Everyone who’s been watching the Marlins for the last two years should know the potential of Caleb Smith. The young lefty has shown flashes of what could be a great story for the Fish if he finishes his development the right way. In two seasons with the team, he’s made 44 starts and has struck out 256 batters in 230 2⁄3 innings.
Smith’s biggest issues are related to the long ball, though last year’s were aggravated by the ineffectiveness of his slider during the second half. He has relied on that pitch at least since he’s been a full-time starter.
To understand how good Caleb’s slider has been, we have to go back to 2018.
In that season, opponents hit only for a .136 average (12-for-88) and a .205 slugging percentage off the lefty’s slider, according to Statcast. They went down on strikes 35 times and registered only three extra-base hits. Smith threw the pitch more frequently (27.1% usage) than any other Marlins starter.
That delivery was successful in 2019 as well...at least during the first part of the campaign. Through his first 17 outings of the season, his slider was good for a .159 batting average (18-for-113) and a .310 slugging percentage. If you combine that early 2019 success with the same level he showed in 2018, he recorded 80 strikeouts and a .149 opponent batting average (30-for-201) thanks to his slider. That was a reason for his nice 3.43 ERA before August, making a strong case for himself as ace of the rotation.
Well, that story changed completely beginning in August, when Smith apparently ran out of gas. In his last eleven starts, he went 3-7, with a 6.39 ERA and—guess what?—his slider was insanely crushed: .307 BAA, .523 SLG. But not only that, the 28-year-old gave up more walks, struck fewer hitters out, and saw his HR/9 climb from 1.6 to 2.6.
The difference between an effective slider and a terrible one often comes down to location. Smith collects most of his swinging strikes when getting it to drop below the knees near the inside corner of the strike zone to a right-handed hitter.
But breaking balls that lack their usual drop don’t get the same results in putaway situations.
Smith needs to spot his slider more precisely to regain its 2018/early 2019 level. For a starter who has only a three-pitch repertoire, this will be a deciding factor in whether he’ll be successful moving forward.
Caleb’s been a strikeout machine that doesn’t seem far from being a star as a frontline starting pitcher. Are we the only ones looking forward to seeing him pitch again? Hopefully, it’ll be this year.