A deeper look into Will Smith’s qualifying offer and value

Don’t look—tell me who was the most valuable pitcher by Win Probability Added in 2019. It was not Justin Verlander, nor was it Gerrit Cole or even Jacob deGrom. Yes, it was Will Smith, who had a full 5.07 WPA in just 65 13 innings of work.

That’s a fun fact in the funnest sense; we know at a gut level that Verlander or deGrom were actually more valuable than Smith, that’s just how valuable ace starters are. Yet another basic sabermetric principle is sequencing and luck, which shows that a home run followed by two walks is better for a pitcher than two walks followed by a home run. For Smith, sequencing and opportunity mattered quite a lot.

If you were to tally his five best performances by WPA (which come to 1.33 WPA), a pattern emerges:

  1. 0.3 WPA: Entered the game with a runner on third, up by a run in the eighth, and Paul Goldschmidt hitting. He struck out Goldschmidt to end the inning, then worked a scoreless ninth.
  2. 0.27 WPA: Entered the game with runners on first and second in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, and got Mitch Moreland to ground out. He then worked a scoreless tenth and struck out two.
  3. 0.26 WPA: Entered the game in a tie game in the ninth, and faced the minimum in both the ninth and tenth inning.
  4. 0.25 WPA: Entered with a one-run lead in the ninth to face the heart of the Rockies’ order. He allowed a single to Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado but struck out Chris Iannetta, Trevor Story, and Daniel Murphy.
  5. 0.25 WPA: Once again faced the heart of the Rockies’ order with a one-run lead in the ninth and worked a scoreless inning, walking one.

And by looking at his game log, two things are plainly obvious: 1) he got a fair amount of his WPA from extra-inning games where he entered at the end of the ninth or in the tenth, and 2) he never really entered games in the eighth or earlier.

Bruce Bochy’s use of Smith was largely traditional in nature, making it all the more gob-smacking that he was able to tally up so much WPA despite never pitching in, say, critical innings in the seventh or eighth where he could have stopped the bleeding even more.

This is not at all indicative of past or future performance; he had just a shade under 1 WPA last year despite pitching rather similarly, and I think a conservative estimate would say he’s worth 1-2 in 2020. The Giants probably lean higher on that estimate, largely because they agreed to give a qualifying offer to Smith for 2020, equal to $17.8 million.

Going by WPA to dollars, I suppose it makes sense, though if we project he’s worth 1 WAR next year, that’s probably only worth half that in value. Yet this is a team that is significantly older than most of baseball and actually held on to hope of a playoff spot past the trade deadline, so it makes sense to at least try to retain some of your relieving core if you have a shot, and then get a draft pick if you don’t.

MLB Trade Rumors projects that Smith will get three years and $42 million, which I find actually a little surprising considering last year’s sagging market. Yet it could, like I said, work out for both sides here. Is Smith’s value slightly inflated because of relievers writ large and because of his lock-down 2019? Probably. Should teams really be spending more considering how much we see contending teams expose themselves come October? Obviously.

As Jeff Sullivan pointed out before the 2019 season started, Smith is like getting “a one-inning version of Patrick Corbin,” and we saw how that worked for the last outs of 2019. His value is probably never going to be higher, and a smart team will likely bite. If he is used even more strategically—think of, again, Corbin in the postseason—he could find himself on the upswing of his value to a pennant-chasing team.

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