There and Back Again: Joe Smith’s Tale

On Monday, the Cleveland Indians made their lone deadline deal acquiring veteran right-handed reliever Joe Smith from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for minor leaguers Thomas Pannone and Samad Taylor. While this transaction does not shake the earth like last year’s Andrew Miller trade, it still adds a strong arm to manager Terry Francona’s bullpen. Moreover, the deal is a homecoming of sorts for Joe Smith, a Cincinnati native who pitched for the Tribe from 2009 to 2013. Let’s take a look at where he has been in the intervening years.

Smith helped anchor the Indians bullpen during the 2013 season. He appeared in 70 games, threw 63 innings with 54 strikeouts and a 2.29 ERA. When Chris “Pure Rage” Perez melted down against the Twins in Game 159, it was Smith who came in and locked down the save. He cameoed during the AL Wild Card Game allowing one hit and striking out one Tampa Bay Ray in two thirds of an inning of work. Smith entered free agency after that season and signed a three-year, $15.75 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels.

Smith turned in an outstanding 2014 campaign. He recorded a career best in WAR (2.5 per baseball-reference), WHIP (0.804), strikeouts (68), innings pitched (74.2), and ERA (1.81). The Angels reached the ALDS that season, and Smith threw two innings with two strikeouts. His numbers regressed to the mean in 2015, but he remained a steady arm out of the pen. Last season, the Angels flat-lined and dealt Smith to the Chicago Cubs for minor league pitcher Jesus Castillo. In two-and-a-half season in Southern California the righty finished with a 13-11 record, 2.89 ERA, 177.2 IP, 150 K’s, and 1.081 WHIP.

Smith appeared in 16 games for the Cubs last season, compiling a 1-1 record and 2.51 ERA. Despite a fine showing,1 Smith did not make the postseason roster for the North Siders in part due to recovering from a hamstring injury in September that landed him on the DL. He became a free agent at season’s end.

On February 9, Smith signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. He appeared in 38 games for the Jays amassing a 3-0 record, 3.28 ERA, and 51 strikeouts in 38 innings of work. For the first time in his career, Smith landed on the disabled list for an arm injury while in Toronto. On June 19 the Jays placed him on the 10-day DL with right shoulder inflammation.2 Smith appeared in four games in July throwing four innings of work with an earned run allowed along with two hits, two walks, and four strikeouts.

An injured shoulder is not ideal, but the ailment is the first to his arm of Smith’s career. At 33-years-old he is hardly over the hill, and so long as the Tribe takes pains (no pun intended) to monitor his shoulder, it should not be a huge downside. Smith is enjoying a remarkable 2017 season. His 2.31 FIP is the lowest of his eleven year career, his 1.121 WHIP is the lowest since 2014, and his 12.9 K/9 ratio is off the charts. On top of that Smith is sitting on a 5.10 K/BB ratio.

Smith has never been a classic flamethrowing hurler; his fastball tends to sit between 88-92 mph. His claim to fame is his sidearm throwing motion. His release angle sits somewhere between traditional and submarine (“speedboat” perhaps?) which can befuddle unexpected hitters. His increasing strikeout rates mirror the same pace across baseball. To be successful in Cleveland the righty needs only to record outs; they don’t necessarily have to be strikeouts. Francona is excited to have Smith back in the fold. “He brings a lot of experience pitching in the back end of games… we’d like to leverage him against right-handed hitters.”

A cynic would be tempted to say that the Indians lost ground by making few moves at the deadline. While Yu Darvish or Sonny Gray would have looked sharp with a Block-C cap, Cleveland did not have the assets to offer for such a valuable haul. Smith may feel like a small pickup, but he is a righty who can contribute right away out of the pen and perhaps help spread out the innings among Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen. Also worth noting that when Smith learned of the trade he spoke of his respect for the Blue Jays and gratitude for the opportunity before smiling and saying, “on the flip side, I get to go home.”

Welcome home, Joe. It’s good to have you back.

  1. Though he did have poor peripherals including a 5.94 FIP. []
  2. Retroactive to June 15. []