MILWAUKEE — The initial reaction to the trade that sent Norichika Aoki to Kansas City this past December was lukewarm at best, mostly because nobody had heard of the left-handed pitcher the Milwaukee Brewers were getting in return.
Will Smith hasn’t needed much time to completely change the perception of the deal. The Brewers flipped a 32-year-old outfielder in the final year of his contract for a 24-year-old lefty who has already become a major part of their pitching staff.
Entering Tuesday night’s game in St. Louis, Smith has yet to give up a run in his 11 1/3 innings over 14 appearances. 16 of the 34 outs he’s recorded this season have been strikeouts, while just one of the 10 runners he has inherited have scored.
"I don’t know if I expected to be this good, but you have expectations for yourself," Smith said. "You always want to pitch well, whether you give up runs or not, you still want to do well."
A former starting pitcher, Smith first transitioned into a relief role in 2013 with the Royals. Smith made 18 appearances out of the bullpen and one start in the big leagues last year, while starting 10 of his 28 games in Triple-A.
The Brewers considered having Smith compete for a spot in the rotation shortly after acquiring him, but the signing of Matt Garza made clear his immediate future was going to be in the bullpen.
Similar to Tyler Thornburg, Smith has made the transition seamlessly. He’s quickly become a valuable resource to manager Ron Roenicke in the late innings. Left-handed hitters are hitting just 2-of-16 against Smith this season, while his slider has given batters no chance against him when there’s two strikes in the count.
Opposing hitters are just 1-of-22 with 16 strikeouts once Smith has two strikes on them, as he’s helped the Brewers out of trouble with his ability to get key punchouts.
Smith said he’s learned a lot about how to go about his business as a late-innings reliever from Brewers closer Francisco Rodriguez.
"Go after guys," Smith said of what he’s taken from Rodriguez. "It’s just what he does. He just pounds the zone. He doesn’t care who they are or what their stats are. He thinks he can get you out no matter what. I think we all do in the bullpen, but he proves you can do it without a 95 mph fastball. He does it with 89-90."
According to Fangraphs.com, Smith’s average fastball velocity is 91.8, but the great equalizer has been the slider. Not only has it been his strikeout pitch, but also nobody has gotten a hit on a slider thrown by Smith.
"Will is a beast," Brewers starter Kyle Lohse said. "He’s a big boy. (Smith and Thornburg) have a great mentality right now, just coming at guys. Everything is clicking as far as pitching goes. You love to see that."
Adding Smith was just one of the under the radar moves that has made Milwaukee’s bullpen one of the best in baseball in the first month of the season. The Brewers’ relief corps has allowed just 19 earned runs in 78 1/3 innings (2.18 ERA), with nine of those earned runs coming against Rob Wooten and Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang in one game.
How a bullpen will fare is almost impossible to predict, but Milwaukee’s unit has performed on the field and meshed into a close-knit group off the field.
"It’s fun," Smith said. "We have fun down there. We’re like a little family. Our starting five has been lights out too. They go deep into games and keep us in games. Then when the phone rings it is time for us to go to work. We cut out all the horseplay and go to work. We cheer for each other. We pull for each other. We want to be the best."
The only concern with Smith, and Milwaukee’s bullpen in general, is the number of games appeared in thus far. Smith is on pace to pitch in 87 games, which would have led the league in each of the past three years.
"I’m fine," Smith said. "I’ve been a starter my whole career. Going into this offseason it was almost like I had a little break. My arm felt good. The workload right now is fine.
"We all want to get in there and help the team out. It doesn’t matter how many innings you threw last time, you are always willing to go in there and help."
At just 24 years old and under control for five years, Smith still may have a future as a starting pitcher. With Yovani Gallardo with a team option for 2015 and Kyle Lohse a free agent after next season, the Brewers could be looking for rotation help in the near future.
But just like Thornburg, Milwaukee must decide if Smith is more valuable at a late-innings reliever.
"The only difference with Will is we don’t know how he is going to be with a starter," Roenicke said. "We know Thornburg did really well as a starter. But what I’ve seen from Will, I don’t want he or Thorny to get out of this role. He’s been great."