Live From the AFL: Matt Smith

Those who have never played at a high level sometimes don't understand the subtle differences in the game of baseball. Take starting vs. relieving for instance. "They're still throwing the ball, right?" That's the typical lament. "What's so tough about throwing in the middle rather than starting?"

Here's an example.

Imagine for a minute you're a computer software engineer. Since you were five years old you've been playing around with programs, found you had a love and talent for it, and most importantly were good at it. You go to college, get your degree, are generally recognized as one of the most talented software specialists in the field. You interview with a large company, get the job, and go to work. For years you move up the software ranks, always doing your best, listening to advice and applying it to the best of your ability. One day you come to work and find a desktop computer in several hundred pieces sitting on your desk. Your boss sees you looking slightly confused and wanders up to your desk.

"What's the problem?" he asks.

"What's this?" you respond.

"Oh, you've been transferred. You're in hardware now. Rebuild this computer, and figure out why it wasn't running right."

It's not that you're completely confused, after all you've seen computers, even their inner workings, all your life. When you were in college you had to take some hardware courses, and have even rebuilt a computer or two in your time. But now you have to do it, and if you don't do it well, then there is somebody else who would be happy to take on the challenge.

It really is that big a difference, and no one in the AFL knows better than Matt Smith of the Yankees.

"It was a tough adjustment at first, but the biggest thing for me was that I had to swallow my pride," Smith says after warm-ups in Surprise, Arizona as his Grand Canyon Rafters got ready to take on the Surprise Scorpions in Arizona Fall League action, "I've just always been a starter, I loved being a starter, but I couldn't stay healthy, and that's not good."

To make matters worse, when Smith began the season with the Double-A Trenton Thunder he was moved back and forth between the bullpen and the starting rotation for the first two months of the season.

"That was actually the thing that finally put it in focus for me," Smith says of the uncertainty, "when I first got moved I was unhappy and my confidence was shot. After the first month and a half of the season I was getting shuffled back and forth, and then got moved back to the bullpen and I had a good outing. I just thought that I needed to give it a try, and find out if this role might be my calling. I had to remember what I'd always said, which was that I'd do whatever it took to get me to the big leagues. If I did well in the bullpen, I knew this would be a step in the right direction."

And the numbers proved him right. At Trenton Smith made four starts, going 0-3 with an ERA of 6.43. He made 18 relief appearances, going 3-1 with two saves, and a sparkling ERA of 1.55. It certainly seemed to be a step in the right direction, and was proven to be when he was promoted to the Triple-A Columbus Clippers at the beginning of July, where his success in the bullpen continued. He was 2-0 with a save in Triple-A, and the ERA continued to shine, coming in at a cool 2.60.

At Triple-A lefties hit just .150 off him, and he averaged well more than a strikeout per inning. This is the stuff 20 year careers are made of, but talk about a drastic change. Coming into 2005 Smith had made 95 minor league appearances, and 90 of them were starts. Now not only was he not starting, he was pitching everywhere out of the pen.

"That was one of the biggest challenges, but I think it was also one of the best things for me this season," Smith smiles, "I pitched all over the place, really did it all. Middle relief, long relief, setting up, and closing. I really became a 'go to' guy in the bullpen, because the coaches knew that no matter what the situation was, I could do the job."

A big, hard throwing Yankee left handed reliever. Let the Mike Stanton comparisons begin.

"You know, I've never really read anything about that, but people talk to me about it all the time. I'll tell you one thing, I'd love to have his career. I mean, he was a huge part of those championship teams the Yankees had."

So is he the next Mike Stanton?

Smith laughs. Just outright laughs.

"Come on, the farthest I've gotten is Triple-A. It's a huge compliment to just be in the same sentence as that guy, but let's see what happens when I get to the next level before we start making comparisons like that."

It almost sounds like that pressure, being compared to a possible Hall of Famer, might be getting to him.

"Pressure from the comparison? Come on. It's good to have those comparisons, it gives me a goal, but the only real pressure you feel is the pressure you put on yourself. I've never pitched in the Major Leagues, but I've got to believe that's pressure all it's own, especially pitching in New York. You're talking about the biggest market, the biggest stage. Compared to that pressure, somebody saying I might be the next whatever isn't even going to register."

The change has been something new, but the effect on Smith's career might be drastic. Smith will become a six year free agent after the 2006 season, and he looks at that as his biggest challenge now.

"I want to resign, but I know to do that I'll have to prove myself. I never thought I'd be where I am today, so that kind of pressure is what it is. There's no secret, if you're good, they'll resign you."

A quick look at Smith's numbers in the AFL might raise some red flags, but a closer look shows that Smith's time in a hitter friendly league has been productive. Despite an ERA over 12 Smith has been very good much more often than he's struggled. In fact, two outings account for 13 of his 20 earned runs, and removing those two stints drop his ERA to the 3.50 area. Smith isn't worried, he's here to improve, the numbers count during the regular season.

