One of the better stories the past few years in the Padres’ system has been Chris Smith, a slight six-footer, who at 34, throws three pretty simple pitches and probably hasn’t touched 90 since he passed his thirtieth birthday. As most of you can guess Smith is a pitcher, not a thrower - but then again he really doesn’t have any choice.
Smith was a fourth round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2002 out of UC-Riverside and spent six years with the organization before getting a brief twelve game stint with them in 2008. In 2009, after being designated for assignment by the Red Sox, he got 35 games with the Milwaukee Brewers before also being designated for assignment and ending with the Seattle Mariners.
After that he hasn’t been back in the big leagues, but has had quite a journey. This season he has helped to hold together a think El Paso starting staff throwing 82 innings with a 3.92 ERA, which is impressive in the PCL.
We caught up with Chris before a recent start in the Sun City to talk about his long strange road.
You played in the big leagues and got released while you were in Triple-A at 30. By all accounts you are a pretty bright guy with some options. So why did you decide to pitch again in the Independent Leagues?
Chris Smith: I got released while I was with Tacoma in Triple-A in June or July of 2011. It was the first time I ever got released in ten years of pro ball.
I didn’t know what to do and my instincts just took over. I drove 17 hours back to Southern California and thought if baseball was over then I was going to go back to school. So I called my old coach at UC-Riverside and asked if he could get someone to help me get my classes that I needed to graduate.
So I went back to school and while I was there he wanted me to be his undergraduate pitching coach; which was fine by me. So for the next year two years I was going to school and coaching.
I got a phone call from Kevin Hooper and he asked if I wanted to play independent ball and I said no. It wasn’t like I was above it, but I just thought at my age my time had just passed. Around Christmas time he called again and I asked my wife. She said it wasn’t her career or life, but it was mine and I needed to do what I wanted to.
I was playing catch with the team, so I was still in shape. I went out in 2013 and played with the Wichita Wingnuts [of the American Association] and had an opportunity to play in the winter in Venezuela. I was playing well, but I wasn’t sure if it was the league or my talent.
I had some success in Venezuela and thought I might get some minor league invites, but nothing. So I thought I will give myself one more shot and decided that if I was going to do it I was going to try to pitch in the Atlantic League, which is the best Independent League. I contacted the Sugar Land Skeeters [which is also the club Jason Lane played for and where Josh Geer currently resides] and they wanted me. I did pretty well there at the beginning and got seen by one of the Padres’ scouts. They asked if I wanted to come out and be part of the Chihuahuas, which was a no-brainer.
I came here in the middle of June and finished out the year here. Right after the season I got a contract offer from the Padres, which was really quick - and I signed. I went back out to Venezuela and played winter ball again.
So, I’m playing here again in El Paso and things are going well.
What do you throw?
Chris Smith: Pretty basic. I call myself a Little Leaguer. Fastball, four-seam, change and a slurve. I really base everything off of fastball command and the ability to throw the pitches where and when I need too.
I’m not going to muscle you over the plate and hope you hit the ball in the first three pitches and save my arm a little.
What is the velocity?
Chris Smith: I’m around 85 to 89, nothing overpowering.
If you look at your numbers - and you are a great example of how a won-loss record is not the best indicator of how well someone is pitching - and it seems like you really have a good idea of who you do and don’t want to pitch too by the number of walks that you have.
Editor’s note: As of Saturday night, Smith was 2-5 with a 3.92 ERA, an 81/300 K/BB ratio and has allowed 83 hits in 82.2 innings.
Chris Smith: When you are young they tell you to be carefull with your walks, and I truly believe in that. But I also think you can manipulate that based on the game situation.
If there are runners on and a base open; if the batter isn’t biting at what I want him to hit - I’m not just going to give in. The mentality to me is I am going to get back into the count and not give him something he wants to hit.
You are also averaging a strikeout per inning?
Chris Smith: That is a statistic a lot of people don’t look at and in a way I think means more than ERA. You can have a good season and one bad outing totally misrepresents what you have been doing.
As a starting pitcher you want to look at innings, strikeouts per innings and hits per innings. If you can limit your batting average against you give yourself a chance.
I am capable of striking guys out, but my goal is to throw a quality pitch in the first three pitches. If I get someone 0-2 then I want to get them in the next pitch or the one after that because I don’t have the arsenal to go six or seven pitches.
I’m better when I am attacking early and if I get ahead early then I am trying to strike you out. I just don’t have the velo or the big number of pitches to go longer.
Do you feel more comfortable as a starter or reliever?
Chris Smith: At this point in my career probably as a starter. I know what my body needs and how to prepare. From 2008 until I got released from Seattle I was in the bullpen, and that was fun.
I kind of know what I need to know how to prepare and compete. Now that I am older and have kids, I like knowing what I am going to be doing each day. In a way things are easier now because you can’t take the game home with you as much when I was single.
I have three little daughters and they don’t really care if I win or lose, so it’s a great way to take your mind of things and so when you get to the park you are really focussed.
What has been your biggest improvement since you have come to the Padres’ organization?
Chris Smith: Consistency. I’ve been good at giving myself an opportunity to compete. Things aren’t always going to go my way, but I think I’ve been handling both success and failure better.
Knowing that I can still do it after being out of baseball for so long has been great. When I was there - and was the oldest guy after Jason [Lane] - it keeps me young because I am still with the young guys. It’s still kind of like being a coach or a professor.
This league is tough for pitchers and it has to make you feel good that if you put up numbers it doesn’t matter how tall you are, or old or your velocity - you are getting it done.
Chris Smith: [laughs[ I hope so. But it is also something that you deal with your whole career. The way I look at it it’s what you do on the field.
People can say or write whatever they want, but if I am doing it on the field, I am doing it on the field. People can have their opinions, I’ll take the facts.