Sidearmer Smith set to play key 'pen role
Highest-paid Halos reliever ever has deceptive approach that works on righties, lefties
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols has had 8,546 career regular-season plate appearances against 1,133 pitchers, but he can walk you through each of the six times he's ever faced Joe Smith if you'd like. Pujols has total recall for these types of things, and vivid in his mind is how difficult it is to face a sidearm-throwing sinkerballer like Smith when you happen to bat right-handed.
"It's that you never look down there," said Pujols, who's 1-for-4 with a strikeout and two walks against the Angels' new reliever. "Everybody else is throwing three-quarters and up. He's uncomfortable, man. It's just the ball moves so much. He doesn't throw that hard, but it's nasty."
The Angels identified Smith early in the offseason and went above and beyond to sign him, giving him a three-year, $15.75 million contract few teams, if any, were willing to match.
They did it because the bridge to closer Ernesto Frieri was so wobbly last year, and because the way Smith attacks hitters -- with a lively sinker and slider, and a velocity that's no faster than 92 mph -- differs so greatly from the over-the-top, power right-handers that make up the rest of their bullpen.
They're hoping he can bring the Angels what he brought their Monday opponent for the last five years.
"He's probably one of the more unsung heroes at doing his job," former teammate and current Indians reliever Vinnie Pestano said. "You don't really hear a whole lot about him. It's sad, especially for the work he put in here. He's very, very capable of handling late-inning situations, but you don't see sidearmers getting those opportunities. I was glad that last year he got to handle those situations late in games and really showcase the type of pitcher that he is."
Smith just missed a chance to face his former team, making his second spring appearance on Sunday and resting on Monday.
"I guess [the Angels] didn't want that," Smith said, smiling. "Maybe when [the Indians] come here [on March 23]."
Smith chose the Angels because of their roster, because of the dollars they offered and because they reside in Southern California, where his fiancee, Allie LaForce, works as a co-host for the show "Lead Off" on CBS Sports Network.
The Angels are "a little quieter group than I'm used to," Smith said, "but it's good."
Smith hasn't been on the disabled list in either of the past two years and 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.
Last year, Smith ranked 13th in the American League in relief-pitcher ERA (2.29), tied for 16th in appearances (70), tied for seventh in holds (25) and was one of the best arms in baseball as the Indians were making their run at a Wild Card berth over the last two months, giving up two runs, striking out 24 and walking eight in 24 2/3 innings.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia was asked on Monday morning if he could see himself using Smith as somewhat of a righty specialist if lefty Sean Burnett is healthy, and was almost insulted by the question.
"Have you seen his numbers against lefties?" Scioscia said of Smith. "He is not a matchup guy."
Indeed, Smith isn't your typical sidearmer who's only effective because right-handed hitters like Pujols have a hard time picking the ball up from his hand. Right-handed hitters had only a .592 OPS against him in 2013, but lefties had a .698 OPS, and that isn't all that good, either.
"He's special because you can use him against both," Pujols said. "He can get you that ground-ball double play whenever you need it."
It all changed in 2011.
Smith suffered an abdomen strain in Spring Training that prompted him to miss the first two weeks of the regular season. When he got back, Pestano, Chris Perez and Tony Sipp had jumped him in the pecking order, so then-Indians manager Manny Acta started using Smith in mop-up duty against righties and lefties.
"He just threw me out there and said, 'You've got the inning,'" Smith said. "I was able to face some lefties, and I think that was one of the things that helped."
Smith talked to left-handed-hitting teammates Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner about what typically worked against them, found a way to effectively get his four-seam fastball inside against lefty hitters and improved greatly. From 2007-10, lefties posted a .325/.437/.488 slash line against Smith. From 2011-13, it was only .203/.291/.303.
"That slider he's able to command is a huge equalizer for him," Pestano said. "He can start it two feet outside and bring it back to the outside corner, he can [backdoor] guys with it, and just that sink he gets on his fastball. He can work both sides of the plate with that. When he's able to locate both of those, it's going to be a tough day for a lefty or a righty."
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.