Caleb Smith: Rubber-Armed Reliever; Reliable, “Awesome” Teammate

Caleb Smith
Spread the love

Caleb Smith: Rubber-Armed Reliever, “Awesome” Teammate

The situation was dire Saturday night. Diamondbacks starter Luke Weaver was getting knocked around by the Minnesota Twins, having given up six runs in the third. When he gave up three more in the fourth, his night was over. The Diamondbacks, with an exhausted relief corps, needed length from their next pitcher. Manager Torey Lovullo went to his trusted “rubber arm,” the left-handed Caleb Smith.

Smith threw 93 pitches, getting the team through the end of the eighth. Though the Diamondbacks were on the business end of an 11–1 rout, Smith was the hero. He ate up innings, and with infielder Jake Hager pitching a scoreless ninth, they entered the rubber match with the Twins with a 100% rested ‘pen.

Caleb Smith, a lifelong resident of Huntsville, Texas, arrived in Phoenix on Deadline Day 2020, August 31. He came in a trade with the Miami Marlins, coming alongside Humberto Mejia and a player to be named later (eventually Julio Frias) as the return haul for outfielder Starling Marte. He had three starts and one relief appearance for the Diamondbacks in 2020. Due to COVID protocols, Smith could not pitch right away, and when he returned, he had a severely limited pitch count. Therefore, he could not pitch long enough to earn the win in any of his starts. Regardless, the Diamondbacks won in all four of his appearances. He had a 2.45 ERA (54 ERA–) with 12 strikeouts, six walks, a 1.000 WHIP, and an opponent slash line of .128/.244/.282.

2021 for Caleb Smith

2021 was a roller coaster for Smith. He had a rough start against the San Diego Padres in his first appearance of the season, getting moved to a relief role afterwards. But out of the ‘pen, he was terrific in April and May. He pitched 30 innings across 18 appearances, spinning a 2.70 ERA (63 ERA–) with 36 strikeouts, 13 walks, a 1.233 WHIP, and an opponent slash line of .214/.313/.321. Thirteen of his outings were scoreless, 73.3% in a year where the league average was around 69%.

Smith went back to the rotation for June and fared well in everything except win-loss record, which is a team stat anyway. In that month, he made six starts, going 0–3 (thank you, abysmal run support) with a 2.87 ERA (67 ERA–), 35 strikeouts, 17 walks, 1.181 WHIP, and an opponent slash line of .179/.303/.330. His only rough outing came June 12 against the Los Angeles Angels, where he allowed four runs in 4 1/3 innings. Two of those were bequeathed runs that subsequently scored. Relief pitching ultimately cost the Diamondbacks that game, as relievers let in four runs and two inherited runners in an 8–7 loss.

Smith struggled in five of his next six starts, racking up an ERA of 12.31 between July 4 and August 6. This moved him back to a relief role, where, once again, he excelled. From August 12, where he pitched 5 1/3 innings in a piggyback role through the rest of the season, he shone. In 26 2/3 innings spread across 14 outings, he had a 2.70 ERA (63 ERA–) with 23 strikeouts, 10 walks, a 1.238 WHIP, and an opponent slash line of .186/.262/.330.

2022 for Caleb Smith

Caleb Smith entered 2022 in the rotation again. He pitched the fourth game of the season. It started well, with Smith hurling a 1-2-3 first inning against the San Diego Padres. The second inning was a different story, however. The leadoff hitter reached on an error, but the next hitters went walk, walk, grand slam, home run, and walk. This ended his day, and the line was one inning, five runs (four earned) on two hits, three walks, two strikeouts, two home runs, and nine batters faced. Five days later, he pitched the final three innings of a road loss to the New York Mets. The line for that day was three innings, five runs, five hits, three walks, two strikeouts, two home runs, and 17 batters faced.

This prompted the Diamondbacks to make the tough decision of sending Smith to the minors. That lasted two weeks. Smith said that before going, the coaching staff and front office told him to “go down there and get myself right. I took that as throwing more strikes and commanding the strike zone a little bit better.”

