Secure with role, Smith looks to stay on roll
Right-hander enjoyed breakout 2011 as sixth-inning reliever
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There is a sinking feeling that hits any player unable to break camp with their team due to an injury. Indians reliever Joe Smith experienced it last year, when the club headed north for Opening Day without him.
Smith was sidelined with an abdominal injury that was more of an annoyance than a serious threat to derail his season. The sidearmer needed only two weeks to fully heal, but while he did so at Cleveland's complex in Arizona, Vinnie Pestano and Tony Sipp firmly grabbed the setup duties with the big league club.
"You're like, 'Man, that could've been me,'" Smith said. "Maybe I would've gotten a shot at that eighth inning."
This spring, Smith has the benefit of hindsight and he believes that the early injury was really a blessing in disguise. He is coming off the best season of his career, and feels a main reason is the type of role he eventually filled within the Cleveland bullpen last summer.
When Smith re-joined the Tribe's relief corps, the eighth-inning jobs were taken. The seventh-inning role was also primarily filled by lefty Rafael Perez. That left Smith with the sixth inning, filling the kind of job that typically comes with more freedom to face both right-handed and left-handed hitters.
Smith was no longer operating as a right-handed specialist.
"Honestly, I don't want to be a specialist," said Smith, who logged one clean inning in Wednesday's 7-2 win over the D-backs. "I want to be an inning guy. Now, whether that works out, it is what it is, but that's my ultimate goal. I want them to be able to be like, 'Here, seventh inning, go get 'em.' It doesn't matter what kind of hitters are coming up."
That is essentially what happened during Smith's breakout 2011 season. After being activated from the disabled list on April 15, he appeared in 71 games -- tied for the second-most among American League relievers -- and fashioned a 2.01 ERA, which ranked fourth in the league among bullpen arms.
The amount of games he pitched served as evidence of how much faith the Indians had in Smith as the season wore on. That willingness to throw the sidearmer out there so often came from his improved ability to pound the strike zone, creating counts in which he could tempt hitters to chase sinkers that flirted with the corners.
"Joe has good enough stuff that, if he pitches ahead, he can get both hitters out -- righties and lefties," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "The key is strike one, man. Not just for him, but for just about everybody."
Easy to say, but it was not easy to do for Smith in past seasons.
In the 2009-10 seasons combined, left-handed hitters posted a .348 average (24-for-69) against Smith, compared to a .178 mark (36-for-202) for right-handed hitters. Smith corrected that trend in a big way last season, limiting lefties to a .152 average (12-for-79) and righties to a .248 (40-for-61.
Smith had 90 plate appearances against lefties last season -- a considerable spike in opportunities. In the previous two years combined, the sidearmer was only allowed to face left-handed hitters 82 times.
In 2011, though, Smith's strike rate was up to 65 percent from his career mark of 61 percent. His first-pitch strike rate climbed to 59 percent, compared to the 54 percent career average he had heading into last season.
"It was getting ahead in the count," Smith said of his success last year. "Especially with lefties. I've proven I can get a right-handed hitter out. The hard part was when a lefty came up, I'd always get taken out because of them. If I did face them, it seemed like I'd fall behind and walk them, or in years past, they were hitting .300 off me, so it was almost like a free base.
"Last year, they gave me the opportunity to face them. I was able to come back [from the injury] and pitch mostly when we were ahead a lot, or behind a lot, which let Manny kind of leave me out there to face whoever it was.
"I was able to get ahead of them. I really made a conscious effort to throw the ball over the plate to see if they could hit it."
Smith said that strategy came from a bullpen session with pitching coach Scott Radinsky.
"Rad said it best," Smith said. "He was like, 'If I tell you to throw 10 balls down the middle, how many do you think will actually go down the middle?' I said, 'Maybe one or two.' He said that's because it's going to move. You've got more room for error. That's what I did, and it paid off."
It paid off on the mound in the form of a standout showing and it paid off in Smith's bank account in the form of a $1.75 million contract for the upcoming season.
Smith is entering this season in the same type of role he inherited when he came back from the disabled list last April. Closer Chris Perez will occupy the ninth inning. Pestano and Sipp will cover the eighth and Rafael Perez will share the sixth and seventh with Smith.
That is fine by him.
"How I've looked at it in my mind is that if I'm throwing the sixth inning, then we've got a pretty good bullpen," Smith said. "It's, 'This is when I'm going to pitch' and you accept your role, because it's better for our family down there and keeps everything running smooth."
It is that type of attitude that helped keep Smith's spirits up while he remained sidelined for the first two weeks of last season.
Looking back on it now, Smith feels fortunate with how things turned out.
"I really feel it was the best thing that could've happened," he said.