With a sidearm delivery and a history of success against same-handed bats, Smith looked like a logical complement to left-hander J.P. Howell, who had signed an identical one-year, $3 million contract days earlier. Smith could handle the righties, Howell the lefties.
At that point in the winter, few would have predicted what unfolded Friday night. The combination of Smith’s success and Howell’s struggles led the Blue Jays to call on Smith in the eighth inning of a two-run game against three New York Yankees set to hit left-handed: Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley. Smith worked around a leadoff single to preserve a narrow lead and build on his early-season success against hitters on both sides of the plate.
"Facing lefties isn’t new to me," said Smith, a former setup man and closer with the Los Angeles Angels. "Obviously when you come to a new team and you throw sidearm, you’ve kind of got to prove yourself again."
Earlier in the year, the Blue Jays used Smith primarily against right-handed hitters; he faced a total of five lefties in his first six appearances of the season. Over time that’s changed. The more left-handers Smith retires, the more of them he sees.
"He’s been doing that all year," manager John Gibbons said. "I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s obviously very tough on right-handers. It’s a tough angle, and he can spot it pretty good. But there’s zero concern now against left-handers."
In 48 plate appearances against Smith, left-handers are hitting .244/.354/.341. By way of comparison, right-handers are hitting .224/.241/.333 in 59 plate appearances. While Smith’s career numbers suggest he’s generally more effective against same-handed hitters, his success against lefties gives the Blue Jays flexibility.
All told, Smith has already struck out 40 hitters this year, matching his season total from 2016. Sounds like he’s improved, right? Smith sees it differently: "Last year I was bad."
He injured his hamstring mid-way through last May, but didn’t go on the disabled list until early June because the Angels’ pitching staff was already banged up.
"They’re paying me money, I love those guys over there," he said. "If I can pitch I’m going to pitch. I don’t care how hurt I am. But did my stuff suffer and numbers suffer?"
They did. He posted an uncharacteristically high 3.82 ERA with the Angels and his strikeouts were down. The Chicago Cubs acquired him in a deadline deal, but he had to return to the disabled list with continued hamstring issues in August. It wasn’t until months later that Smith felt physically strong.
"When I walked into spring training here, it was still a mess," he said.
Having secured a spot in the Blue Jays’ bullpen, Smith built up strength gradually in the hopes of reaching peak form toward the middle of March. At times, he struggled in spring training, but he knew Gibbons wasn’t going to overreact to Grapefruit League results.
"As relaxed as he is, it’s nice," Smith said. "It’s like ‘Gibby, don’t worry, man, I know I’m getting ripped right now,’ and he’s like ‘Ah, man. Don’t even worry about it.’ But at the same time you want to make a good impression."
If the Blue Jays didn’t trust what they saw from Smith, they wouldn’t call on him so often. Howell’s 12 appearances are evidence of that. Smith is pitching as well as ever, though, so Gibbons keeps going back to him. Even after appearing in 29 of his team’s first 55 games, the 33-year-old is confident he can handle plenty more innings.
"It’s just nice to feel healthy," Smith said. "I love it. Last year was a bumpy year for me, so I feel like I got a lot of rest. Before that I had five years in a row with 70 games, so I’m used to throwing with a high workload."
The way he’s pitching, the Blue Jays will be sure to take him up on that offer—against right-handers and left-handers alike.