It’s no secret that one of the many problems the Mets faced this year was the performance of their bullpen. The starters were not going deep into games, the relief corps was overworked and near the bottom of the league in performance for most of the season. So it was no surprise that management put a priority on securing more arms for the bullpen.
With the Mets out of the postseason hunt, quite a few front line players were shipped off to contending teams back in July and August. The return, primarily, was relief pitchers. Some, like Jacob Rhame and Jamie Callahan have been used since the September call-ups and a bunch more are stashed away on minor league rosters. It appears the Met’s management, in almost fetish-like fashion, had stocked up on relief pitchers. Separately, there is one relief pitcher who has been on the Mets roster on and off for the past couple of years, who has suddenly started to contribute.
Josh Smoker is a big, 6-2, 250 pound left-hander, who has been awful much of the season. So far this year, in 46.1 innings he has a very high ERA of 5.87. However, in his last 11 appearances, he has pitched 8.1 innings, and has yielded only five hits and zero home runs over that stretch. He did give up six walks, and struck out ten. Most impressively, he gave up exactly zero earned runs over those eleven games.
Smoker was a highly rated prospect coming out of high school. The Washington Nationals nabbed the budding power pitcher in the first round of the 2007 June draft. Smoker did not advance quickly through the minors, and by 2012 the reason was discovered. Smoker had a shoulder injury that required surgery, specifically rotator cuff surgery. That type of injury was generally a career ender for pitchers until the past few decades. Smoker had his operation in 2013, and of course missed that season. He was released by the Nats, and he did pitch in some games in an independent league in 2014. He showed enough that the Mets signed him for 2015.
There was a study done of recovery of MLB pitchers from rotator cuff surgery that was printed in the May 2011 edition of Journal of Athletic Training magazine. The study followed the recovery path of 33 MLB pitchers who had undergone the surgery. All were able to return to pitching, and most showed improvement in their arms over the three years after return from surgery, although none in the study returned to their peak pre-surgery form. Since Smoker returned to pitching in the latter part of the 2014 season, his improvement since early August roughly coincides with the time frame in the study, although Smoker’s improvement was not exactly gradual.
FanGraphs shows the 28 year old averaging around 95 mph for his fastball this year, which is probably good but not great in this era of relievers who can hit 100 mph on the radar gun. But Smoker is getting the job done, at least he has been for the past month or so. If Smoker can continue to keep his velocity up and improve his control, he could be an important contributor to the relief corps, especially against left-handed batters, for the rest of this season and maybe for a few more years.