Before Sunday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Giants closer Will Smith was sitting at his locker, when manager Bruce Bochy came into the clubhouse with an announcement.
San Francisco had one All-Star, the retiring skipper said — a first-timer. It was Smith.
“It was a pretty big rush of emotions, for sure,” Smith said. “It’s taken a long time to get back to this.”
Just over two years removed from Tommy John surgery and with 21 saves in 21 opportunities to his name this season, Smith will be headed to Cleveland as a National League All-Star reserve. The leader of a bullpen that’s fifth in the Major Leagues in ERA, Smith has been one of the rare bright spots on a team projected to lose over 90 games.
“Couldn’t be happier for him,” Bochy said. “He’s such a great teammate. He’s just so well respected in there and loved. We all knew he would make the club, but still, when you get the news and you see how happy he was.”
“I congratulated him like a week ago,” said Madison Bumgarner after Sunday’s win. “I don’t think it was any surprise to anybody. He deserved to be there as much as anybody. I’m excited for him. I think it’s his first one. It’s gonna be a lot of fun for him.”
Smith, who turns 30 the day after the July 9 game at Progressive Field, had heard the rumblings that he’d likely be picked, but he tried not to take much stock in them. That said, Smith had been toying with the idea of taking his father to Cleveland’s Rock’N’Roll Hall of Fame during the All-Star Break. The two have bonded over classic rock since Smith used an accoustic guitar to help get through his Tommy John rehab.
Originally a starter with Kansas City, Smith was demoted to the bullpen after a rough rookie season where he posted a 5.32 ERA in 16 starts in 2012. After going 2-1 in 19 relief appearances with a 3.24 ERA in 2013, he was shipped to Milwaukee, where he compiled a 3.28 ERA in 181 appearances. The Giants swapped Phil Bickford and Andrew Susac for Smith in August of 2016.
After snapping his ulnar collateral ligament during spring training in March of 2017, he returned in May of last season and soon emerged as San Francisco’s closer after several other options failed to materialize. Those other contenders — Mark Melancon and Tony Watson — now serve as Smith’s set-up men.
“He’s been a joy,” Bochy said. “We put him in that role last year and he did a really nice job. He’s even done a better job this year. He’s been flawless. You look at what this man’s gone through, with the Tommy John. He really hasn’t been a closer before, up until last year when we gave him that role, and he’s run with it this year.”
Since joining San Francisco, Smith has gone 4-4 with a 2.49 ERA and 35 saves in 114 appearances. Since returning from Tommy John rehab last May, he’s been a workhorse of the staff. His 2.16 ERA this season is a career best, and he’s struck out 51 in 33 1/3 innings in 2019.
“It’s everybody else,” Smith said. “I just try to go out there and get three outs as quick as I can. Without everybody else in front of me, I don’t have those opportunities.”
In making his first All-Star team, Smith upped his trade profile as the Giants look to sell at the deadline to acquire more pieces for their rebuild.
While the Giants signed Melancon to a four-year, $62 million deal two years ago to be their closer, Smith avoided arbitration last year signing a one-year, $2.5 million deal. This offseason, he signed a $4.225 million contract, meaning he’d be a very cost-effective option for teams looking to upgrade their bullpen at the trading deadline.
Because of his skill set and his contract situation, Smith has emerged as a major target for contending teams as a power arm out of the bullpen with late-inning experience and the ability to get both right-handers and left-handers out.
“It’s been fun to watch,” Bochy said. “You know what, he’s just getting better as a pitcher with his command, his pitches. He’s got a couple different breaking balls he can throw at you. He can throw 94 both sides of the plate, he can elevate. He’s got everything.”
While coming back from Tommy John to great success had been rare before the turn of the century, there have been several notable success stories like Smith’s in the last 19 years.
Johnny Venters had Tommy John in 2005 and was named an All-Star in 2011. Jacob deGrom underwent the procedure in rookie ball, and has become a two-time All-Star and Cy Young Award winner. Adam Wainwright missed all of 2011 with the surgery, and made back-to-back All-Star teams in 2013 and 2014, finishing in the top three for the Cy Young both years. Stephen Strasburg had the surgery late in 2011, and has been an All-Star three times since. John Smoltz got cut on in 2000, and went on to the second half of a Hall of Fame career.
“To sit out that year, and come back and have the success I’ve had, I don’t know if I ever really thought it’d be this good,” Smith said.
Doug Bruzzone contributed to this report from Oracle Park.