Smith returned to the majors on May 1. When he came back, he told this reporter that he was out to prove the beginning of the season was simply bad luck. So far that seems to be the case, as he has pitched well in his 17 appearances since returning. In 17 outings, he has an ERA of 3.21 (76 ERA–), 26 strikeouts, 17 walks, a 1.428 WHIP, an opponent slash line of .219/.328/.410, and a 65% scoreless outing percentage. Two of the outings where he allowed a run were long-relief mopup outings, something that should be kept in mind.

What Caleb Smith Brings to the Team

Catcher Jose Herrera says Smith “is a fighter, every time he takes the mound. It’s fun to play with him and catch him.”

Zac Gallen, who was teammates with “Smitty” on the Marlins in early 2019, said that Smith is “intense.” Gallen continued, “He likes to perfect his craft, so sometimes he’s hard on himself, but he has good stuff. He’s a competitor when he goes out there and does his job almost every night. But he’s definitely a perfectionist. He likes to be very good at what he does, and you can see that with how he carries himself.” Right-handed reliever Noe Ramirez added that Smith is a “really hard worker. His routine is pretty cool to watch. At this level, everyone has their routines, but he always seems to be working hard and trying to get better every day.”

100% No Matter What

Pitching coach Brent Strom expounded on what the others said, adding that Smith is an “extremely good competitor with a very resilient arm. He’s willing to pitch any time he’s asked. There are not many pitchers that can do that.” Strom added that Smith “has that innate ability to give you 100% every time he pitches. Every day he comes to the park wanting to pitch, which is pretty valuable for any team.”

Giving 100% is one of Smith’s most notable traits. During a 2021 game in St. Louis, Smith batted with runners on the corners and two outs in the fifth inning of a scoreless tie. He hit a slow bouncer toward third. Most pitchers would not have run hard on that play. Smith bolted out of the box as hard as he could. This forced Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado to charge hard and make a strong, accurate throw. The throw beat Smith by less than a step, retiring the side. When asked about his hustle after the game, Smith stated matter-of-factly, “It is not difficult to run hard for 90 feet.”

So it is no surprise that, when asked about what Smith brings to the team, reliever J.B. Wendelken said, “We could be sitting there playing cards, and he’s gonna go 100% there. You put him on the mound in a game that doesn’t matter, he’s gonna go 100% there. Put him in a save situation, he’s gonna go 100%. That’s one of the characteristics you find in him that you don’t find in very many people. It’s impressive to see him be so consistent on a daily basis. Everything he does, he’s giving 100%.”

A Rubber Arm

Lovullo said that Smith has “been an unsung hero for us because of his versatility. We’ve asked so much of him, and he has responded in a very positive way by giving us length and by matching up. That’s hard to do because he’s been a starter for most of his career. The fact that we can bounce him into so many roles, and he’s been executing has been impressive.” What stands out about him the most, according to Lovullo, is “his intensity, his focus, and his passion for being in the most critical part of the game and having expectations to get big outs.”

Lovullo said in a previous interview that Smith had a “rubber arm,” along the lines of former Yankee and 1977 AL Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle. Lyle famously pitched the Yankees through two elimination games on the road against the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS. He pitched the final 5 1/3 innings of Game Four and 1 1/3 innings of the winner-take-all Game Five, earning the win in both games as the Yankees prevailed. Lovullo put Smith in the same category as Lyle, calling Smith “A guy that could throw every day. He wants to throw every day. When I take the ball from him, the first thing he says is, ‘I’m good tomorrow.’ Two seconds after I take the ball from him, ‘You’re done.’ ‘Alright, I’m good tomorrow. Book it. It’s happening.’ And we’re thankful for that.”

Fellow left-hander Joe Mantiply also said Smith has a rubber arm. “He’ll throw three innings and be ready to go the next day,” Mantiply said. “It’s pretty impressive.”

Versatility

Smith’s rubber arm gives him another useful trait, something Wendelken indirectly referred to — versatility. Right-handed reliever Sean Poppen said, “I respect his ability to go out there in a variety of different roles. (He takes) the same intensity without letting the situation get too big — get some lefties out late in the game, eat up some innings, bridge from the starters to the late-inning guys. Whatever role it is, he’s the first guy on the hook for that sort of thing. It’s nice to have an all-purpose tool in the bullpen.”

