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Gotta hand it to the Pirates. While everyone else is playing checkers, they're ... playing it better.
"King me!" they said, and king 'em is what happened. Nick Kingham, that is -- the greatest pitcher no one saw coming.
Really, for as often as we hype prospects around here, you'd think his arrival would garner a mention somewhere -- podcast, Waiver Wire, Prospects Report, if you can imagine -- but it just goes to show you how out-of-nowhere Sunday's gem was.
Perfect through six, for crying out loud. You'd think the enormity of the moment would preempt such a thing in his major-league debut, but nerves aren't all Kingham was hiding. What he brought to the table in Sunday's start explains why so few anticipated Sunday's result.
His best pitch was one he only started throwing a month ago.
That pitch, a slider, was responsible for 12 of his 16 swinging strikes Sunday and sheds some light on his sudden dominance at Triple-A, where he put together a 1.59 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings in four starts. Over his previous four seasons -- a stretch interrupted by Tommy John surgery -- he averaged 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
So no wonder we didn't give him the time of day. A 26-year-old with that kind of minor-league track record? Four starts is just a drop in the bucket. If Kingham really had a future in this league, he would have gotten his chance before now, right?
Maybe. But if there's one way to go from a middling prospect to ... something more, it's adding a new pitch that just so happens to be your best.
Also 26, Smith wasn't actually part of the Giancarlo Stanton trade this offseason, but knowing he came from the Yankees organization should make Marlins fans feel a little better nonetheless. And so should this:
"It's really where we used analytics to show him, because he has a lot of swing-and-miss [stuff]," manager Don Mattingly told MLB.com, referring to how Smith's four-seam fastball has one of the highest spin rates in all the league.
"They told me that, and everything just started clicking," Smith said.
The Marlins? Using data? And for good, not evil?
Sure enough, Smith's four-seam usage is up about 10 percent from his stint with the Yankees last season, and it has more or less increased with each start.
And with it, the effectiveness of his secondary pitches, a slider and occasional changeup, has improved, to the point that every pitch has an above-average swing-and-miss rate. In fact, according to Baseball-Reference, Smith now has the seventh-best swinging strike rate in all of baseball, just ahead of Chris Sale. The top three on that list: Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole.
He'll have to keep the walks down, no doubt -- it's the biggest difference between his first four starts and his past two -- but looking over the data, you don't have to strain too hard to see Robbie Ray-like potential here. Even in terms of average velocity, they're only about 1 mph apart, and Ray is one of the hardest-throwing lefty starters in the league.
I came into this piece expecting to give a more nuanced take for Smith especially, expressing optimism about some of the skill indicators but also caution given how unexpected it is, but the more I look into him, the more I like him. Like Kingham, he showed real improvement in his last stint in the minors, compiling a 2.41 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 9.1 strikeouts per nine in 100 2/3 innings between Double- and Triple-A last year. And if you want to harp on the fly-ball rate, fine, but he pitches half his games at Marlins Park.
The best part about both Kingham and Smith is that they're still widely -- pretty close to universally, for mixed-league purposes -- available in CBS Sports leagues, with Kingham rostered in 42 percent of leagues and Smith in just 14. And I have to imagine it's even lower on some of the other major sites.
I'm to the point where ... honestly, if you pick them up, what's the worst that could happen? They look like 26-year-old rookies are supposed to look, and it's on to the next flavor of the week. No harm done. But if the adjustments they've made have legitimately transformed them into big-time bat-missers, your leap of faith now might change the course of your season, certainly more than could ... well, who would you drop?
That's always the question, isn't it? And certainly, the standard changes for a deeper league, which is worth pointing out since these two are still available in some deeper leagues. But speaking to the typical 12-team owner, if you have a pitcher who isn't performing especially well and probably isn't a game-changer at his best -- someone you're holding onto just because you feel like he's too good to drop -- maybe you shoot for the upside instead.
I'm not talking about pitchers who are upside plays themselves like Jon Gray or Luis Castillo. I'm talking about boring innings-eater types like Danny Duffy, Lance Lynn and maybe even Marcus Stroman in a shallower league. There will always be more boring innings-eater types in those formats, but for the potential game-changers, you have to act early. You have to act now.