Midseason Analysis: Joe Smith
This time last year, Joe Smith was toiling in the bullpen of the Brooklyn Cyclones, the lowest rung of professional baseball, only weeks after attending college classes. Now, he’s counted on to get big outs in the biggest media circus of Major League Baseball.
The way he goes about his business is similar to his surname — unremarkable, unassuming — just a regular “Joe”. That unflappability and cool-as-a-cucumber mentality befit his role as a late-inning reliever.
Smith came out of nowhere to win a bullpen spot out of spring training, and was an instant success, unnerving some of the best bats in the National League with his laredo release point. He did not give up a run in his first 17 appearances, striking out sluggers and inducing ground balls in key situations.
Since that Superman-like start, Smith hasn’t been quite as invincible, as teams are becoming more familiar with his arm angle and repertoire. Still, he’s gained the confidence of manager Willie Randolph — no small feat for a youngster with his lack of professional experience. His ability to keep the ball down has resulted in a remarkable 3:1 groundball/flyball ratio, and he’s allowed just two homeruns in 36 innings. In addition to the groundball prowess, he’s also something of a strikeout artist, deftly using his fadeaway change and slashing slider to amass nearly one K per inning. At this point, his main issue is control — he’s walked 18, which isn’t bad, but isn’t great either. Generally, he has specific outings with control problems — he’ll go four or five appearances without a walk, then suddenly walk two in an inning. Also, he’s recently been allowing too many inherited runners to score.
As Smith showed effectiveness, Randolph continually placed him into impossible situations — so the inherited runs scoring is more a result of the odds finally going against him than a lack of performance. You can’t put a guy into first-and-second and bases-loaded situations time after time and not expect him to crack at some point.
Some of his early success could have been attributed to his mystery, but he’s faced most of the NL East teams more than once and continued to be effective. Still, the NL will eventually find a vulnerability, and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts.
His stuff is the real deal, and he will continue to be a strong option for the sixth and seventh innings of winnable ballgames. He’ll be more effective, though, if Willie learns to manage him more sensibly. For example, his ERA is 0.55 when pitching with one days’ rest, 5.68 with two days’ rest and 4.55 with no rest. Righties are hitting only .211 against him, but lefties are nearly .300. Clearly he’s best as a matchup guy — a ROOGY — but should be fine throwing a full inning (vs lefties and righties) so long as he’s given a day to recover. Of course, Willie feels the need to use every arm available, every single game, if he deems necessary, so the idea of proper management is more pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking than anything else.