Miami Marlins

Injury derailed his rookie year. Now, he’s competing to stay in the Marlins’ rotation

Jeter: “When you compete, you’re competing to win”

"When you compete, you're competing to win", said Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter during a press conference at Marlins Park the day before pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training
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"When you compete, you're competing to win", said Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter during a press conference at Marlins Park the day before pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training

The thoughts ran through Caleb Smith’s head after his stellar rookie year was derailed by a season-ending shoulder injury. As his began his rehab, a journey that lasted nearly eight months, the doubts crept in.

Will I be the same player I was before? Will I still be able to pitch at a high level?

“It’s almost like poison in your head,” Smith said.

He’s able to breathe a little bit easier now.

Smith reported to Marlins spring training Wednesday at Roger Dean Stadium with the rest of the team’s pitchers and catchers and hopes to regain his spot in the starting rotation that was lost after the injury.

“I feel like my spot’s not secure. It never is. I’m out here to work and compete just like everybody else,” Smith said. “I’m competing for a spot. We’ve got good competition in spring training this year. It’s going to be interesting.”

Smith was enjoying a relatively successful 2018 season prior to the injury. He was 5-6 with a 4.19 ERA after 16 starts and some intricacies within his pitches ranked among some of MLB’s best in that span.

According to Statcast, Smith’s four-seam fastball had an average spin rate — which impacts the trajectory of the ball as it approaches the plate — 2,365 revolutions per minute, a mark that ranked tied for 19th among all MLB pitchers and fifth among lefties who threw that pitch at least 750 times in 2018. The league average is about 2,200.

His 10.8-percent swinging strike rate ranked 18th among left-handed pitchers and was higher than Clayton Kershaw (10.2) and CC Sabathia (10.1).

“It was part of kind of our interaction with analytics and what they were showing us,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “I think being able to point that out to him early on, give him the confidence to ‘Hey, challenge the strike zone. Let’s go get some guys. Challenge the hitter with your stuff.’ It’s quality. It’s in the upper tier of guys with swing-and-miss type stuff. ”

But Smith’s rookie season ended three months earlier than he had hoped after suffering a Grade 3 lat strain in his final start on June 24 against the Colorado Rockies. Five days later, he elected to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. The operation took place July 9.

Smith considered the injury to be “pretty much a fluke.”

“Not a lot of pitchers have that surgery,” Smith said. “If they do, if it does happen to them, it doesn’t break all the way off the bone.”

Nevertheless, it stopped his season right then and there. Smith said his shoulder, albeit weak, began feeling better shortly after surgery. He regained full strength within a month of the surgery. He spent the offseason with a physical therapist in his hometown of Huntsville, Texas, and worked out with the Sam Houston State baseball team. He threw off a mound for the first time on Jan. 23 — almost seven months to the day of the injury. He grew out a full beard that Mattingly referred to as “the Abe Lincoln look” before trimming it shortly before workouts on Thursday to abide by the Marlins’ well-groomed hair policy.

“I was trying to push the limits every day and throw a little bit harder every day,” Smith said.

That push will continue over the next six weeks as he attempts to once again solidify a spot in the starting rotation. The Marlins have at least seven legitimate candidates — Jose Urena, Dan Straily, Wei-Yin Chen, Caleb Smith, Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Trevor Richards — for what essentially amounts to five spots.

“First thing is his health,” Mattingly said. “He’ll be on a program like everyone else. Just keeping a little bit of an eye on him and see how he’s handling the workload and his bullpens and the things that we ask of the pitchers throughout spring. From the pitching side, you hope that him like all the other guys that we talked about can take the experience of being in the big leagues last year and the successes that he had to be able to build off of that.”

The injury is still in the back of his mind, but Smith is thinking ahead to the season now.

“It was a big punch in the gut for me,” Smith said. “Super unfortunate, but I’m coming back.”

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Jordan McPherson covers the Miami Marlins and high school sports for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and covered the Gators athletic program for five years before joining the Herald staff in December 2017.