Name: Riley Smith
Position: RHP (Reliever)
2020 Age: 25
2020 Stats: 2-0, 1.47 ERA, 18 1⁄3 IP, 18 K, 5 BB, 0.6 bWAR
When the Arizona Diamondbacks selected right-handed pitcher Riley Smith out of Louisiana State University in the 24th round of the 2016 Draft, the chances of him reaching the Major Leagues were certainly low. As he climbed up through the system, he wasn’t on most prospect lists due to being old for each level he played in as well as posting solid, but not dominant numbers at each stop. He jumped onto my radar as a prospect in 2019, where he put up 2.27 ERA in 13 starts with the D-backs AA affiliate. The following offseason the organization added him to the 40-man roster ahead in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft.
2020 Season in Review
Smith started the year with all the MLB pitchers in Spring Training, but was set to be optioned to the team’s AAA affiliate before the shut down happened on March 12th. During the shutdown, I had a chance to interview Smith after a decent showing in big league camp and two successful years in the minors. My takeaways from the interview is he’s got the right mindset to be a successful MLB pitcher, in whatever role the team needs him to be in.
When baseball resumed in 2020, Smith was added to the team’s initial 60-man player pool. He would have to wait until August 26th before pitching in an MLB game. He got rudely greeted by a Charlie Blackmon grand slam in a 8-3 D-backs loss to the Colorado Rockies. As it would turn out, it was a blip rather than an ominous warning. Smith recovered to produce a 1.47 ERA over 18 1⁄3 innings out of the D-backs bullpen, including playing the role of piggyback starter behind Caleb Smith (not related) when the latter returned off the COVID-19 list. On September 10th, Smith would pick up his first MLB win at the expense of the eventual World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
His most noteworthy performance on the year came on September 22nd against the Texas Rangers. Playing the role of piggyback starter, Riley Smith entered the game to start the 5th and the team would not need another pitcher to finish a 7-0 shutout. Smith allowed 5 singles, but struck out 7 Rangers to pick up his 2nd win of the season.
His overall performance was solid given the fact it was his first taste in the majors. The underlying numbers show there is some staying power in his run prevention. While the sample size is quite small, with only 250 pitches thrown and 47 batted ball events, Smith was able to limit opposing hitters to a .265 wOBA. There is some substance behind that surprisingly good number when considering his prospect status, or lack thereof. In 2020, opposing hitters were only able to produce an exit velocity greater than 95 MPH on just under 30% of batted ball events and only 1 barrel (2.1%). Producing soft contact is going to be critical for Smith to stay in the big leagues due to the lack of swing and miss stuff, so we’re hoping this is the trend.
2021 Outlook and Beyond
The strong debut will give Smith an inside track to a 26-man roster spot for 2021, although I believe the best role for him will be as a swingman out of bullpen. He doesn’t profile as a starter or a back-end of the pen pitcher, but given the lack of consistency from the starting rotation after Zac Gallen there will be a need for someone to chew up innings out of the bullpen. Going into the offseason, I’d probably have him either 6th or 7th on the depth chart for the starting rotation behind Gallen, Madison Bumgarner, Luke Weaver, Merrill Kelly, and Caleb Smith.
He’s above-average at producing ground ball contact, although not exceptionally great at it thanks to a solid 4-pitch mix. Smith aggressively fills the zone with his low 90s sinker, which has enough late movement to avoid the barrel, hoping to get ground ball outs early in the count. His secondary stuff isn’t nearly as impressive in comparison, although he’s flashed a decent curveball and slider at times. He’ll need to continually hit the bottom of the strike zone with his pitches and produce ground balls at an above-average rate to stick around. Given his track record in professional baseball in doing that, it’s quite possible for him to continue to be that type of pitcher. His run prevention numbers will likely regress more towards the league average barring major improvements.