Setup man Ian Kennedy agrees. “Every day,” Kennedy said, “he’s ready to pitch. (In rapid succession) He’s ready to pitch. Ready to pitch. (Normal speaking pace) Doesn’t matter if he threw three innings the day before. After not pitching for 10 days — whatever. (He’ll say), ‘I could get you tomorrow. I got this, man.’ He’s always ready. And I love that about him. He’s always ready to go.” Later, Kennedy added, “Ready to grab the ball every day. Throws a ton of strikes and challenges guys. Ready to pitch any time.”

Playing alongside Caleb Smith

Television cameras do not catch the real Caleb Smith. He does not smile much on the field, yet he is a very happy and genuinely funny person. He just isn’t the type to put it out there. It did not take much asking around to find out that his teammates absolutely love him.

Left-handed reliever Kyle Nelson said that playing alongside Smith is fun. “He has an interesting personality for sure; a unique individual,” Nelson said. Once people get past “the shell,” as Nelson called it, they quickly see that Smith is “a good, funny dude.” When asked if that makes Smith like a walnut, Nelson agreed, then added that he is also “like an onion. Many layers to him.”

Wendelken, who hails from Savannah, Georgia, said, “First and foremost, he’s a great dude. Real quiet…low-key, funny guy. He’s a laid-back Texas boy, so we get along on different levels. It’s fun to talk to him.” Gallen added that Smith is “easygoing, keeps to himself, but also jokes. He’s good for a one-liner here and there.” Because Smith is not as talkative as some other guys on the team, Gallen said Smith’s jokes can feel like they “come out of left field,” which makes them even funnier.

Getting the Number

Kennedy’s first interaction with Smith was different than anyone else who was interviewed for this piece. “I’ve worn 31 my entire career except San Diego,” Kennedy said. (Note: The Padres have retired 31 in honor of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.) Someone told Kennedy that it might be tough, saying that Smith said he wasn’t going to give it up. Kennedy talked to him and quickly found out they had a lot in common.

And, by the way, Kennedy convinced Smith to give him 31, which is why Smith now wears number 22. Kennedy was going to pay Smith for the number, but Smith said he didn’t want any money. So Kennedy said, “I’ll buy you something nice, then.” At the time of this interview, Kennedy still had yet to do it: Smith likes so many different things that Kennedy hadn’t decided what he wanted to buy him yet.

“Always Real and to the Point”

Nelson added that Smith is “a good teammate. He cares about the people around him, cares about his guys. Wants everyone to do well and the team to be successful. All the things you want in a teammate.”

Mantiply has known Smith since 2017. They were both in Scranton at the time, playing for the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. In that offseason, Smith headed to Miami with Garrett Cooper in return for Michael King. Mantiply said that he and Smith have “formed a pretty good friendship. We’re a similar type of people. Our families hang out a lot, our wives and kids hang out a lot. On off days, we try to get together every now and then and hang out by the pool. It’s great. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

Authenticity goes a long way with many people, including Ramirez. “I appreciate Caleb a lot because he’s always real and to the point. If he sucks or anyone else sucks, he’ll point it out.” Pretty much in those exact words, Ramirez confirmed. He continued, “You gotta respect just how real he is…. He’s a good dude. Especially in baseball, you don’t really want people to beat around the bush. You want to know the real deal. We asked that from everyone — teammates, coaches, front office. He’s a great addition to the ‘pen, for sure.”

Outlook

While Joe Mantiply has been the Diamondbacks’ most dominant reliever this season, Smith might now be among the most valuable. His ability to eat innings is a valuable tool. The willingness he has to pitch at any time in any role can put a manager’s mind at ease. But his traits as a person and a teammate also go a long way. Remember, baseball is not played by robots. It is played by people. And people naturally want to work harder for teammates who not only play hard but are also good people who care about them. Smith is someone who fits that bill. As J.B. Wendelken summed it up, “He’s an all-around good dude. Good father, good husband — he’s awesome.”

Main Photo:

Embed from Getty Images

Players mentioned:

Caleb Smith, Luke Weaver, Torey Lovullo, Jake Hager, Humberto Mejia, Julio Frias, Starling Marte, Jose Herrera, Zac Gallen, Noe Ramirez, Nolan Arenado, J.B. Wendelken, Brent StromSparky Lyle, Joe Mantiply, Sean Poppen, Ian Kennedy, Kyle Nelson, Dave Winfield, Garrett Cooper, Michael King