"He's not your prototypical closer as far as the guy who comes in throwing 97 [mph] with the nasty breaking ball, but he has the ability to get ground balls," Mike Scioscia said. "He throws strikes, and he's having a terrific season. He's got the makeup to pitch in the ninth inning, and he's doing a good job of it."
There's a point no one would disagree with.
When Smith knocked down the saves in both games of Tuesday's doubleheader against the White Sox, it made the 30-year-old right-hander 9-for-9 when handed a save situation in the ninth inning.
Smith, a third-round Draft pick of the Mets in 2006 from Wright State, is listed at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. It is his side-arming pitching style, not his build, that causes him to stray from the style of closer that Scioscia used when he managed the Angels to a championship in 2002 or to win the AL West five times in six seasons in 2004-09.
Troy Percival was replaced by his setup man, Francisco Rodriguez, who handed the baton to left-hander Brian Fuentes. The Angels never worried about their bullpen in those days.
They've worried a lot the last few years, with the cast constantly in a state of flux. General Manager Jerry Dipoto was looking to solidify the seventh and eighth innings when he outbid Cleveland to sign Smith to a three-year, $15.75 million contract before last season.
That move looks better and better.
"We wouldn't even be talking about any type of pennant race or anything without Joe Smith," Scioscia said. "He's anchored our bullpen."
A setup man throughout his eight-year career, Smith couldn't be happier about the opportunity he inherited after Scioscia finally ran out of patience with Ernesto Frieri, who physically fits the closer prototype but had gone 11-for-14 in save chances with a 4.97 ERA before the Angels traded him to Pittsburgh for Jason Grilli, another closer who has been dinged around this season.
Smith says he's been having "way more fun" as the last reliever into a game. He says it can be easier nailing down a save than being brought in to get a starter out of a mess against a hitter like Miguel Cabrera, but admits that the job gets his motor racing.
"There's that little extra adrenaline," Smith said. "I did it in college, did it in the Minor Leagues, and I loved it. When you come up to the big leagues, you've got superstars back there. You wait your turn. It's been fun. If they keep giving me the ball, I'm going to take it. It's been fun."
Smith almost laughed when asked if he was ever close to getting a shot as a stopper with the Indians or the Mets.
"Not in Cleveland," Smith said. "We had a two-time All-Star named Chris Perez. Before that I pitched in front of Billy Wagner. In between both of them, Kerry Wood. We paid him a lot of money to come pitch for us. I never really had the opportunity to close at the big league level. Those guys got to a lot of All-Star games, so I didn't mind sitting and watching them close it out. But if you ask any bullpen guy coming up, 'Do you want the ball in the ninth inning?' They'd all say yes. That's what it's all about, that's when it's really fun."
Smith's back story is interesting. While most pitchers lose velocity when they drop down from an over-the-top delivery, Smith's fastball actually improved when he switched his delivery before his sophomore season at Wright State. His command improved too -- a combination that turned him into a prospect.
His four-seem fastball peaked with an average of 92.4 mph in 2010, and is at 90.5 this season. But it's his two-seam sinker that is his bread and butter, and that's a pitch that batters put into play. He gets a lot of ground balls, not strikeouts, and it remains to be seen if Scioscia can get comfortable with the idea of a closer who pitches to contact.
"I understand [the perception]," Smith said. "That's part of the game. Everybody likes to have a power arm, strikeout guy. I'm biased, I guess, for guys who don't throw like that. My feeling is if you keep the ball down in the zone, induce groundballs, it's going to take three hits to score a run. I don't give up a whole lot of homers. I try to keep the ball in the yard and give up singles, don't walk people. You have to get three hits to score runs. I'll take my chances."
Scioscia loves the way the Angels are playing these days. He is confident that the starting rotation is going to keep the team in the game, and that a lineup built around Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton will do damage. That leaves the bullpen as the area of concern.
"I think our guys on the offensive side have proven they're going to pressure guys and get us runs." Scioscia said. "Our challenge is going to be to hold leads."
There's a belief that the Angels will shop for a proven closer before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, hoping to move Smith back into a setup role. But why not give him a real chance to take over the closer's role?
Dennis Eckersley averaged 10.5 strikeouts and only 1.2 walks per nine innings in his historic 1992 season for the A's. Smith, who entered this season with 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings, is currently at 10.1, with 2.0 walks per nine. He's allowing 0.8 home runs per nine innings, only a tick off Eckersley's 0.6 in '92.
Yes, this is a small sample. But it's an intriguing one, isn't it?