The Miami Marlins made numerous high-profile trades the winter before last. They shipped out then-reigning MVP Giancarlo Stanton; now-reigning MVP Christian Yelich; and other assorted parts of varying value, like Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon. Go figure, then, that the trade that has paid off the most for the Fish didn't involve any of the aforementioned. In fact, their most fruitful deal didn't include a single player with ample big-league experience.
At the time, the most notable aspect of the Marlins' trade with the New York Yankees on Nov. 20, 2017, was that it marked the first between Derek Jeter and his old team. The particulars -- Miami sent out Mike King and international bonus pool money and received Caleb Smith and Garrett Cooper -- were relevant only in the sense that the money could benefit New York's pursuit of Shohei Ohtani. Otherwise, who cared?
Less than two years later, Smith finds himself fourth in the majors in strikeout rate, sandwiched between Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer. Remember, this is the same Smith who had been selected in the previous offseason's Rule 5 draft. How has he struck out more than a third of the batters he has faced this season, and more than a quarter dating back to 2018?
Let's start by addressing the sample-size elephant in the room: It's true that Smith has thrown just 106 innings since joining the Marlins. However, it's hard to fake this kind of bat-missing ability. Besides, Smith has steadily punched out more than a batter per inning this season across his five starts. His other numbers are shiny, too: a 2.17 ERA, more than five strikeouts per walk, just 17 hits allowed in 29 innings, and so on and so forth.
As for how Smith does what he does, it's a little off the beaten path. Typically, strikeout compilers feature elite stuff. That can mean a hot fastball, but it can also mean clearly top-shelf secondaries: a vicious slider, a trapdoor changeup, whatever. Although Smith has a whiff rate exceeding 25 percent on each of his pitches, he doesn't have that kind of blatantly excellent repertoire.
Instead Smith seems to benefit from a combination of subtle factors, beginning with a deceptive delivery that enables him to shield the ball from the hitter. Marry that with a rising heater -- he ranks ninth in spin rate among the 48 pitchers with 200-plus fastballs this season -- and his propensity for elevating, and the pitch must play faster than its 93 mph average, per Statcast.
When Smith turns to his secondary offerings, he has two choices: a slider he'll use against lefties and righties alike, and a high-spin changeup that clocks in about 10 mph slower. The slider is visually more impressive, as the change lacks the movement of teammate's Trevor Richards's cambio and relies more on backspin.
Again, it's not the kind of arsenal sported by a Gerrit Cole or a Max Scherzer. But most pitchers don't have raw stuff on that level anyway. What Smith has is an assortment of pitches and attributes that work well for him. Heading forward, his ERA is going to rise -- because c'mon -- yet he should remain capable of missing bats. As such, it's fair to say that Jeter's first trade with the Yankees has turned into an unexpectedly big win.