Switch to sidearm delivery pays dividends for Smith
New Angels reliever parlays success into three-year, $15.75 million contract
ANAHEIM -- It was the beginning of fall workouts at Wright State University in 2004, and new pitching coach Greg Lovelady badly wanted a sidearm reliever. So he went around the room asking for volunteers, probing mostly the pitchers who otherwise had little chance of cracking his depth chart.
Joe Smith, then a redshirt-sophomore coming off a solid first season, raised his hand.
"He had the best numbers of the returners," said Lovelady, now Wright State's head baseball coach. "I didn't really think of him doing that. But we were like, 'OK, let's try it with this guy, that guy,' and next thing you know, everybody wants to try it. Joe steps up and throws, and it's like, 'Wow, that's actually pretty good.'"
That's the day that changed Smith's baseball career forever. It took him from a mediocre amateur pitcher to a third-round Draft pick by the Mets in 2006, one of baseball's most effective relievers with the Indians from 2011-13, and as of Wednesday, a $15.75 million setup man for the Angels.
First, Smith needed to accept the change.
He volunteered as a joke. But when Lovelady told him he'd be his closer the following season if he accepted, things suddenly got serious.
"I got up on the mound and [Lovelady] liked what he saw and he said, 'Give me a minute,'" Smith recalled. "So he went and got the head coach, and they tried to convince me to do it. It took them about all of fall baseball and most of winter to convince me to stay down there permanently."
The proof came via the radar gun, which ultimately clocked Smith's fastball a couple of ticks higher in each of his two seasons as a collegiate sidearmer.
"I don't know. Somehow my velocity just ended up getting stronger, even though I dropped down," Smith said. "It ended up working out pretty good."
It's that sidearm motion, coupled with Smith's propensity for inducing groundouts, that now gives the Angels some important diversity in the back end of a bullpen that's filled mostly by power, over-the-top right-handed throwers. The fact they're getting it from a guy who has posted a 2.42 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP over the last three seasons made the Angels believe Smith was worth $5.25 million annually on a three-year contract.
"He's a proven commodity, he's done it in a leverage-type role," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said on a joint conference call with his new reliever. "And being able to put him in a group of younger guys who throw hard, with the leadership skills that Joe brings to the table, it's a very good feeling this point in the year, particularly with what we've dealt with, with the turbulence in our bullpen over these last two years."
Along with lefty Sean Burnett, who's scheduled to start throwing in January and is expected to be fully healthy by Spring Training, Smith creates a very formidable setup duo for closer Ernesto Frieri, bolstering a bullpen that ranked 12th in the American League in reliever WHIP last season. Also in the bullpen mix are righties Michael Kohn, Dane De La Rosa and Kevin Jepsen, whom Dipoto said will be tendered a contract before Monday night's deadline.
Smith's preference was to return to the Indians, where he spent the previous five seasons, but the Angels swayed him with a third guaranteed year. That third year -- coupled with the fact his fiancée, Allie LaForce, lives in Southern California as a co-host for the show "Lead Off" on CBS Sports Network -- made the Angels an ideal fit. The Dodgers were among other teams to make Smith an offer, but weren't willing to give him a third year.
"The third year was huge," Smith said. "That was something that I wanted very badly, if you ask my agent. Definitely Southern California was on our list. I'm not going to lie -- I know Jerry knows it, too -- I wanted to stay in Cleveland. That was my ultimate goal. But at the end of the day, this is how baseball works, the business of it. We couldn't get a third year from them, so ultimately, once Cleveland was out of the mix, Southern California was tops on my list."
Smith is far less of a gamble than Ryan Madson, whom the Angels took a flyer on last fall before watching him miss a second straight year while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Smith hasn't been on the disabled list in either of the past two years, and he ranks 10th in appearances with 439 since his first season in 2007.
Since then, he's tied for eighth in ground-ball percentage (70) and tied for 10th in homers per nine innings (0.59) among those with at least 350 appearances, relying mostly on a slider and sinking fastball that sits between 89 and 92 mph.
But his career took off when he improved against lefties.
Smith suffered an abdomen strain in Spring Training of 2011 that prompted him to miss the first two weeks of the regular season. When he got back, Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and Tony Sipp had jumped him on the pecking order, so then-Indians manager Manny Acta started using Smith in mop-up duty against righties and lefties.
Smith got comfortable, learned how to effectively get his fastball inside and eventually became more than a specialist. From 2007-10, lefties posted a .325/.437/.488 slash line against Smith. From 2011-13, it was only .203/.291/.303.
Now, he just might make the Angels' bullpen a strength again.
"I'm just excited to be an Angel," Smith said. "Everything worked out; it's where I want to be. My fiancée has a job out there, so it takes some stress off me a little bit to be in the same city as her, having a chance to come to a ballclub that can not only compete, but we have a chance to win a ring, and that's obviously the goal with this team. I'm just excited to be a part of it."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.