Will Smith’s repertoire includes two- and four-seam fastballs, a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. How frequently he used each of those pitches changed markedly from 2012 to 2013. Last season he threw 14% more two-seamers and 15.9% fewer four-seamers. He also threw 18.3% more sliders and 5% fewer curveballs. His changeup became mostly an afterthought.
The results were striking. In his first season as a reliever, Smith lowered his ERA from 5.32 to 3.24 and upped his K/9 from 5.92 to 11.61. He did so while pitching for the Kansas City Royals. The 24-year-old southpaw is now with the Milwaukee Brewers, having been dealt in the offseason for Norichika Aoki.
I asked Smith about pitch usage prior to Friday’s game at Fenway Park. I began by inquiring about his scant use of two-seamers in his first two outings. He pointed to small sample size, adding that he‘ll throw more as the season goes along. Fair enough. He also mentioned feel and scouting reports. Again, fair enough.
His comments about last season were similar. Regarding slider and curveball usage, Smith said “That was just what the scouting reports called for and what I felt comfortable with. [The slider] was working for me and it’s hard to go away from something that‘s working. Same thing with my curveball. Some hitters are better curveball hitters than slider hitters, and a lot of the guys I faced were better curveball hitters.”
Knowing he would have faced a higher percentage of same-sided hitters as a reliever than he did as a starter, I asked if lefty-lefty match-ups were a big part of it. He said, “Yes, I would say so.”
Following our conversation, I went back to his stat page. I knew he dominated lefties last year — .157/.204/.353 in 77 plate appearances — but I hadn’t looked at his 2012 numbers. They weren‘t what I expected. In 101 plate appearances, lefties hit him to the tune of .356/.402/.495.
A follow-up seemed in order. After the game — a 6-2 Brewers win in which Smith threw 23 pitches — I dug a little deeper. I first asked about his fastball usage that day, as I couldn’t tell from the press box if he was throwing two- or four-seamers. “I threw more twos today,” he told me. Why? “Mostly scouting reports.“
According to PITCHf/x, Smith threw an equal number of two- and four-seamers on Friday, nine of each. He also threw three curveballs and two sliders.
Last year he utilized his slider nearly 30 percent of the time. Opposing batters hit .093 against it.
Scouting reports or feel? I didn’t press Smith on yesterday’s pitch selection, but I did regarding 2012 and 2013. Given the difference in results, both pitch-specific and overall, was he maybe downplaying feel? Was his slider simply his best pitch?
“It was more feel last year,” admitted Smith. “I didn’t have as much confidence with the slider [in 2012]. It was still kind of a new pitch for me, so I was trying to get used to it.”
His best pitch in 2014? We’re only a week into the season, so it’s too early to tell. But if Smith has the same feel for his slider as a year ago, expect him to be very good out of the Brewers’ bullpen.
Expectations are high for Maikel Franco. The 21-year-old third baseman is the top-rated prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. Last year he hit .320/.356/.569, with 31 home runs, between high-A Clearwater and Double-A Reading. He’s beginning this season with the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
No one questions Franco’s bat speed or power. Both are plus-plus. There are, however, some concerns about his plate discipline. The free-swinging Dominican walked 30 times last year in 581 plate appearances.
I asked Franco if he’s too aggressive at the plate.
“Sometimes, yeah,” responded Franco. “Sometimes I feel like I’m too aggressive, but when that happens, I say to myself, ‘Just keep it nice and easy, he’ll come to you. Just be ready for everything.’ I’ve been here five years now. Coming to the USA, they said ‘Do it like you do.’ When I go out there, I try to see the ball good, swing, and try to make good contact.”
Franco does make contact. He fanned just 70 times last year. According to Lehigh Valley coach Mickey Morandini, the youngster has made great strides in the plate discipline department, despite his aggressive ways.
“I’ve really seen him grow,” said Morandini, who managed Franco in A ball. ““He wants to swing the bat, but his recognition of breaking balls is much better now. He used to swing at a lot of balls out of the zone, and he‘s learned how to lay off some of those pitches. One thing he does better than anyone I’ve seen in his age group is he’ll swing at a pitch out of the zone, and when he gets that pitch again, he won’t swing at it.”
IronPigs manager Dave Brundage has less experience working with Franco, but likes what he sees.
“What he mostly needs is experience,” said Brundage. “He has great hands, both offensively and defensively. He just needs to shorten things up a little bit and not try to do too much. That’s typical for a young player. They get to big league camp for the first time, like he did this year, and want to show everybody all at once what they can do. They maybe swing a little harder, wanting the ball to farther. But Maikel has the complete package. It’s just a matter of tightening things up, making sure his mechanics are sound and he’s staying within himself.”
