The initial controversy in the Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen was the appearance of Francisco Rodriguez in the closer’s role in the opener on Monday instead of Jim Henderson. While that drama and solution is important, the real story of the relief corps’ success this season will rest on the left arm of Will Smith.
Having a southpaw reliever who throws 93-94 MPH, is tough on righties and can pitch multiple frames is a tremendous impact asset most teams only dream of having. Smith’s electric stuff and durable arm will make the lefty Ron Roenicke’s best friend if he’s utilized to the fullest.
In 2013, Smith saw his first extended action in the MLB bullpen, holding opponents to a .170 average, .218 OBP and terrific .558 OPS in 29.1 innings. Of course he dominated left-handers with a 13.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio, .157 average and a microscopic .204 OBP.
The beauty to his game is that righties had a tough time as well, as they posted only a .273 OBP while striking out 16 times in 77 plate appearances.
Opening Day was a prime example of Smith’s value as he entered the eighth inning to face the top of the Atlanta Braves’ order. With left-handed swinging Jason Heyward leading off and lefty Freddie Freeman hitting third, it was an ideal spot for Smith, even with a righty in between.
The 24-year-old reliever threw 18 pitches – 13 for strikes – and sat down the three hitters in order with a strikeout and a pair of ground outs. In finishing off the frame with ease and dispelling two of the Braves’ best hitters, Smith paved the way for whoever took the mound in the ninth.
It worked out well for Roenicke in that he didn’t have a decision to make for the final frame. What if those same three hitters were due up in the last inning? Conventional wisdom says stick with your “closer,” but the numbers say go with the guy best-suited to get the outs.
In many cases, almost regardless of left-right considerations, Smith will be the best man for the job. However, I don’t want him being used as the closer as he’ll best serve the Brewers by entering the situation that presents the biggest challenge.
In some cases that will mean retiring the last batter in the seventh and looking to take care of the entire eighth inning as well. Maybe it’s starting the eighth frame like in the opener but starting the ninth because of a tough left-handed bat due up.
Because Smith has experience starting, he has no issue pitching across multiple innings. That gives Roenicke an incredible amount of flexibility and strategic advantages throughout the course of the season – especially since Smith is effective against righties also.
Smith has two “plus pitches,” meaning they are in the top tier of quality. He throws a biting slider to shut down the dangerous lefties and a two-seam fastball that dives low and away from the right-handed sticks and in on the hands of lefties. His four-seam (straight) fastball that can hit in the mid-90 range also gives him leverage on the inner half of the plate no matter what side of the dish a batter stands on.
The multiple-inning ability of Smith will help the rest of the staff as he can eat up batters and save someone else’s arm to be fully effective the next day. Over the course of 162 contests, this is a highly under-appreciated aspect of durable relievers.
As the year wears on, the closer situation should clear up and develop with time, but the most important aspect will be the effective use of Smith. He was brought into the ninth inning of Wednesday’s tilt with the Brewers down a run where he struck out a lefty and a righty before giving way to Brandon Kintzler.
If Roenicke can avoid boxing himself into a predictable, tradition-based strategy when it comes to Smith, Milwaukee’s bullpen will be a strong point on the club and wrap up more victories for the Brewers than many expected.