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Sinkerballer Joe Smith is still here

In a postseason filled with velocity, Joe Smith has been able to get outs.

American League Championship Series Game 3: Boston Red Sox v. Houston Astros

Postseason baseball is fun for a multitude of reasons, one of those being the high level of pitching talent being shown on the national stage on a nightly basis. In the regular season, the percentage of total pitches that are registered over 95 mph stands at 12.6 percent. This postseason, that rate nearly doubles, standing at 24.0 percent. The talent level is higher in October and a lot of that can be seen through velocity.

The list of hard throwers in the World Series is plentiful, as expected. The list of the opposite, the near-extinct sub-90 mph fastball pitchers, is not— also as expected. One soft-tossing reliever remains standing though. Joe Smith, a relatively well known veteran reliever now serving as a situational pitcher for the Astros this postseason is getting things done with his 87 mph sinker.

Much has been made about the inefficient usage of the sinker in baseball and the trends that have resulted because of that realization. I even touched upon the topic roughly two months ago, simply concluding that the result did not justify the league’s usage as a whole, while noting that there were a few exceptions.

To be fair, this problem with sinkers isn’t just catered to Joe Biagini and the Blue Jays. It’s almost league-wide. There have been 105 pitchers with at least 100 results on their sinker this season. Eighty-two of them have allowed an above-average xwOBA on the pitch. Their median-xwOBA is .370. There are probably only a few pitchers that you could say have had a significantly good sinker this season (Aaron Bummer, Jordan Hicks, Matt Albers, Kyle Ryan). But Biagini and a few other cases should be the final nail in the coffin for the sinker.

Joe Smith is one of those exceptions! Throwing his sinker roughly a third of the time this season (mostly against right-handed hitters, where it was particularly effective), he allowed a .256/.319/.279 slash line on the offering, supported by a .279 xwOBA. With the lack of velocity, it’s not surprising that it wasn’t a swing-and-miss pitch (10.6 percent strikeout-rate), but he made up for that with good, consistent command of the pitch, allowing an average launch angle of negative nine degrees with a whopping 78.4 percent ground ball-rate.

All in all, the performance against his sinker stood near the top among all pitchers in baseball. His .279 xwOBA allowed was the fifth-lowest mark among 112 pitchers who ended at least 40 plate appearances with their sinker. Once again, this is in spite of low velocity.

Joe Smith has been of service to the Astros this postseason, allowing only two hits and one run in 6 13 innings, including a 1-2-3 outing in last night’s game. His Win Probability Added is at 0.30 for the postseason. Heading into last night, the nineteen batters he had faced in the postseason had put up a collective xwOBA of .245, ranking among the best this postseason.

Smith will need to keep relying on that sub-90 mph fastball as it’s likely the Astros will call upon a few more times for situational outings against right-handed hitter(s). His role may seem small, but his importance is there, and the results show that it’s working. How it’s working is what makes it interesting.


Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.