Burch Smith’s Hairy Road to Value
With great hair comes great responsibility. But, is pitching success included in the large bundle of assets that come with having great hair? In the case of Burch Smith, I certainly believe so. The soon to be 28-year-old pitcher in the Royals organization boasts wondrous locks and, more importantly, elite stuff on the mound. At the moment, Smith is still relatively unknown, but there is reason to believe that will change in the near future. By the end of the season, Smith should be a valuable pitcher for the Royals in the rotation or the back end of the bullpen and is a good post-hype player to look at in your dynasty leagues.
It has been a long road to this point for Smith, who has not thrown a major league pitch since 2013. Drafted out of the University of Oklahoma in 2011 by the Padres, Smith ascended quickly through their minor league system. The Texas native took less than two full years in the minors to make his major league debut and had the looks of a promising young pitcher. Unfortunately, his career was soon derailed by injuries. His 2014 season was limited to just two starts at Triple-A due to forearm issues. He was then traded to the Rays in the Wil Myers deal and was expected to compete for a rotation spot. However, he injured his arm again and required Tommy John surgery, missing the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons. In 2017 Smith came back with vengeance by tearing up three minor league levels and the Arizona Fall League. The Rays decided not to add him to their 40-man roster, so he ended up being traded to the Royals after being selected by the Mets in the Rule 5 draft. Smith’s trek to the Royals has been more long and wavy than his hair, which is really saying something.
After missing three full seasons to injuries, Smith made it clear last year that he still has serious stuff. The power-armed righty has a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and has been clocked as high as 100 this spring. His fastball has good life at times and has good horizontal movement. Smith hurls from an abnormal three-quarters arm slot and throws across his body. This causes his pitches to have movement from right to left across the plate and adds a factor of irregularity to his arsenal. Sometimes the fastball can be flat, but I would consider it a plus pitch for the most part. Smith also features some very promising off-speed pitches. His changeup is my favorite of his and has proven that it can be a devastating pitch. It sits around 80 and has very good vertical drop. Compared to his flat mid-90s fastball, the pitch is a brutal change in velocity and movement that hitters struggle to adjust to. His curveball is even slower, typically being thrown in the mid-70s, and has the ability to catch hitters off guard. It has good vertical drop, but at times can seem to get too slow and loopy. There was some rust on Smith’s stuff last year, but that was to be expected considering how long it had been since his last pitching appearance.
Smith put up a very solid stat line across three minor league levels in 2017- a 2.40 ERA and 1.12 WHIP to go along with an 8.9 K/9 rate over 12 starts. While the strikeout rate was not quite as high as his pre-injury levels, it showed strong improvement as the season went on, peaking at 12.8 K/9 in the Arizona Fall League. So far this spring, Smith has had mixed results. His first two appearances were scoreless outings, but the last two have been sloppy, due to a high number of walks. A large factor in his future success will be his control and whether he can limit the walks. Last season, he pitched to the tune of a 3.8 BB/9 ratio, but in his limited work this spring he is walking batters at a rate of one per inning (9 BB/9). His rates this spring are being taken from an extremely small sample size and don’t mean too much regarding his future value, but his performance this spring is very important to how he will be used this season. His inability to throw strikes this spring is a tough first look for the Royals to deal with, and has severely hurt his chances of getting a rotation spot to start the season. However, Smith will be able to figure out his control issues and should see his walk rate return to 2017 levels. I believe that Smith’s current struggles are purely temporary and will not get in the way of his long-term success.
Part of the reason his poor spring will not sink him is that as a Rule 5 pick, the Royals must have him on their 25-man roster the entire season or they will lose him to the Rays. Smith is in a very good position right now. He will probably open the year in the Royals bullpen and can work his way into a valuable role with some good outings. He has the stuff to be a dominant late-inning reliever even if the walk rate remains high. If he can lower his walk rate, he could find himself in the rotation in a heartbeat. The oft-injured Danny Duffy headlines a motley crew (some might call a rotation, but it’s a loose use of the word) including Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Nathan Karns, and Jeff Junis. Based on this alone, Smith should receive plenty of chances to join the Royals rotation if he proves himself on the mound.
Entering his age-28 season, Smith is older than most breakout candidates. But, that is not a reason to discount the value he can provide this year and in the future. Due to his solid stuff and the abundance of opportunities around him, I am confident Smith will end the year in a role valuable to dynasty players. At this point, he probably won’t cost you more than a roster spot and is worth the flier despite the risk he brings. His upside as a starter is a mid-rotation arm with good strikeout totals and above-average ratios, but I could also see him ending up as the Royals closer if he stays in the bullpen. He may not start off in a great role, but Burch Smith is undoubtedly someone to keep an eye on.