvarez on a one-year deal. Though Alvarez threw right-handed, as virtually all nominal third basemen do, he hit from the left side of the plate. This meant he'd perform poorly when facing left-handed pitching — to such an extent that he'd be virtually unplayable against southpaws. Understanding this, Baltimore deployed Alvarez accordingly: He received only 42 plate appearances versus a left-hander last year, compared to 334 versus right-handers.

Smith, too, hits left-handed (although he also throws left-handed, which thankfully prevents him from manning third base and doing this). And like Alvarez, he's always come up short against same-handed opponents:

  Handedness   PA BB% K% ISO   BABIP   AVG OBP SLG   wRC+  
L 558 9.3%   22.9%     .109   .251   .202     .282     .312   60
R   3153    10.9%  18.7% .200 .309 .272 .355 .472 121

Smith's wRC+ against righties puts him 28th among 101 hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances; he's tied with Evan Longoria and slightly ahead of Nelson Cruz. Meanwhile, his wRC+ against lefties ranks 322nd, in a sample of...327 hitters. So he does pretty well for himself when the pitcher throws with his right hand, and pretty terribly otherwise.

The BABIP and ISO troubles don't stem from an altered batted-ball distribution — Smith has an identical ground ball rate against righties and lefties. But he's made hard contact much more often off the former (33.5 percent) than the latter (24.4 percent). As with many platoon-hindered hitters, that's probably due to the location patterns he encounters:

Righties give Smith more pitches to hit, which he obviously capitalizes on. Lefties stay far, far away from him, thus preventing him from doing damage.

As with Alvarez, Smith's platoon split is most likely set in stone at this point — having turned 34 in September, Smith is what he is. With their new outfielder in the fold, the Orioles will likely have no need for Alvarez's services going forward; Smith will presumably team up with Joey Rickard in a corner outfield spot. If both players can maintain their solid production against opposite-handed pitching (Rickard had a 131 wRC+ off southpaws as a rookie), Baltimore will have a reliable platoon supporting its lineup.

He excelled in the first half of 2016, then struggled in the second half. 

Like another former Oriole and current free agent, Smith started 2016 off on the right foot. He sailed to a .298/.423/.544 batting line and 166 wRC+ in April, and although he couldn't match that in the subsequent months, he still entered the All-Star Break with a .277/.366/.450 triple-slash and 127 wRC+ to his name. When he came back, though, things took a turn for the worse: Smith limped his way to a .202/.306/.361 line in the second half, good for a measly 85 wRC+.

Smith's decline in the later months of 2016 wasn't really because of plate discipline — while his strikeout rate rose from 19.4 percent to 21.8 percent, his walk rate also went up from 10.8 to 11.2 percent. He appeared to fall off thanks to his ISO, which sunk from .173 to .156, and his BABIP, which plummeted from .310 to .236. Without his power and average, no amount of plate discipline could save Smith.

Did Smith stand any chance of sustaining his first-half numbers, or was the decline destined to happen? His ground ball rate didn't change much from before the All-Star Break (48.1 percent) to afterward (47.7 percent), nor did he lose a great deal of hard contact (34.6 percent first half, 32.4 percent second half). But he did undergo a massive change in one regard: His popup rate doubled, from 2.8 percent to 5.4 percent after the Midsummer Classic. Infield fly balls almost always turn into outs, so that obviously put a damper on Smith's season.

Smith's second-half struggles were in large part unlucky. It's plausible he puts them behind him and returns to his first-half level of play, thus breaking out in 2017 (although we saw how well that thinking worked out in 2014). On the flipside, the popup problem could remain in place, which would continue to depress Smith's BABIP and ISO. The hard contact and ground ball consistency should help his cause, but if he can't hit his air balls out of the infield, he'll be stuck as a mediocre hitter.

His defense fell off a cliff in 2016.

From 2012 — his first year outside Colorado, which some evidence suggests may skew defensive metrics — to 2015, Smith compiled 2,794.1 innings in the outfield. In that time, he earned 6 Defensive Runs Saved and 6.2 Ultimate Zone Rating runs, which averaged out to 2.8 DRS/1300 and 2.9 UZR/1300 (about a full year's worth of innings). In other words, he was a modestly above-average corner outfielder, which coupled with his talent at the plate to make him a decent player.

That success didn't carry over into 2016, though. Last season, despite spending only 730.0 innings in the outfield, he cost the Mariners 7 DRS and 7.9 UZR, translating to 12.5 DRS/1300 and 14.1 UZR/1300. On a rate basis, Smith dropped off by more than a win and a half, which despite the small-sample caveats that come with defensive metrics is cause for concern.

