The Brewers, Will Smith, and a Breakthrough

One of baseball’s most compelling storylines during the 2013 season was the monster breakthrough campaign of Chris Davis. One of baseball’s most quietly hilarious storylines during the 2013 season was the very similar campaign of Khris Davis down the stretch. Last year, the Brewers didn’t have a whole lot going for them, but Davis shined rather unexpectedly, and the team liked what it saw. As an organization closer to rebuilding than contending, the Brewers want to see what Davis can do going forward, and with Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun also around, it wasn’t hard to see coming that Norichika Aoki could end up on the outside looking in.

Aoki’s too old for a team like the Brewers, and he’s under contract only one more season. It made sense for them to try to ship him to a contender, and that’s precisely what they’ve done, as Aoki has joined the Royals. In Kansas City, Aoki should play more than he would’ve in Milwaukee, and he has a chance at seeing the playoffs. In exchange, the Royals gave the Brewers Will Smith. It’s a low-profile transaction, considerably lower-profile even than the earlier Dexter Fowler trade, but what makes the trade worth taking about are the signs of Smith’s progress as a young lefty.

To address the Kansas City side first: the front office is still at work, but for now, the outfield looks like Aoki, Alex Gordon, and Lorenzo Cain. What Aoki brings is some proven ability to rather consistently get on base, even if he doesn’t hit like he did in Japan. The Royals claim that Aoki will bat leadoff often, allowing Gordon to shift down in the lineup. These are little things, things baseball people talk about that don’t really seem to matter that much. Current outfield backups include Justin Maxwell, Jarrod Dyson, and David Lough. Just from a WAR perspective, it isn’t clear that Aoki is much better than any of them overall. This is, probably, a very small improvement. But it is an improvement, and Aoki is good at something few Royals are good at, and there’s nothing wrong with depth. It’s not like this is some kind of Dayton Moore disaster. Aoki is steady, predictable, and more than adequate.

And he’s super cheap, even on a one-year deal. His 2014 salary is just under $2 million, meaning he has a good amount of surplus value that the Royals can turn into flexibility. By getting someone at such a low cost, the Royals could conceivably still afford to make another significant upgrade. Reports suggest they’re trying. When you remember that teams trade for value more than they trade for player names, Aoki’s short-term value is pretty clear. He does a good amount for a little.

But the Brewers didn’t do poorly here, themselves. A week or two ago, Aoki rumors came up in a chat, and I figured the Brewers might be able to land a B-prospect. Will Smith isn’t a B-prospect, in that he’s got a lot of experience already in the majors, but he’s big-league ready, he’s under control for a long time, and there’s reason to be encouraged.

He’s a 24-year-old lefty who just had a good stretch out of a big-league bullpen. Yet the Brewers say he’s going to come to camp in February competing for a rotation slot. He was a starter into the middle of last season, when the Royals pushed him to the Omaha bullpen to prepare him to come up to the majors. It would be simple to say that Smith’s 2013 success came as a result of assuming an easier job. Indeed, relieving did help, just as it helps everybody. But before Smith moved to the bullpen, he was doing something out of the rotation he’d never done before.

He was striking batters out. Smith made just ten starts last year in triple-A, but over those starts he struck out more than a quarter of the hitters he faced. Previously as a starter, he was always around league average. A comparison of 2012 Smith to 2013 Smith as an Omaha starting pitcher:

Strikeout rate

2012: 19%
2013: 27%

Contact rate

2012: 81%
2013: 75%

The samples, of course, are fairly small, so there’s only so much you can do with them, but that’s a pretty big drop in contact rate allowed. It’s enough to grab your eye, and it’s enough to want to pursue. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear what Smith changed, if he changed anything, but there are clues. An article from spring training:

“The first two were so easy that I said, ‘Man, we’ve got to give him another one,'” Yost said. “He had all three of his pitches working today. Great downhill action on his fastball, really good changeup and a really good curve. He threw all three pitches for strikes.”

Actually, Smith referred to his breaking pitches as sliders.

“Me and Sal [catcher Salvador Perez] were on a pretty good page today. We usually are,” Smith said. “We were working first-pitch fastballs for the most part and I think all the strikeouts came on sliders. It’s still kind of a new pitch but not really. I’m starting to get a better feel for it and throw it for strikes. I like it.”

