The Oakland A’s didn’t make any blockbuster trades last winter, but they did swing a few small deals to add role players to their roster. One of those additions was pitcher Burch Smith, acquired from the Giants for cash.
Under normal circumstances, there might not have been room for the 30-year-old Smith in the Opening Day bullpen. He’s behind several other arms on the team’s depth chart, and he has a minor league option remaining, so if it had come down to a roster crunch then he surely would have been left out in favor of someone else who couldn’t be sent down and stashed in Triple-A. But with rosters temporarily expanded for the coronavirus-shortened season, there’s space to give him a chance.
Smith’s career numbers in MLB aren’t pretty, but he has a couple things going for him. The right-hander throws hard, which is always a nice foundation to build from, and he can strike batters out, including a decent rate of swinging strikes. In the Pacific Coast League he was also able to keep the ball in the park, though not yet in the majors. His biggest problem is walks (and fastball control in general), which is one reason we’re talking about him in the bullpen rather than the rotation.
Not only did Smith make the Opening Day roster, he also got to pitch in the opening game. This was no easy assignment, either — he came in for the 10th inning, with an automatic runner placed on second base under the new temporary 2020 rules. He was thrown right into the fire for his A’s debut.
First batter: Jared Walsh
While Smith got the credit in the box score, you could make an argument that the real hero in this 10th inning was the A’s defense. The first batter he faced was lefty Jared Walsh, and he started him off with three straight 94-95 mph fastballs, working a 2-1 count. A beautiful 81 mph changeup earned a swing and miss, and then another change drew contact — a medium-velo grounder to Matt Olson at first base.
What followed was an amazing play that deserves special attention, but its details aren’t really important to Smith’s analysis — read more about it in the game recap. The important thing is that the lead runner (trying to advance) was eliminated in a fielder’s choice, with Walsh reaching first base, and that it was a play no other team would have even attempted. So, Smith earned an out himself, but he got a free bonus by finishing the play with a runner on first instead of third. Pitching in front of the Matts must be nice.
Second batter: Tommy La Stella
That bonus proved critical. Smith got ahead of the next batter, lefty Tommy La Stella, with a nice changeup on the edge of the zone, but La Stella got him on the next pitch. It actually looked like a good one to me, another change located all the way in the low-outside corner, basically the previous pitch but lower and still a strike.
It didn’t fool La Stella, though, as he lined it to right for a clean single. It wasn’t hit hard at all, but it still felt like more than a bloop or any kind of fluke. It was the kind of soft liner with just enough loft that falls in front of the outfielder almost every time. A grounder, pop, fly, lower soft liner, or whiff, would be preferable from the pitcher’s standpoint.
That single would have scored a runner from third if the Matts hadn’t uniquely taken care of him, which means in most other uniforms Smith would have blown the tie on that very second batter. Instead, he merely had runners on first and second with one out.
Third batter: Albert Pujols
Smith stuck with the change against the righty Albert Pujols for Ball 1 outside, but then switched back to the fastball and found success. Pujols swung straight through 94 mph down in the zone, and then Smith gave him the high heat on the next pitch and Pujols popped it straight up for an easy foulout. Nice at-bat by Smith, changing speed and/or eye levels on each pitch.
Fourth batter: Jason Castro
Then he took a step back against the lefty Jason Castro. He missed badly with a fastball, then missed again. He showed us his first curveball but buried it in the dirt for Ball 3 — though in a two-strike count, this looked like it could have been good enough to draw a chase. Another high fastball gave Castro the four-pitch walk, moving the go-ahead run 90 feet to third base. Trouble, and an example of the inconsistent command that is Smith’s downside.
Fifth batter: Andrelton Simmons
First and foremost, this was a terrible at-bat by the righty Andrelton Simmons. With the bases loaded and two out in extra innings, he swung at the first two pitches, both fastballs out of the zone. He was at 0-2 instead of 2-0, which could have quietly been a game-changer for the Angels.
Simmons finally controlled himself on the third pitch, taking one a foot outside — this was also Smith’s fastest pitch of the night, at 96.1. Then he swung again, and this time he grounded it to second for an easy out to end the inning. He got four straight pitches out of the strike zone, and instead of a go-ahead, potentially game-winning RBI walk, he stranded the bases loaded.
Smith: 1 ip, 0 runs, 0 Ks, 1 BB, 1 hit, 18 pitches (10 strikes)
Was it a good outing? Depends how you look at it. Big picture, he came into a huge spot with a runner in scoring position in extras and got the job done — not bad for the 10th reliever in your pen. Technically, he earned the win, since his teammates walked it off in the bottom of the frame.
The more pessimistic view is that, without legendary help from his elite defense, or from an over-aggressive Simmons at the plate, he surely would have allowed at least one run. As in, his context-independent pitching might not have been as good as his line appears, though it might fairly be canceled out by the inherited runner — without that, we only know he could have gone out, single, out, walk, walk (to Simmons), but perhaps he gets the next batter (David Fletcher). Or maybe he approaches everyone differently with the bases empty in a truly clean inning, and gets better results.
But that’s just the details of one outing, and the bigger takeaway is how Smith looked. I liked my first impression of his stuff, as his change seemed effective and offered up to 15 miles of separation from his 94-96 mph heater, and he consistently located it well. His curve seemed promising if he could ever get ahead in a count, and the whole package gives him looks against both righties and lefties.
The question will be how well he can harness his fastball control, as you can see from those red dots all over the place on the pitch chart — if he’s too wild then it will never work, but if he can figure out how to place his strong heater in the zone to set up his secondaries then there could be something here. It’s not that we should expect huge upside, just that this what it would take for him to at least be effective and MLB-caliber.
We’ll have to wait and see how his next few outings go, but this debut was solidly decent. Not awesome, blowing away the competition all on his own. But not terrible, with no hard-hit contact (nothing 90+ mph exit velocity) and only one batter patient enough to take a walk, all in extremely high-leverage context. For someone competing for the last spot in the pen, and with the ability to go multiple innings, that could be enough to contribute.