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Trade Fallout: Greg Smith Reluctantly Heads to the Rockies

Posted By David Golebiewski On November 12, 2008 @ 5:30 pm In Busts,Starting Pitchers | 1 Comment

Just like today’s other Trade Fallout subject, Carlos Gonzalez, Gregory Smith has also been involved in two high-profile trades over the past two off seasons. Popped in the 6th round out of LSU in the 2005 amateur entry draft, Smith was viewed as being a polished college lefty with relatively modest upside. At draft time, Baseball America noted that “While he has the repertoire, command and delivery to succeed as a pro starter, some scouts wonder if he might be more useful coming out of the bullpen.” As a starter, Smith’s fastball sat in the high-80’s, while he managed to touch the low-90’s out of the ‘pen.

In the summer of 2005, Smith got his professional career off to a decent start at Rookie-Level Missoula of the Pioneer League. Smith did exactly what one would expect an experienced SEC starter to do in rookie ball: in 82.1 IP, he whiffed 10.93 batters per nine innings while issuing just 1.97BB/9. Despite the excellent peripherals, he posted a 4.16 ERA. However, that was the result of a .316 BABIP.

In 2006, Smith would be tested by the unforgiving environs of Lancaster in the California League, a hitter’s paradise notorious for its wind gusts and box scores that might be mistaken for football games. Smith tamed the harsh conditions for the most part, posting a 3.22 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP ERA). He struck out 7.23 per nine innings while issuing 3.16 BB/9. He did benefit from an incredibly low .233 BABIP. BABIP tends to hover around .300 for starters in the majors, but in the low minors (with a lesser degree of defensive skill) it’s not that uncommon to see significantly higher rates. Miraculously, he also surrendered just 3 home runs in 88.1 IP, or 0.31 per nine innings. He did so in part by killing plenty of worms, generating ground balls at a 54.5% clip. Smith earned a mid-season promotion to AA Mobile of the Southern League. Facing a higher level of competition, Smith’s peripherals eroded somewhat. He posted a 4.15 FIP ERA in 60 IP, with 5.7 K/9 and 3.45 BB/9. His groundball tendencies seemed to disappear as well (35.2 GB%).

Smith would return to Mobile to begin the 2007 season, with much improved results. In 69.2 frames, he managed a 3.42 FIP ERA, whiffing 8.01 batters per nine innings while allowing 1.81 BB/9. Smith would remain fly ball-oriented, with a 43.5 GB%. He was bumped up to AAA Tucson of the Pacific Coast League at mid-season, where he posted a 3.93 FIP ERA in 52.1 IP. Smith’s K rate fell to a modest 5.85 per nine innings, and his walk rate was an average 3.1 per nine.

Following the trade to Oakland, Smith got the opportunity to step into the big league rotation, posting a 4.16 ERA in 190.1 IP. While that looks like a pretty good debut superficially, his peripherals point to a good deal of regression in 2009. His FIP ERA was 4.82, the result of a mediocre K rate (5.25/9) and ordinary control (4.11 BB/9). Smith also benefitted from a very low .258 BABIP, courtesy of good luck, a friendly home ballpark and slick glove work behind him (the A’s ranked fourth in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls put in play that are converted into outs).

Earlier this year, I took an in-depth look at Smith’s repertoire using the pitch F/X system. The bottom line: while Smith has a number of pitches at his disposal and he gets a good deal of movement on them, he’s performing a tightrope act with a very modest fastball. His heater averaged just 87.6 MPH in 2008. He also utilizes a mid-70’s curve, an 82 MPH slider and an 80 MPH changeup. It will be interesting to see how effective Smith’s curve and slider are at Coors’ high altitude; we’ve been hearing for years about how hard it is to throw a curve in Colorado, and studies indicate that the lower air density does impact the trajectory of the ball in a significant way.

Suffice it to say, Smith’s new home does not suit him well. He has established himself as a fly ball-oriented hurler (34.2 GB% in ’08), and is headed from a ballpark that features spacious foul territory and homer-suppressing tendencies….

McAfee Coliseum Run and HR Park Factors, 2006-2008

2006: Runs (0.921) HR(0.852)
2007: Runs (0.833) HR (0.786)
2008: Runs (0.916) HR (0.988)

….to a much less forgiving domain:

Coors Field Run and HR Park Factors, 2006-2008

2006: Runs (1.149) HR (1.167)
2007: Runs (1.160) HR (1.218)
2008: Runs (1.126) HR (1.299)

Smith benefitted from a below-average HR/FB rate in 2008 (7.9%), a number that figured to regress toward the 11-12% average anyway. With the move to Coors, his 0.99 HR/9 rate could balloon.

So, Greg Smith is a moderate-strikeout, moderate-walk, fly ball hurler headed to a ballpark known for giving pitchers nightmares. Add in the likelihood that his breaking balls will be less effective, and we’re talking about a pitcher with a high-80’s fastball/low 80’s changeup subject to the caprices of Coors. Hey, at least he’ll get to use that nifty pick-off move a lot. Avert your eyes, fantasy owners.

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