The year of the rookie. The rise of the Cubs. A Royal redemption. These and many other storylines defined what was one of the most exciting baseball seasons in recent memory.
One interesting storyline from 2015 that doesn’t get the same attention is the continued rise of the dominant bullpen and, more specifically, the dominant reliever. Names like Cody Allen, Carson Smith, Ken Giles, and others continued to impress or rose to more prominence. New names began to make their mark on both leagues. One such name that flew under the radar , mostly due to the poor performance of the team he plays for, is Will Smith of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Smith may not have “wowed” the way other relievers did last season, but even so, he ended the season as one of the best relievers in baseball. Smith’s ERA left a little to be desired when compared to other more dominant relievers, as he finished the year with an ERA of 2.70, good for 45th among relievers. In terms of FIP, however, Smith was one of the better relievers in baseball, finishing the season in the 14th spot with a FIP of 2.47.
In terms of non-closers, Smith found himself among good company with the likes of Liam Hendriks, Josh Fields, Sergio Romo, and Dellin Betances, all of whom excelled in late inning roles. In terms of FIP, only Hendriks, Fields, and Romo were better among non-closer pitchers. Beyond that, Smith was sixth in the league among relievers in terms of K/9 with 12.93 strikeouts per nine innings. In that regard, Smith had even better company, trailing only Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Betances, Kenley Jansen, and Craig Kimbrel, arguably the five best relievers in all of baseball, at least in terms of strikeout ability.
Despite this relative success, Smith flew under the radar in 2015 due to his position as a non-closer on a rebuilding team that was also one of the worst teams, not only in the National League, but in all of baseball. Returning to the Milwaukee Brewers once again in 2016, Smith could go relatively unnoticed in yet another season. However, with the departure of former closer Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith could finally become the man in Milwaukee.
It’s still unclear whether Smith will get the closer role, with Jeremy Jeffress also in contention, but it can be argued that Smith deserves it over Jeffress.
In 2015, Jeffress pitched in 68 innings in 2015, compiling a 2.65 ERA and a solid 3.00 FIP. Not quite the impressive numbers of Smith, but impressive nonetheless. Jeffress definitely has earned some consideration for the role, but since he is arbitration eligible next season, it’s unclear whether the Brewers want to be paying a heftier price in free agency because of it. This leaves Will Smith as the more realistic option.
Despite his dominance in a late inning role, there are some question marks in Smith’s game that could hold him back from being a closer. Even though Smith is a left handed reliever, he surprisingly had poor splits against same handed batters. Despite holding right handed hitters to a .193 batting average and a .243 wOBA, Smith was hit hard by same handed hitters to the tune of a .250 batting average and .338 wOBA. Clearly not ideal numbers for a closer, even with the high strikeout numbers.
Beyond that, there were also some concerns with Smith’s WHIP numbers in 2015. Despite finishing the season with a WHIP of just over 1.00 against right handed hitters, Smith finished with a 1.41 WHIP against left handed hitters. While most left handed relievers have the split advantage against same handed hitters, Smith struggled against lefties not only in terms of giving up hits, including a 1.33 HR/9 rate, but also in terms of giving up walks, with 4.00 BB/9 against lefties. Overall, Smith will need to improve his performance against same handed hitters if he is going to take a step forward and become one of the elite relief pitchers in baseball.
For the 2016 Milwaukee Brewers, Will Smith is certainly an important cog in the machine. Despite the team being in the midst of a rebuild, Smith still holds significant value not only on the team, but on the trade market as well. If he is able to solidify his position as the closer early in 2016, and improve his splits, he could become one of the best relievers in baseball and, more importantly, one of the hottest trade commodities come late July. For Will Smith, it is now or never.