With the 2022 regular season over, it is that time where we go back and take a look at the players who appeared for the Texas Rangers this past season.
Today, we look at infielder Josh Smith.
Acquired in the Joey Gallo trade in the summer of 2021, Josh Smith checks a lot of the boxes that the Rangers look for in their position players since the big philosophy shift a decade ago. Had success in a top conference in college? Check — Smith excelled for LSU, with the New York Yankees selecting him in the second round in 2019. Controls the strike zone? Check — he has consistently drawn almost as many walks as he has strike outs. High makeup? Check — Smith gets high marks for his instincts and makeup, and was one of the minor leaguers brought to Arlington prior to the 2022 season for a leadership camp.
The big differences between Smith and a lot of the Rangers new wave of position prospects is that Smith does not have the big time exit velocity that a lot of them do, but does have the defensive ability and versatility that a lot of them lack. That defensive ability and versatility is what got Smith promoted to the majors in late May, and provides him with a higher floor than a lot of other prospects. The issues with exit velocity, however, are what could limit him to a utility-type role, rather than an everyday job.
Smith started the 2022 season at Round Rock, and was brought up in late May, along with Zach Reks, to replace Brad Miller (who was placed on the injured list) and Albert Abreu (who was designated for assigment). Smith made it five games before injuring his shoulder and landing on the injured list, returning to the active roster in late June.
Smith had hit the ground running when he was first called up, going three for four in his first game, but as the season went on he struggled more and more at the plate. Smith put up a 613 OPS in June, a 568 OPS in July, ad had a 531 OPS for the month of August before being optioned in the middle of the month to make room on the roster for Kole Calhoun, who was being activated from the injured list. Smith returned to the bigs in early September but continued to struggle at the plate, putting up a paltry .152/.250/.212 slash line, good for a 462 OPS, in 77 plate appearances over 23 games.
The end numbers for Smith in 2022 were not pretty: a .197/.307/.249 slash line in 253 plate appearances, good for a 63 OPS+. Smith played primarily third base and left field, with a few games at shortstop, and was good enough defensively that he managed to avoid a negative WAR — bWAR has him at 0.3 on the season, while fWAR has him at 0.0. But still, a 556 OPS isn’t going to cut it.
Smith’s plate discipline was good in the majors — his 11.1% walk rate was well above the 8.4% major league average, and he struck out just 19.8% of the time, below the 22.1% league average. The problem was that when he put the ball in play, he didn’t do damage — his BABIP of .244 was well below league average, and his .052 ISO tied him with Myles Straw for the third lowest in MLB among players with at least 250 plate appearances.*
* Weirdly, the players who are fifth and sixth lowest in ISO are Leury Garcia and Miguel Cabrera, and I’m hard-pressed to think of two different players than those two. Eighth was Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
In looking at the Statcast data, what we see in regards to the quality of the contact he makes is about what we would expect, given the above — an average exit velocity below league average, and a barrel and hard hit rate well below league average. He’s not hitting the ball hard, meaning that he’s not getting a lot of hits, and is especially not getting many extra base hits.
On the more positive side, Smith did have an xwOBA in 2022 of .296. While that is below the league average of .315, it is much better than the .262 wOBA he recorded in 2022. And while he has’t hit for a ton of power in the minors, he’s shown more than he did in the majors — he slashed .290/.396/.466 for Round Rock in 2022 after slashing .309/.425/.535 in 2021 between low-A, high-A and AA.
So there’s probably more juice in the bat than we saw in Arlington last year — the question, though, is how much more. The only real opportunity for playing time right now in the big leagues for Smith would be at left field, and while he got some reps out there in 2022, he doesn’t profile as someone who will hit enough to have value out there. If Smith is going to have value as a starter, it would be at one of the infield spots. Unless there’s an injury or Josh Jung flops, however, there’s not an opening there.
Barring injury, Smith will either be in Round Rock to start the 2023 season or will have a bench role in the big leagues. The fact that he can play shortstop — something none of the other bench candidates can really do — would seem to give Smith a leg up in the fight for a bench spot, and the Rangers are trying to win, so having him contributing in a part time role in the majors may have more appeal than sending him back to AAA to play every day.