How does FanGraphs' Inside Edge data appraise his decline? (As a primer: Inside Edge scouts put each play into one of six buckets, based on how often an average fielder would make it, then evaluate how often the defender in question succeeds on such plays. It's simpler than it sounds, trust me.) Let's look at his results from 2012 through 2015, and from 2016:

Year(s) 0%   1-10%     10-40%     40-60%     60-90%     90-100%  
  2012-15   0.0% 5.0% 16.7% 25.0% 92.0% 99.8%
2016   0.0%   0.0% 0.0% 12.5% 100.0% 99.3%

The plays in the 90-100 percent bucket — referred to as "routine" — make up the majority of all plays a fielder will encounter, so even the smallest change there can portend a larger shift in overall output. This might not be the case for Smith, though, as he failed to make just one of the 150 "routine" plays he faced last year.

Rather, the more difficult plays seem to have caused Smith's problems in 2016. He couldn't field anything in the 1-10 percent bucket ("remote") or the 10-40 percent bucket ("unlikely"), and his clip of 40-60 percent successes ("even") was cut in half. This trend points to an unsettling culprit: Father Time. Smith still knows how to position himself to handle the easy plays, but as he enters his mid-30s he may be losing the speed and instincts necessary for the tougher ones.

This may not be the sole cause. While Smith's generally kept himself healthy, he dealt with a groin injury earlier in the season, which might have hampered his performance in the outfield. Convalescing from that, with a full offseason to rest and rehab, might allow him to return to the field an above-average defender again. And, of course, this did all happen in a mere 730.0 innings; perhaps the Inside Edge scouts misjudged a few plays and screwed up Smith's numbers. From what we know about defensive aging curves, though, we shouldn't be too optimistic about Smith's glove going forward.


Let's wrap up with some glass-half-full analysis. Smith is a satisfactory outfielder: He can take a walk (and won't strike out too often), he hits righties well, and he might have some upside if he can rediscover his early-2016 magic, which will hopefully compensate for a possible defensive decline. With the $4 million they'll save this year, maybe the O's can bring in a fifth starter to shore up their rotation, or a right-handed outfielder to pair with Hyun Soo Kim. With just one trade, Dan Duquette partially filled a gaping hole on his roster and got rid of an albatross — I guess it was worth the wait.


Roger said...

Nice story. Thanks, Ryan. Did anyone at the Depot figure to get anything useful for Gallardo? This seems like a major coup. MLBTR reports the savings around $4M but that still seems to be a huge benefit based upon how the payroll was looking. All this platooning leaves not much space for extra pitchers. If they go with 13 fielders and keep Tavarez then there would seem to be a shortage of RH OF. Not sure why the O's keep wanting LH hitters when the problems last year were against lefties (even Trumbo was awful against lefties). They need to find a way to use Mancini (DH against LH??). Maybe against RH pitchers, they can use Kim, Smith, and Trumbo (DH) and against LH, they can us Rickard, Trumbo, Mancini (DH). It sure would be nice if Tavarez was an IF (he did play a little 2B and 3B) as well as an OF then we could keep him and send Flaherty down). That would make 13 fielders. If Trumbo doesn't sign then we really ought to consider Batista especially with the extra $4M in tow. He would be a better OF....

We also have 12 pitchers if you include Ondrusek. Verrett will make a great swingman and SP when we get tired of seeing Jimenez in the rotation. Alternately, it might be nice to start Verrett in the rotation and keep Bundy as swingman early in the season. I think Drake, Liranzo, or Garcia might be better than Ondrusek. We already have the LOOGY in Hart and he may be able to expand his role.

This trade really makes this team come together if Smith can remain as an average OF both on defense and offense (or better in a platoon).

Jon Shepherd said...

If you remember back in November I spoke how Gallardo has real value. Honestly, if he was a free agent he would probably see a 1/10 deal from someone. He flashed some usefulness last year and is one of those veteran upside guys.

Pip said...

Enjoyed this. I remember Jon(?) wanting Smith when he was with San Diego. Oh well.
Anyway, do you know how many of Smith's long fly outs would have gone out of Camden? I wonder if Dan is counting on increased run production and is willing to sacrifice defense to get it?
Defensively, the OF remains marginal at best.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully, this means we will never see the Reimold ship sail here again, it has already done so, too many times, ala Mark Hendrickson!

Roger said...

Jon, I watched a lot of O's games last year and it took me a long time to figure who was least useful, Jimenez or Gallardo, and came to the conclusion (after September) that I couldn't remember seeing Gallardo pitch in any way effectively. He lost his value as an innings eater with a long history of non-injury. There was nothing left after that. Verrett is way better than Gallardo (so is Worley). This was a great salary dump to bring something useful back. I hope this means we can still keep Tavarez (I hope Santander is out for the year, too, so we can insert him next year). DD keeps looking for LH hitters but we really need someone who can hit lefties. That was a big problem last year.

Oddly, I think a good framing catcher could really help Jimenez (and keep Tillman on track).