Slider or curveball, it worked.

“For me, curveballs,” Yost said. “Because we had opposing hitters telling our players that it was starting over the batter’s eye and then breaking down into the strike zone. So it was pretty impressive, whatever it was.”

In February, Smith suggested he was working on improving a slider. Ned Yost figured it was a curve, but here’s confirmation that, according to Smith, he throws both pitches:

‘The slider was working and the curveball, too,’ Smith said.

By PITCHf/x, the pitches aren’t real easy to separate. Further complicating matters is that almost all of Smith’s time in the majors in 2013 was spent in the bullpen, and relievers pitch differently than starters do. But from what we can tell, Smith did throw a lot more sliders this past season than he did the season before. Implied is that the slider was better. This is supported by digging into the splits, because while Smith improved, he really improved against lefties. Lefties get terrorized by sliders from lefties.

Against righties, Smith’s strikeout rates haven’t moved that much. In 2012, Smith struck out 20% of lefties in triple-A, and 17% of lefties in the majors. In 2013, he struck out 44% of lefties in triple-A, and 50% of lefties in the majors. We’ve got some really small sample sizes, but Aroldis Chapman last year struck out 50% of lefties in the majors, and that was the highest rate in baseball. Smith matched it over a handful of innings, and that speaks to a wipeout breaking pitch. Here’s what it looks like sometimes:


Here’s that pitch against righties, where Smith likes to drop it toward the back foot:


Smith doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, and with his repertoire in the past, he was fine and somewhat unremarkable. With what seems like a better slider this past season, Smith took a step forward as a starter before emerging as a quality big-league reliever. Already, what’s known is that he can relieve in the majors. What’s more likely than it was a year ago is that he can start in the majors. He needed to improve, and he made an improvement, even if he didn’t develop, say, a wonderful changeup.

Odds are Smith will be good against lefties in any role. Obviously, he’d be less dominant out of the rotation, but still effective enough. So it becomes a matter of what he can do against righties, but all he’d need to do is survive. If a lefty starter is good enough against lefties, he can scrape by. Joe Saunders has been doing it for years. Paul Maholm, too, has been doing it for years. They’re mediocre starters, but they’re decent and guys like this are somewhat valuable when they’re cheap. Smith right now might be a Saunders/Maholm type, and maybe he’s better than that against righties. So maybe he’s even a level or half-level above.

The ceiling is low, but Will Smith might now be a major-league starting pitcher. A back-of-the-rotation type, with possible no. 3 upside. That would be the magic of improving a breaking ball between seasons. And if the starter experiment doesn’t pan out, then the Brewers have a pretty good lefty reliever for a while, which is better than nothing. The nothing that Aoki would contribute to Milwaukee beyond 2014. It made sense to cash Aoki in for what the Brewers could get, and instead of a prospect, they got themselves immediate help, in some form or another. Immediate, cheap, and long-term help.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

19 Responses to “The Brewers, Will Smith, and a Breakthrough”

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  1. KB says:

    Nice article. This is definitely the most optimistic view from the Brewers perspective I have seen at this point.

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  2. Gabes says:

    Can we get NotGraphs started on the Will Smith/Lorde Mash-up of “Royals” now?

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    • tz says:

      Here you go:

      This boy from West Philly seen a diamond in the flesh
      Put on my teeth to look just like my homies
      And I’m not proud of my address
      ‘Til I moved out west to the streets of Bel-Air

      But every song’s like:

      Listen home boys, don’t mean to bust your bubble, but girls of the world ain’t nothin but trouble.

      We don’t care, we’re playing Men In Black in our dreams

      But everybody’s like:
      Diamonds on your timepiece
      Jet planes
      ARod on a gold leash

      We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair

      I’m no longer a Royal (Royal)
      Blue don’t run in my blood
      But Milwaukee’s right for me, I crave a different kind of buzz
      Let me be your LOOGY
      You can call me Aoki
      And baby I’ll get those lefties in trouble (trouble, trouble…)
      (Damn this rap’s gettin’ hokey)

      My GM was high on crack and old
      David Glass counts his dollars and rains on the party
      If you know me I’ll be alright, spend my
      My offseasons in Bel-Air
      (Yo Hosmer, smell ya later.)

