Joe Smith: Boring Name, Decent Reliever

Joe Smith, who has long contended with Scott Baker and Jim Johnson for The Most Boring Name in Baseball, reportedly signed a three-year, $15.75 million deal with the Angels over the weekend. This might seem like another multi-year contract of the sort bloggers like to complain about, but I don’t think that conclusion is self evident. The more important question might be how this fits into a coherent off-season strategy for the Angels to improve their run prevention.

Perhaps fittingly for a pitcher named “Joe Smith,” he sort of seems to be a generic right-handed reliever. He does not throw terribly hard, as his fastball averages around 90. Smith is primarily a sinker-slider pitcher, so he profiles as more of a ROOGY. Smith is actually not bad against lefties, though, even though he throws from something of a lower arm angle. Although for his career he does (as one would expect) have better numbers versus right-handed hitters, both his 2011 and 2012 wOBA against was lower versus left-handed hitters. It is dangerous to read too much into that without a more detailed analysis. The point is simply that Smith is not helpless versus lefties.

The above probably makes Smith sound like he is pretty mediocre. Steamer projects Smith as having a true talent ERA and FIP in the mid-3s, which is useful, but hardly worth three years in free agency as a reliever. It would be a mistake to just dismiss a projection because it does not meet ones own analysis — good projection systems like Steamer include all the math done in detail that goes far beyond what we typically eyeball from seasonal stats. But for the sake of trying to understand what the Angels might be seeing in Smith (and clearly their own projections and scouts see him as better than Steamer, which does not impugn either Steamer nor the Angels), let’s look at this differently.

Smith was indeed pretty unremarkable until 2011. In 2011, he had his best season primarily due to getting his control under, well, control, finishing with a 2.01 ERA and 2.91 FIP in 67 innings. Though Smith has not been as good since then, he was still a quality reliever in 2012 and 2013, finishing both seasons with sub-3 ERAs. His FIP in those seasons (in the mid-3s) suggests it might be something on an illusion. However, Smith has always, even pre-2011, had lower a ERA than his FIP. Smith’s career BABIP is just .272, and while that is still over just 349 innings (reliever sample sizes!), it seems possible there is something to it beyond random variation. Few would say that something is Cleveland’s infield defense, either.

From 2011 to 2013, Smith’s cumulative WAR via FIP is around +2.0, but according to RA9-WAR, it is near +5.0. If one thinks the latter is better representative of his value then and presently, then Smith was worth about a win-and-a-half per season. Generally speaking, multi-year contracts for non-elite relievers do not seem to work out well all that often. However, since the price of a win seems to be rising to a fair bit more than $5 million so far this off-season, this deal does not seem so bad, even with Smith’s likely decline due to age.

However, one might wonder if the Angels’ situation really called for them to go out of their way to get Smith. Their closer, Ernesto Frieri, throws right-handed, and though Dane de la Rosa (also a righty) is probably not as good as his impressive 2013, it is not clear that Smith is leaps and bounds better. A good argument can be made that the Angels would be better of saving the money spent elsewhere, say, on upgrading the back end of their rotation (insert your own Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and a time machine joke here).

The Angels probably would like to upgrade their rotation, but in practice it may be difficult given their other payroll obligations. Even if Jered Weaver can return to his pre-2013 numbers (not that his 2013 was bad; it simply was not up to his prior standards), the inability to re-sign Jason Vargas makes the middle and back of their rotation a question mark. The thought may be to improve their run prevention by going with “super-pen” to make up for the starter’s deficiencies.

It is not a terrible strategy on paper, and fewer runs are fewer runs. But aside from the question of whether the Smith money could have done much to help the rotation, how much of a difference can a super-pen make? Without doing a survey, one can look back slightly to the recent history of the team that stole Jason Vargas away: the Royals.

Back in 2011 the Royals looked like they had a promising offense with youth coming up (another story), but they were in need of pitching. Going into 2012, they knew they could not afford much starting pitching (Jeff Francis, Bruce Chen, and Jonathan Sanchez all figured into their plans going into the season). Instead, they supplemented an already promising young bullpen that would feature the likes of Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, and Tim Collins with bounceback candidate Jonathan Broxton. Broxton may not have been the best pitcher in the pen, but he did pitch decently for Kansas City before being traded to the Reds. The Royals had one of the most dominating bullpens in the American League in 2012

How much of a difference did it really make? In 2011, the Royals’ overall ERA- was 11th in the American League. In 2012, with the Super Pen, it was 10th. The Royals did have a tremendous bullpen, but it did not really improve their run prevention all that much. Individual relievers are not totally irrelevant cogs, they do make a difference, but even with leverage taken into account, slight improvements over 60 or 70s innings do not make a huge difference.

Spending substantial money (or talent) to acquire relievers, especially those who are not elite, remains problematic for a number or reasons. It is also worth nothing that with wins costing what they seem to these days, three years and $15.75 million may not qualify as “substantial money” anymore. But if the Angels are hoping that a good pen — and Frieri and Smith hardly look to be the 2013 equivalent of Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera in 2012 — can make up for the run prevention shortcomings of their rotation, they are likely to be disappointed. The Angels need better pitching, and while Joe Smith helps a little, they need more than the little he should be expected to contribute.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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