Righty-Killer Joe Smith Signs Standard Reliever Deal with Astros

Smith allowed zero walks in 18.1 innings with Cleveland, the lowest number of walks possible.
(Photo: Erik Drost)

When we last saw him, Joe Smith was recording the final out Cleveland would induce in 2017, getting Aaron Judge to ground out. Earlier in the series, he entered Game 3 of the American League Division Series in the eighth inning. He struck out Aaron Judge. Then he struck out Gary Sanchez. He intentionally walked Didi Gregorius — the only batter of eight he allowed to reach base in the postseason — then got Starlin Castro to ground out. It was an excellent end to an excellent season.

Given recent events, it appears likely that Smith will return to the playoffs in 2018: last night, the defending champion Houston Astros officially announced a two-year deal with the right-hander worth $15 million.

Last season, Joe Smith was lethal against right-handed batters. He struck out 47 of the 137 right-handers he faced while walking just two all season. Among pitchers with at least 20 innings, Smith’s 1.56 FIP versus right-handers trailed only Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, and Max Scherzer’s. Against all batters, he finished the season with an excellent 2.33 FIP, which led to a 1.8 WAR and a solid 3.33 ERA. Those numbers rendered him one of the top-20 relievers in baseball. One would think his status as one of the top-20 relievers in baseball would merit more than a two-year deal, perhaps for more money.

If you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of non-elite relievers out there, and for the most part, they’re all signing for roughly the same amount of money. Starting with Mike Minor and continuing on with Brandon Morrow, Juan Nicasio, Luke Gregerson, Brandon Kintzler, Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, Steve Cishek, Tommy Hunter, and Anthony Swarzak, almost every useful arm has signed for something in the vicinity of two years, $15 million. A few guys have received three-year agreements; a few more, two-year contracts with less guaranteed money. But Smith’s is essentially the standard reliever deal at the moment.

One might assume that, given his success in 2017, Smith might skew towards the more richly rewarded end of this group. He really doesn’t, though. As for why that is, there are a few possibilities.

First, Smith was pretty bad during the 2016 season. He started that campaign with the Angels and put up a 4.63 FIP and 3.82 ERA. He was traded to the Cubs for their playoff push but gave up four homers in 14 appearances for his new club and was absent entirely from the playoffs. He had to sign a one-year deal for about $3 million to rehabilitate his value. He definitely did that.

The 33-year-old sidearmer also has some potential platoon issues. He can face left-handers — and actually performed pretty well against them in 2017 — but this past season was preceded by two years during which he recorded a FIP above 4.00 against opposite-handed batters. Smith is unlikely to serve as a club’s “eighth-inning guy” as teams set up their bullpens. He’s more likely to face several difficult right-handers and maybe an easy lefty if there’s another right-hander ahead. His usage in Cleveland’s final inning of the season, as chronicled in the opening paragraph above, is roughly ideal for him. He provides an opportunity to get a team’s best hitters out, but he might not be able to go a full inning.

Smith’s abilities should fit well in his role in Houston. The Astros still have Ken Giles for the end of games. They have a potential multi-inning guy in Chris Devenski, and Will Harris is also available. That should allow Houston to use Smith at his highest capabilities and not force him into too many difficult situations. The team might still need another lefty reliever with Tony Sipp currently representing their option, but Smith should play an important role for Houston, and his production might outstrip his cost relative to the other relievers on the market.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Roger McDowell Hot Foot
6 years ago

We need a better name for this emerging category of Standard Reliever Contract guys. They’re not actually “standard relievers” — they’re MUCH better than that — but they’re also not “closers” or “relief aces” or whatever. I feel like what’s being paid for is predictability of performance: something like Known-Good Relievers might capture it better.

6 years ago

I like the idea, but I wouldn’t necessarily say Smith is a “known-good reliever.” His 2016 was so bad partly because of his low strikeouts. His strikeout rate has been pedestrian to average until 2017, so it’s tough to say which Joe Smith you are getting.

I would Bryan Shaw is a much better example of a Known-Good Reliever, and so is Juan Nicasio.

How about we call them COGO for Consistently Good?