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2021 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews, #22: LHP Caleb Smith

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An up and down year for Smith likely cements his future as a reliever with Arizona.

Atlanta Braves v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images
  • Rating: 4.39
  • Age: 30
  • 2021 Stats: 45 G, 14 GS, 4-9, 113 23 IP, 1.37 WHIP, 4.83 ERA (88 ERA+), 124 K, 63 BB
  • 2021 Earnings: $1.45MM (Arb 1)
  • 2022 Status: Tendered a contract for Arb 2 season ($2.1MM estimate)

Caleb Smith was a mid-round find by the New York Yankees, but was ultimately shipped off to the Miami Marlins after the 2017 season in the Giancarlo Stanton trade. In 3 years with Miami, Smith went 15-17 with a 4.39 ERA and 2.2 bWAR over 233 23 innings. He would spend much of 2020 out due catching COVID-19 before getting traded to Arizona near the trade deadline in the Starling Marte deal. Smith came with pitching prospect Humberto Mejia and Julio Frias. He saw limited action with Arizona at the tail end of the 2020 campaign, hoping to get some work done in before seeing the season end.

In 2021, Smith opened up the season in the rotation. A disastrous first start got Smith moved to the bullpen, as the team kept trying to figure out a cohesive starting rotation. Smith performed well. In 18 appearances between April 7th and May 27th, Smith pitched 30 innings with a 36/13 K/BB ratio (27.9%/10.1%) and an opposing triple slash of .214/.313/.321. Due to injuries and simply half the rotation candidates plain sucking, Smith was put back in the rotation again. Smith struggled to put any consistent outings together, with a 6.83 ERA and a 24.8%/15.0% strikeout to walk ratio over the next 12 starts. The Dbacks then put him back in the bullpen again, and unsurprisingly the results improved. Smith would pitch to a 2.70 ERA with a 23/10 K/BB in his final 26 23 innings of the season.

Last year ultimately showed that Caleb Smith is not starting pitcher material despite teams trying to make it work. However he doesn’t lack value to the team, as he showed some promise as a reliever. The two key differences when he was a starter vs. a reliever is the walks and the quality of contact. Smith’s walk rate and hard hit rate as a reliever were at 9.7% and 28.5% compared to the 15.2% and 33.5% rates he had as a starter according to Fangraphs. The sample size, in terms of batters faced, is pretty close to even as Smith faced 264 hitters as a starter and 236 as a reliever so I believe the data speaks for itself.

There is some swing and miss ability with his pitches, especially his offspeed deliveries, as well as an ability to prevent loud contact. I think the key will be limiting exposure to a 4-seam fastball, that while it generates above-average spin has very low velocity. That means he’ll need to locate it further away from the heart of the plate and mix it up more with the slider and change-up. The slider is still a plus pitch, as batters struggled against the pitch in 2021 when he was able to locate it. The key will be for Smith to not only be able to use his slider to put away hitters, but also being able to use it to steal strikes instead of trying to pound fastballs over the plate.

It’s very difficult to peg exactly what kind of impact that Smith will have in the D-backs bullpen in 2022. As a reliever, he can focus more on utilizing a fastball/slider combination while using the change-up as something else to throw when bullying the glove side of the plate isn’t working. It’s quite possible we see him asked to get anywhere from 1 to 9 outs, depending on the situation. 2022 will likely be a big season for Smith to try to keep his MLB career going, with most of his future appearances coming out of a team’s bullpen.