There are many ways the Giants have described Will Smith’s dominance this season, but the highest compliment he’s received is also the one that most accurately summarizes his performance.
As the Giants’ closer this year, Smith has been flawless.
“He’s been a joy,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “When we put him in that role last year, he did a really nice job. He’s even done a better job this year. He’s been flawless.”
After earning his 23rd save in 23 chances in Sunday’s 1-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, Smith hopped aboard a flight bound for Cleveland. He was the lone representative for the Giants at this year’s All-Star Game, but Smith’s selection was not the result of a pity party.
Major League Baseball stipulates that each club must have a player on an All-Star team. It’s not always easy to find a worthy participant on teams like the Giants that have been stuck under .500 since Opening Day, but there was no doubt Smith is deserving of the honor.
A week before MLB formally announced Smith’s selection, Madison Bumgarner joked that he congratulated Smith on his All-Star status.
If Smith wasn’t a well-known presence around the league prior to this season, a remarkable first half changed that.
“If you asked me when I got over here who was closing games for San Francisco, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you,” center fielder Kevin Pillar said. “But he’s as dominant of a closer as I’ve seen playing.”
Since Rod Beck converted 28 consecutive save chances to open the 1994 season, no Giants closer has come within striking distance of his franchise record.
Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla all closed games for World Series teams, but none has made Bochy’s job so stress-free.
“I’ve dealt with (Brian) Wilson, who did a great job, but he made it scary sometimes,” Bochy said. “(Sergio) Romo could make it a little scary, or (Santiago) Casilla, especially, could keep you on the edge of your seat.”
At the beginning of the decade, the roller coaster ride relievers often navigated in the late innings compelled broadcaster Duane Kuiper to coin the term “Giants torture.” It’s not as if the phrase has disappeared entirely, but in 2019, it’s been the first eight innings of games that have forced fans’ stomachs to flip upside down.
In the ninth inning, Smith puts games on cruise control.
“His slider is beyond good, it’s incredible,” reliever Mark Melancon said. “What I’m most impressed with is his ability to command the ball. He’s constantly 0-2 or 1-2. When you put yourself in those counts and then have the put-away pitches like he does, it’s just domination.”
With a 1.98 ERA, a 2.02 FIP, and a 6.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Smith’s numbers are far and away the best of his seven-year major league career. It’s a testament to his command and control, but more so his perseverance.
If Smith was poised to become one of the game’s top closers and one of the most attractive assets expected to be available ahead of this year’s trade deadline, no one knew it two years ago.
In the spring of 2017, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, requiring season-ending surgery. A conversation with catcher Buster Posey immediately following the diagnosis convinced Smith he owed it to his teammates to return stronger than ever.
Thirteen months after going under the knife, Smith was back on the mound and carving up hitters with surgical precision.
“Just to sit out that year and come back and to have this kind of success, I don’t know if I ever really thought it would be this good,” Smith said. “It feels good that your hard work pays off.”
If not for the stunning success of Padres closer and fellow first-time All-Star Kirby Yates (30-for-31 in save opportunities), Smith would be the National League’s best choice to pitch the ninth inning in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
He’s preserved 13 one-run leads, saved 15 games that ended with one-run victories and only earned a save in one game in which he entered with the Giants leading by three runs. Since May 1, Smith’s 1.48 ERA is even superior to the 1.57 mark Yates has posted over the same period.
What’s led to the sudden breakthrough? Smith credits the positive influence of his teammates and the dedication of the Giants’ training staff for helping him regain his form following surgery.
Since returning to the team’s bullpen 14 months ago, the Giants’ longest-tenured reliever has proven he’s more than the solid late-inning asset he was prior to suffering a career-altering injury.
If he couldn’t tell from all the swings and misses he’s induced this year, hearing the news of his All-Star selection confirmed what his teammates, manager and Giants fans already knew.
Smith has officially joined the game’s elite.
“It was a pretty big rush of emotions for sure,” Smith said. “It’s taken a long time to get back to this. I was excited, I was thrilled.”