In batting practice, Franco’s focus is all about discipline. Once the game starts, he goes back to what comes naturally.
“In the cage, I hit to the opposite field,” explained Franco. “Center field, right field, center field, right field. That’s what I’m thinking about in BP, But when I go out there [in the game], I know I can just throw my hands, so I don‘t think about anything. It’s just see the ball, hit the ball hard.”
Will Middlebrooks came up through the Red Sox system with a profile similar to Franco‘s. A power-hitting third baseman, he was the team’s top prospect despite plate discipline issues. To some extent, they’re still there. Middlebrooks has drawn 34 free passes in 675 big-league at bats. He also has 33 home runs and projects to hit many more.
Carlos Gomez is likewise not shy about letting it fly. His power has emerged in recent seasons — he went deep 24 times last year — but the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder has walked only 146 times in 2,737 plate appearances.
I asked Middlebrooks and Gomez how Franco might best be served going forward. Based on their own experiences, should the young Phillies’ prospect begin taking more pitches, or should he stick with what’s gotten him this far?
“I don’t know him, so I can only speak for myself, but I got better by figuring out my swing and figuring out my plan,” said Middlebrooks. “In the minor leagues, I felt like a lot of guys would try to get ahead with heaters, so I’d be up there hacking at heaters right from the first pitch. Instead of looking at one part of the plate, I’d see a heater and whether it was inner third or outer third, I’d hack at it. I hadn’t learned to zone guys up. Now I’ll take that pitch.”
I asked him if it’s easier to be patient if you’re allowed to be yourself at the plate. In other words, is it easier to be disciplined if you aren’t thinking about being disciplined?
“I think that’s true,” said Middlebrooks. “I feel if you’re told to be disciplined, you get passive. I dealt with that some. I was trying to be more disciplined, trying to see more pitches, and ended taking good pitches to hit. I was up there almost predetermined, like “I’m going to take here.’ I think you need to learn your zone and just be yourself.”
Gomez had a similar take.
“It’s hard to tell what he should do, because I don‘t know him,” said Gomez. “But if he’s got power… not everybody is the same. What makes me do better at the plate is when I swing aggressive and hard. I dominate when I swing at a ball I can dominate, not when I chase pitches. But I’m aggressive, so I look for a pitch I can drive out of the ballpark. I tried to be different, but it didn’t work. In the last year and a half, I’ve just been me.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t really told to see more pitches. It was more to hit the ball on the ground and run. When I first came up, they saw me as a speed guy, not a power hitter. Now I’m trying to hit a high line drive to the middle of the field, or a home run. They’re just letting me be myself. I think that‘s what you have to be.”
Players aren’t always themselves when they step between the white lines. Over the course of a long season, there are going to be times you‘re nowhere close to 100 percent. The issue isn’t always physical. It can also be mental, and sometimes it‘s not simple.
Mike Nickeas has been through the grind. Currently playing for Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate, the Buffalo Bison, the 31-year-old catcher is in his 11th professional season. Nickeas knows you occasionally have to fight demons in order to survive.
“I’ve seen guys get in the batter’s box and be tight,” said Nickeas. “It’s happened to me as well. You feel anxiety, and that hinders your performance. I’ve played with guys who have had to go on medication because they were mentally crippling themselves. I’ve also seen guys who aren’t as talented, yet they’re the best players on the field because their minds tell them they are. The psyche is really powerful. You can tell yourself anything you want, but if it’s not something you truly believe in your subconscious, it’s not going to do anything for you.
“Fear exists in baseball, and how you deal with it is personal. To each player it’s a different thing. If anyone on this field tells you he’s never experienced fear, whether it’s fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being hurt, he’s lying. And fear drives anxiety. You need to find ways to cope with that.”
J.A. Happ had to cope with fear last season. The Blue Jays left-hander was taken from the field on a stretcher after being hit in the head by a line drive in early May. He didn’t return to the mound until August. Following his return, I asked him about the mental demons Nickeas talked about.
“At this level, everybody has the physical tools to be successful, so the mental part of it is everything,” said Happ. “I’ve obviously had ups and downs with that. You’ve had success before, but for whatever reason, doubt creeps in and your confidence level isn’t where it needs to be.
“My experience [of getting by the line drive] was that I was just anxious to get back out there. I wasn’t real concerned about getting hit again. If I’d have thought about that, I think it would have crippled me as far as being able to execute and finish pitches.
“Does fear exist? It’s part of the game, whether it‘s fear of getting hurt or fear of giving up the big hit. Baseball humbles people. As far as throwing a pitch and giving up a big hit, it happens and you have to move on. You realize it’s not the end-all and be-all, but at the time it’s hard to convince yourself of that. Everybody wants to succeed. But in the grand scheme of things, there are more important things in life.”