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Burch Smith is one of the hottest pitchers in MLB so far

He’s retired 31 of 36 batters he’s faced

MLB: AUG 09 Astros at Athletics Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the offseason, the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants swung a rare trade, with the Giants sending pitcher Burch Smith to the East Bay. It was the first time they’d made an MLB-level swap of a player since 1990.

Still, it didn’t appear to be a particularly significant deal. The 30-year-old Smith was a veteran of only 70 major league games to that point, with an ERA north of 6.00, and after all he’d been available for nothing more than cash. It wasn’t certain if he’d even play for Oakland, or merely stash in the minors as depth.

As it turned out, Smith did indeed make the Opening Day squad, likely thanks in part to the expanded rosters during the coronavirus pandemic that created a couple extra bullpen spots. Three weeks later, he’s been the most effective performer on the A’s pitching staff, and one of the hottest arms in the entire sport.

In five appearances, Smith has faced 36 batters and retired 31 of them. His numbers are unreal.

Smith: 0.00 ERA, 10⅓ ip, 10 Ks, 1 BB, 0 HR, 4 hits, 1.44 FIP

The .114 opponents’ batting average is fourth-best among 147 MLB pitchers with at least 10 innings of work, and so is the 1.44 FIP. And it’s not all just batted-ball luck, as his .193 xwOBA is 24th-best among 571 pitchers who have appeared in the bigs this year.

It hasn’t just been mop-up work, either. On Opening Day he was tossed straight into the high-leverage fire of the 10th inning, inheriting the first-ever automatic extra-inning free baserunner in league history and stranding him in an eventual Oakland victory. A few days later, he pitched the 5th and 6th innings with a three-run lead, earning him his second win in as many outings.

Then he really got good. Last week, after starter Sean Manaea dug a hole against the Rangers, Smith entered in the 4th amid a rally and with a two-run deficit. He retired all 10 batters he faced, to escape that frame and take it into the 7th. That gave the A’s lineup time to make a comeback and ultimately win. Two days later, staked to a four-run lead that later grew to five, he once again worked three full innings, putting down nine of 10 batters to seal the triumph and even earn a loophole-save (for going three frames, despite the size of the lead).

So that raises the natural questions: Why is this happening? And is it going to continue?

Regarding the first question, here are some observations about Smith’s underlying numbers:

  • He’s missing bats more than ever. He used to be average in this area, but his 13.7% swinging strike rate is a career-high and ranks in the top 20th percentile of MLB pitchers. Hitters are swinging about the same amount and aren’t chasing particularly more, but one helpful development is his rate of meatball pitches has decreased and his rate of hitting the edge of the plate has gone up. Has he simply improved his control and/or command?
  • He’s throwing harder. His four-seam fastball used to average 92-93 mph, but is up to 94.4 so far this summer. It’s also moving in a different trajectory than it used to. At the same time, it’s been far more effective, turning from something hitters used to crush into something they can’t yet touch.
  • His four-seamer has more spin this year, by a couple hundred RPMs, going from slightly below average to slightly above. He also might be throwing the fastball slightly higher in the zone this year, which could be related since those traits are associated.
  • Opponents don’t have a single barrel against him out of 25 batted balls, and his average exit velocity is two ticks lower than it used to be.
  • He’s not walking anybody, which used to be a problem for him. His career 11.4% rate is bad (4.68 BB/9), and he suddenly took that down to nearly zero.

Add it all up, and here’s the plausible theory for why this could be a breakout instead of a hot streak. Smith in the past had a strong arsenal but not enough control and command to maximize it, especially with his fastball being mediocre at best. However, if his fastball is now faster, spinning more, moving better, and under superior control, then that could change everything. If it’s a weapon in its own right, and better able to set up his secondaries (change, curve, slider), and he’s no longer beating himself with walks, then that could be the recipe for actual improvement.

Smith himself speaks of attacking hitters more aggressively and not overthinking things, and his manager and teammates refer to his stuff as “absolutely disgusting” and also point out his spin rate (both links from John Hickey of Sports Illustrated).

Will the breakout continue, or will the hot streak fade? As always, that remains to be seen, but at least there are reasons for hope. There are truly new differences in his 2020 profile, and the underlying clues line up logically with the improvements in his results. Keep an eye on that fastball — if you can, considering MLB hitters haven’t been able to.