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2021 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews, #39: Riley Smith

The least of the multiple Smiths to see action for Arizona this year.

St Louis Cardinals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images
  • Rating: 3.00
  • Age: Will turn 27 on January 15
  • 2021 Stats: 24 G, 67.1 IP, 86 H, 46 R, 45 ER, 10 HR, 15 BB, 36 SO, 6.01 ERA
  • 2021 Earnings: league minimum
  • 2022 Status: pre-arbitration, off 40-man roster, one minor-league option left

Despite having been chosen all the way down in the 24th round of the 2016 draft, Smith had an impressive debut for the Diamondbacks after getting called up in late August 2020. He allowed three earned runs over 18.1 innings in long relief, striking out almost a hitter per frame. That included five scoreless innings against Texas, with seven strikeouts. He was ranked #16 in our 2020 reviews, and Michael wrote, "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."

Yeah. About that...

2021 results

If you had to pick when Riley "broke", it would probably be his start against the Nationals on May 14. He allowed six runs in a 32-pitch first, and ended up charged with eight runs in three frames, as Arizona lost 17-2. It wasn't quite the worst start by a Diamondback in 2021, but was only beaten by his "sibling" Caleb, in the 22-1 Dodgerpocalypse. Riley's ERA went up almost two runs, and his FIP nearly one, as a result of those three innings. He was yanked from the rotation, and largely relegated to mop-up duty. While there was plenty of it, the only subsequent game he entered with a lead, Smith picked up a save for working the final three innings on May 30. But it was already 9-2 to Arizona when he took the mound.

Basically, Smith utterly flunked his rotation audition. In six starts, he had a 7.92 ERA, and struck out a total of just eight batters. His K-rate of 2.88 was worst among the 226 pitchers with 25+ starting innings this year [potentially worrying sign: Tyler Gilbert was #4; Humberto Castellanos #6] Indeed, he’s the only such starter in the last six seasons to have a K-rate below three. Smith’s performance as a reliever was better, though still nothing to write home about. He had a 4.89 ERA over 42.1 innings and a K-rate of 6.0 per nine. But all told, his strikeout rate of 4.81 was second-worst of the 269 pitchers with 60+ innings - ahead only of the most under-rated hurler in Diamondbacks history, the evergreen Yusmeiro Petit. :)

All told, of the 301 batters Smith faced this year, 69% were in low-leverage situations and just 7% high-leverage (league average = 44% low, 19% high). This happens when you work mop-up relief, and also have a 12.15 first-inning ERA. Games don’t remain close for long. When Riley did pitch with the game on the line, it didn’t end well. Small sample size (just 21 PA), but going 9-for-18 with two walks, no strikeouts, and a triple-slash of .500/.524/.833 for an OPS of 1.357, isn’t getting the job done. It certainly won’t inspire confidence in your manager that you deserve better. In some ways, being placed on the COVID-19 injured list, as happened to Smith on July 30, was merciful even though he himself didn’t test positive.

He was reinstated a week later, but his spot on the roster was gone, and Smith was optioned down to Reno. Things didn’t go any better there. He went on the minor-league injured list after two starts, was lit up in his ACL rehab assignments and fared no better when he came back to AAA. All told, over those last six starts and 23 innings across two levels, he had an 8.61 ERA, and a .968 OPS against. Even allowing for the hellacious pitching environment in the Pacific Coast League, that’s not good. Smith was removed from Arizona’s 40-man roster entirely on November 19, completing his fall from grace in a year which had started with so much promise.

2022 prospects

Not good, to be honest. With Smith now off the 40-man roster, he doesn’t appear to be in the team’s immediate plans as far as a spot next year goes. He’ll turn 27 next month as well, which makes him a bit long in the tooth, in terms of expecting any natural improvement. As Michael noted last year, he doesn’t have swing and miss stuff - his swinging strike rate of 9.9% this season was barely half the MLB average of 19.4%. That typically means a pitcher needs to have excellent control, to avoid walks and hard contact. The main hope might be if Smith can enhance his groundball rates, as those are the balls in play which are most likely to turn into outs.

If the team sees the same kind of bullpen churn in 2022 as they did this year, then there still might be a spot of Smith. His ability to work multiple innings is potentially useful, especially as starters work less deep into games. There will always be times where your starter flops and the contest is basically lost after three innings. A team needs someone to pitch the rest of the way; even if the results are poor, they may be outweighed by the benefits of burning one reliever instead of five. Smith’s best hope for action next year, may be as that lump of long-lasting coal.