      But every song’s like:

      I’m not the next Bud Black, I’m hoping to be better
      I’m not the next Bud Black, no more hot KC weather!

      We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams

      But everybody’s like:
      Johnathan Lecroy
      Framing all my strikes, he’s
      Helping me win
      Arbitration shortly

      We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair (REPEAT)

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  3. JimNYC says:

    I assume there’s an article coming on how completely utterly insane the Seattle Mariners are?

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  4. d_i says:

    I thought Will Smith should have been given more of a shot to start for KC given his performance in Omaha but he didn’t really ever get a crack at that. This move most likely makes the Royals a little lefty heavy at the top (Aoki, Gordon, Hosmer) but it should mean the removal of Getzesque guys from occupying a top of the order spot. I’ll have a close eye on Aoki’s baserunning/SB success rate which went down quite a bit last year.

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    • Luke says:

      A number of Aoki’s CS occured on Roenicke’s pet plays, suicide squeeze and the contact play. He’s a smart base runner and should swipe over 75% of his actual attempts.

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      • Iron says:

        Hanigan (.545 SB%), Molina (.565), and even Martin (.596) who were in their division all excel at throwing out runners as another point to add.

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  5. Matt Gray says:

    Good trade for the both teams. Brewers need relievers and Royals needed a lead off hitter. To me this trade preludes another given the Royals current roster construction.The Royals could trade any of their 1B/3B/OF/DH options for a starter, depending on what they want/willing to do. Aoki could play RF/LF, Gordon can play 1B/3B/OF/DH while moving down in the line up, without giving up any outfield defense. Based on the starting rotation, outfield defense should/is a priority. Given that, I think the Royals should trade Butler for a starter, and rotate the rest at DH. Butler is owe 20.5 over the next 2 yrs, which is a great value based on the current market. The Royals than become a better pitching, defensive, and base running team while filling another hole in their rotation.

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    • Noiro says:

      I agree with most of what you say except that Gordon is a Gold Glove left fielder, I don’t think you give up his defense out there. He was not adequate as a hitter when playing third base nor was he very good at playing the bag. The Royals will need to do something though if the “Moose” has lost his ability to hit.

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    • budman says:

      SO,we give up one of the BEST,lead off hitters,and in return,get Will Smith,who is under a 50 game drug suspenion,and is facing a 100!! game suspension and that is a good deal for the Brewer’s??? Yall in to the SMOKE?

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  6. Klements Sausage says:

    Was waiting to read Fangraphs’ take on this. I feel better about it from a Brewers perspective than I did before, at least.

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    • Noiro says:

      Will Smith is a dandy, the Brewers got the best end of this deal, just like most teams do when dealing with GM DM.

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      • Jeremy Clemons says:

        Not really a fair comment. Moore traded from depth to aquire a need. Dont see how this isnt a positive for both sides

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        • Cris says:

          It’s a positive for both teams for one year. The Brewers will have Smith for five more years.

          Given the Royals past history, they will more than likely let Aoki ride after his one-year stint. The ones they have re-upped fall into the category of Getz and Francoeur, and, as much as I liked them personally, they didn’t measure up to their hype.

          It would be nice if Aoki was having a good season by September, that the Royals extend him for two years.

          The real surprise to me was signing Vargas for four years. His past history doesn’t seem to indicate that he is a four-year futures prospect.

          At any rate, I feel the Royals are at least trying to improve the team for next year. As a fan, I can only hope there will be no more Getzes or Francoeurs, no offense intended because I really liked the guys.

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  7. Jonathan Judge says:

    Well done. Think there may be a typo in second-to-last sentence.

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  8. Brandon says:

    Not the Will Smith I expected

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  9. Will Smith says:

    My pitches were gettin jiggy with it in 2013.

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  10. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I like the trade on both ends. Aoki will be good for the Royals and they definitely want OF depth due to Cain being frequently injured. Being able to trot out Aoki/Gordon/Cain is nice and you can platoon Dyson + Maxwell if one of them goes down. Meanwhile, the Brewers land an interesting arm. Good deals all around!

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