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What went wrong? Caleb Smith and a rollercoaster season

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The lefty showed ace-level stuff early in the season, but fell down to Earth after coming back from the IL.

Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

At times this season, Caleb Smith looked like a potential ace, showing great stuff and a superb ability to accumulate strikeouts in bunches. At other times, he was the opposite, unable to find a putaway pitch and susceptible to home runs.

The lefty emerged as the Fish’s number one starter at the beginning of 2019, their true ace. Smith delivered quality starts against strong rivals such as the Braves, the Cubs, the Nationals, and the Phillies. No matter who it was, he was getting out after out. By the end of May, the 28-year-old had thrown 61 innings, allowed 41 hits, 21 earned runs, and punched 80 guys out. Opponents were struggling with a .189 batting average, though registered 10 home runs. Despite being prone to the long ball, he was dominating with ease (3.10 ERA) until an injury caused a fissure to his year.

On June 7, left hip inflammation sent him on a trip to the injured list. When he came back to the Marlins rotation exactly a month after his last outing, it wasn’t the same.

The southpaw has been treated roughly with 18 dingers and 47 earned runs in 84 13 frames (5.02 ERA). The worst part is that he’s surrendered at least one homer in 12 of his 15 starts since.

Instead of putting together a great season, Smith’s overall numbers now look very ordinary. This raises questions about whether he’s a significant piece of the franchise’s future after all. What went wrong with Smith?

Let’s try to figure it out:

  • Velocity drop: Before his injury, Smith’s fastball average 92.50 MPH, as it regularly is. Since he was activated, that same pitch’s speed fell to 91.46 MPH, and somehow, he’s using it more often (48.62% usage went up to 57.63%).
  • From unhittable to very hittable: The slider, his second-best pitch, is not as effective as it was at the beginning of 2019. Now, opponents don’t have a problem crushing it, as their slugging percentage against that weapon in Smith’s repertoire went from .288 to .426.

  • Doesn’t like righties: This is the most concerning thing we’re about to see and the one that’s making Smith like a mess. He just can’t get right-handed hitters out. They’re killing him with extra-base hits.

Most of his pitches through May 31 were far from the reach of RHHs. Just look at this graphic from the catcher’s perspective:

Baseball Savant

But since he came back...

Baseball Savant

If you combine THAT with a 91.46 MPH fastball along with a shaky slider, you’re not only getting in trouble—you’re directing a movie called “Righties in Wonderland.” Opponents from the right side of the plate have hit every home run that Smith has given up since his return (18).

  • Predictable?: Caleb Smith’s swing-and-miss rate lowered from 17.0 % in his first eleven outings to 11.9 % in his last fifteen. He has limited the use of his changeup during this most recent stretch, giving hitters less to think about at the plate.

The regular season is almost done and eliminated teams and their players don’t have enough time to improve. Smith should start to think of 2020 as his great opportunity to adjust and keep dazzling the way he once did. Perhaps a long winter—and being one more year removed from his 2018 left lat surgery—is all he needs to reclaim his status as ace of the Marlins.