Today's earlier discussion question regarding the Miami Marlins looking for a new closer got me thinking about rookie relievers in general. One of the best so far in 2015 has been Carson Smith of the Seattle Mariners, currently boasting a 1.15 ERA in 16 innings out of the Mariners pen with an excellent 19/4 K/BB. Given his strong performance thus far, his minor league track record, and his quality stuff, he looks like someone who could be a closer, or who at least deserves an opportunity in that role eventually.
Smith was drafted in the eighth round out of Texas State University in 2011. He was an outstanding starting pitcher in college, posting a 1.99 ERA in 113 innings his junior year with a 129/48 K/BB; note the very high strikeout rate. Although he threw hard and had no trouble with college competition, he lasted until the eighth round due to concerns about his mechanics, concerns that led scouts to project him as a reliever. He also had a history of shoulder soreness, obviously a caution flag.
The Mariners accordingly moved him to relief when he signed and the results were excellent: a 2.99 ERA with 15 saves and a 77/28 K/BB in 62 innings in the High Desert bandbox in 2012. He followed up with 15 more saves and a 1.98 ERA, 71/17 K/BB in 50 innings in Double-A in 2013, then a 2.93 ERA, 45/13 K/BB in 43 innings with 10 saves in Triple-A last year. He was very sharp for the Mariners in his debut last year (0.00 ERA in eight innings, 10/3 K/BB) and as noted he's remained extremely effective this year.
Okay, so the stats are terrific: lots of strikeouts, low hit rate, lots of grounders, few homers (just five in his entire pro career) not too many walks. What about the stuff?
He has the stuff to match the stats: a power sinker in the 92-94 range and can peak at 96 with some serious movement. His slider is rated as plus by scouts; BrooksBaseball.net describes it this way:
"His slider sweeps across the zone, has exceptional depth, generates a high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers' sliders and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' sliders."
He also has a better change-up than most relievers, and his platoon splits are generally even. Lefties fare no better than right-handers.
So, Smith has quality three pitches, usually throws strikes, and can handle left-handed as well as right-handed hitters. Sounds like a starter?
This gets us back to the mechanics issue.
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It isn't a textbook delivery, with an unusual lowish angle arm slot and some high-effort slingshot action. When drafted there was concern that he didn't repeat his mechanics consistently, leading to command troubles, and that his already-bothersome shoulder might give out, particularly if he remained a starter.
Smith does a better job repeating his mechanics now, an improvement that shows in better command over the last two years. So far there have been no serious health issues since he was drafted and bullpen work seems to agree with his shoulder.
Overall this adds up to a guy who should be a very successful big league reliever. In my view, his combination of stuff and command makes him closer material and not just middle relief fodder. What do you guys think?