When Joe Smith debuted for the Mets in 2007, the 23 year-old didn’t look a day over 14. Regardless of looks, Smith pitched decently, posting a 3.45 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, and 2.14 K/BB. While the young righty was surrendering too many hits (9.7 Hits/9) and free passes (4.3 BB/9), he was also striking out batters at a 9.1 K/9 clip and his .349 BABIP suggested some of those hits were bad luck. The following season, Smith trimmed-down his hits allowed (from 9.7 to 7.2 Hits/9), and was notoriously successful in bases-loaded jams (.000/.083/.000 line against in 12 PA’s). At age 24, the now bullpen mainstay pitched to the tune of a 3.55 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 1.68 K/BB.
His success didn’t arrive out of thin air, however. Smith exhibited dominance the year before at Single-A, owning a microscopic 0.45 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, and 9.33 K/BB in 20 innings. The reliever struggled a bit when he was promoted to Double-A, hurling a 5.68 ERA, 1.81 WHIP, and 1.09 K/BB in 12.6 innings–particularly having trouble finding the plate (7.8 BB/9)–but before getting the call to the show in 2007, Smith pitched 9 solid innings at Triple-A (2.00 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 1.25 K/BB). Joe Smith didn’t quite have “closer stuff” in the Major Leagues, but he was emerging as a good, young reliever in the middle of the Mets bullpen. And that’s probably what attracted him to the Cleveland Indians.
Smith was dealt in a three-way trade in 2009 along with Mike Carp, Ezequiel Carrera, Endy Chavez, Maikel Cleto, Aaron Heilman, and Jason Vargas involving the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians. The Mets netted closer J.J. Putz, reliever Sean Green, and outfielder Jeremy Reed. It was hard to blame the Mets for being interested in Putz, who owned a combined 1.86 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 7.15 K/BB, and 76 saves between 2006 and 2007. However, a variety of elbow-related injuries derailed his 2008 season, where he posted an uncharacteristic 3.88 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, and 2.00 K/BB. The Mets saw a good “buy low” opportunity, but Putz’s health was obviously still not back to 100 percent. In his sole season with the Mets in 2009, Putz owned a forgettable 5.22 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, and 1.00 K/BB.
At first, Joe Smith didn’t seem like much of a loss for the Mets. Between 2009 and 2010, the righty owned a combined 3.65 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, and 1.68 K/BB. His control was still a problem (4.5 BB/9), and it was enough of a concern for the Indians to demote him to Triple-A in 2010 (1.96 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 1.90 K/BB in 23 innings). However, so far in 2011, Smith has transformed from run-of-the-mill to top-of-the-line. The 27 year-old reliever has posted a 1.26 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 2.21 K/BB. His usually atrocious control (4.4 BB/9 from 2007 to 2010) has improved mightily (2.9 BB/9). Smith has also only allowed 1 homerun in 43 innings–which is an impressive 0.2 HR/9.
Part of Smith’s success in 2011 could be a result of ditching his change-up, which was always his weakest pitch. Though he seldom used it from 2007 to 2010 (just 4.2% of the time), it was obviously a pitch that burned him (career total of -1.4 runs above average). In comparison, so far, Smith’s fastball has been worth 8.5 runs above average, and his slider has been worth 2.9 runs above average. It’s possible that throwing his two stronger pitches just slightly more has resulted in more dominance for the righty.
However, despite Smith successes with his fastball and slider, there have also been a few red flags in his spectacular 2011 season. Smith’s .248 BABIP suggests he’s getting a little lucky with the limited hits (6.7 Hits/9), and his 2.98 FIP and 3.47 xFIP indicates his by far career-best 1.26 ERA might not be for real. Red flags aside, compared to his past four Major League seasons, Smith has become a different, and far better pitcher in 2011. Even if Smith’s ERA were to regress to a more human-level, his improved control and pitch repertoire bodes well for his future as a solid Major League reliever.