The secret behind Drew Smith’s success is common sense.
If one of his pitches is generating a much higher percentage of swing and misses, he probably should keep improving it and throw it more frequently, right? That’s how Smith approached the offseason and returned to the Mets bullpen with a weaponized changeup that had manager Buck Showalter calling on him to protect a two-run, eighth-inning lead Wednesday in the nightcap of a doubleheader sweep.
“It’s always good to pitch in higher-leverage situations — you have a little more adrenaline and it means a little more,” Smith said. “I always welcome those opportunities. I was thankful Buck trusted me with it.”
Opposing hitters whiffed on 60 percent of Smith’s changeups last season, according to Baseball Savant, but he threw it less often than his fastball, slider and curveball. In six scoreless appearances this season entering the Mets’ game Thursday against the Giants, the 28-year-old right-hander’s changeup usage is up from 4.6 to 11.7 percent and his curveball usage is down from 7.5 percent to 1.1 percent, per FanGraphs.
“It really surprised me when we dove into the numbers because analytically my changeup is honestly one of my worst pitches,” Smith said. “I think there’s just something that the hitter doesn’t pick up. I throw it just like my four-seam fastball, so it’s going to be the same exact spin. No matter what the analytical numbers say, guys just have trouble seeing it. I started to realize that was the true equalizer.”
After the Mets used Seth Lugo and Edwin Diaz among four relievers to win the first game of the doubleheader in 10 innings, and Max Scherzer threw seven strong innings to start the second game, there were two innings to fill.
Smith threw 10 of 15 pitches for strikes and retired the top two hitters in the Giants’ lineup — including Brandon Belt (29 home runs in 2021) — as the potential tying run. He is one of seven MLB relievers with no runs allowed through at least six innings.
Left-handers, like Belt, are hitting 1-for-12 against Smith. They hit .145 last season.
“I imagine it has something to do with how far I step across my body,” Smith said. “I’ve always stood on the third-base side of the rubber, so it really feels like the ball is coming in at a weird angle.”
It’s not as simple as picking up where he left off, however. Smith pitched to a career-low 2.40 ERA in 41 ¹/₃ innings last season, but was shut down after his Aug. 13 appearance due to a lat strain.
“Unfortunately I’ve had some experience with missing a lot of time and then coming back,” said Smith, who had Tommy John surgery in 2019. “I just looked at the lat strain as not that big a deal because the layoff isn’t nearly as long as TJ, so I stuck to the rehab process. In a weird way, having experience being hurt actually helped me.”
Smith came to spring training with the mindset just to make the roster. He had to prove himself to a new regime after injury and his contract still has minor league options. But when the Mets traded Miguel Castro to the Yankees, it pushed Smith up the depth chart and let him exhale — with the results (three holds) speaking for themselves.
“I want to be a little more balanced out with all my pitches. I don’t want to just rely on fastball-slider because then guys can start guessing one of two,” he said. “I kind of envisioned a little more opportunity to get some high leverage innings, and it’s come to fruition.”
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