Joe Smith: “Proven Closer” or placeholder?

Before the season began, I did an Angels preview for the good folks over at RazzBall. I mention that not to brag but because I can’t help but remember how they asked if Ernesto Frieri would survive as the Angels closer. It hadn’t really occurred to me until that moment that Frieri’s shakiness had become so obvious to the non-Angels loving public. What struck me next though was my response:

Joe Smith is probably the superior pitcher, but because he isn’t a power arm, Scioscia probably won’t seriously consider using him as closer full-time. If there is a real threat to Frieri’s job security, it probably won’t come until the trade deadline.

Well, here we are, three weeks before the trade deadline and Frieri is no longer the Angels closer but Joe Smith is. My prognostication skills on full display once again. Any more “spot on” predictions like that and I am going to finally have to give in to Dionne Warwick’s request to join her Psychic Friends Network.

In order to salvage some shred of credibility, I would point at the Joe Smith is the full-time closer at this instant, but that role is far from secure and I think his lack of job security ties back to that same assessment of him not being a “power arm.” Perhaps that is too much of a generalization though, by “power arm” what I really mean is that Smith came into the season lacking the usual resumé of Proven Closer™. His fastball can barely break 90 MPH. His strikeout rate was pedestrian. His walk rate was average. Until the last few years, he had a platoon problem and limited to specialist duty.

Entering the season, all these things were true. Entering July, they no longer were and yet Smith has been better than ever. One might even say, he is full-time closer material.

OK, fine, Smith still throws quite slow. In fact, he has actually lost almost a full MPH off his sinker. The strikeout rate though has gone in the opposite direction, sitting at 9.76 K/9. His previous career high was 7.94 K/9 and that was when he was a right-handed specialist with the Mets. At the same time, his walk rate is a career-low 2.04 BB/9. The platoon gap still exists, with a gaping .105 difference in wOBA. That though is more a function of Smith being death on righties this year with a .196 wOBA. His wOBA against lefties has held relatively steady at a perfectly acceptable .301. To top it off, he boasts a robust 59.6% groundball rate. It all adds up to a 2.50 ERA, a 2.91 FIP, 12 saves, 19 shutdowns and 3 meltdowns.

While Smith may not be making anyone forget about Craig Kimbrel anytime soon, what he’s doing right now is more than good enough to get the job done as closer. Yet there is still that creeping notion that Smith lacks the essence of a Proven Closer™. His ERA could be half of what it is and I believe that would still be the feeling simply because Smith lacks Troy Percival’s explosive fastball or K-Rod’s wipeout slider.

On a daily basis I see Angels still pining for the Angels to trade for Huston Street. Hell, there are even some out there who think acquiring Jonathan Papelbon is a good idea (SPOILER ALERT: it’s not). This despite Smith having numbers that are just as good, if not better, than both. Those guys have “done it before.” Joe Smith is doing it now and doing it well, but it doesn’t matter to a lot of people (one of which might be managing the Angels right now) because he doesn’t have a track record of compiling a stat that most sabermetricians consider to be bunk.

If you want to doubt Smith because you think he’s been pitching over his head for this half season, that’s perfectly fair. But even before this year, he was still pretty good, good enough to be part of the mix to get “the last nine outs” that Jerry Dipoto likes to talk about. But that’s where the conversation should stay. So much attention goes to the last three outs, but the last nine outs are no less important. As such, Dipoto is right to be broadening his focus to the last nine outs instead of just trying to find someone who better looks that part of closer even if they aren’t any better at it than Joe Smith is.

Garrett Wilson

About Garrett Wilson

Garrett Wilson is the founder and Supreme Overlord of and editor at The Outside Corner. He's an Ivy League graduate, but not from one of the impressive ones. You shouldn't make him angry. You wouldn't like him when he is angry.