"My focus for '06 is pretty simple. I want to pitch well enough to stay in Triple-A all year, put up some good numbers, and we'll see what happens. What I know is that I've gotten a big opportunity by moving into the bullpen, and now my job is to take advantage of that opportunity."

Pinstripes Plus Top Stories

\r\n \r\n\r\nHere's an example.
\r\n
\r\nImagine for a minute you're a computer software engineer. Since you were five years old you've been playing around with programs, found you had a love and talent for it, and most importantly were good at it. You go to college, get your degree, are generally recognized as one of the most talented software specialists in the field. You interview with a large company, get the job, and go to work. For years you move up the software ranks, always doing your best, listening to advice and applying it to the best of your ability. One day you come to work and find a desktop computer in several hundred pieces sitting on your desk. Your boss sees you looking slightly confused and wanders up to your desk.
\r\n
\r\n\"What's the problem?\" he asks.
\r\n
\r\n\"What's this?\" you respond.
\r\n
\r\n\"Oh, you've been transferred. You're in hardware now. Rebuild this computer, and figure out why it wasn't running right.\"
\r\n
\r\nIt's not that you're completely confused, after all you've seen computers, even their inner workings, all your life. When you were in college you had to take some hardware courses, and have even rebuilt a computer or two in your time. But now you have to do it, and if you don't do it well, then there is somebody else who would be happy to take on the challenge.
\r\n
\r\nIt really is that big a difference, and no one in the AFL knows better than Matt Smith of the Yankees.
\r\n
\r\n\"It was a tough adjustment at first, but the biggest thing for me was that I had to swallow my pride,\" Smith says after warm-ups in Surprise, Arizona as his Grand Canyon Rafters got ready to take on the Surprise Scorpions in Arizona Fall League action, \"I've just always been a starter, I loved being a starter, but I couldn't stay healthy, and that's not good.\"
\r\n
\r\nTo make matters worse, when Smith began the season with the Double-A Trenton Thunder he was moved back and forth between the bullpen and the starting rotation for the first two months of the season.
\r\n
\r\n\"That was actually the thing that finally put it in focus for me,\" Smith says of the uncertainty, \"when I first got moved I was unhappy and my confidence was shot. After the first month and a half of the season I was getting shuffled back and forth, and then got moved back to the bullpen and I had a good outing. I just thought that I needed to give it a try, and find out if this role might be my calling. I had to remember what I'd always said, which was that I'd do whatever it took to get me to the big leagues. If I did well in the bullpen, I knew this would be a step in the right direction.\"
\r\n
\r\nAnd the numbers proved him right. At Trenton Smith made four starts, going 0-3 with an ERA of 6.43. He made 18 relief appearances, going 3-1 with two saves, and a sparkling ERA of 1.55. It certainly seemed to be a step in the right direction, and was proven to be when he was promoted to the Triple-A Columbus Clippers at the beginning of July, where his success in the bullpen continued. He was 2-0 with a save in Triple-A, and the ERA continued to shine, coming in at a cool 2.60.
\r\n
\r\nAt Triple-A lefties hit just .150 off him, and he averaged well more than a strikeout per inning. This is the stuff 20 year careers are made of, but talk about a drastic change. Coming into 2005 Smith had made 95 minor league appearances, and 90 of them were starts. Now not only was he not starting, he was pitching everywhere out of the pen.
\r\n
\r\n\"That was one of the biggest challenges, but I think it was also one of the best things for me this season,\" Smith smiles, \"I pitched all over the place, really did it all. Middle relief, long relief, setting up, and closing. I really became a 'go to' guy in the bullpen, because the coaches knew that no matter what the situation was, I could do the job.\"
\r\n
\r\nA big, hard throwing Yankee left handed reliever. Let the Mike Stanton comparisons begin.
\r\n
\r\n\"You know, I've never really read anything about that, but people talk to me about it all the time. I'll tell you one thing, I'd love to have his career. I mean, he was a huge part of those championship teams the Yankees had.\"
\r\n
\r\nSo is he the next Mike Stanton?
\r\n
\r\nSmith laughs. Just outright laughs.
\r\n
\r\n\"Come on, the farthest I've gotten is Triple-A. It's a huge compliment to just be in the same sentence as that guy, but let's see what happens when I get to the next level before we start making comparisons like that.\"
\r\n
\r\nIt almost sounds like that pressure, being compared to a possible Hall of Famer, might be getting to him.
\r\n
\r\n\"Pressure from the comparison? Come on. It's good to have those comparisons, it gives me a goal, but the only real pressure you feel is the pressure you put on yourself. I've never pitched in the Major Leagues, but I've got to believe that's pressure all it's own, especially pitching in New York. You're talking about the biggest market, the biggest stage. Compared to that pressure, somebody saying I might be the next whatever isn't even going to register.\"
\r\n
\r\nThe change has been something new, but the effect on Smith's career might be drastic. Smith will become a six year free agent after the 2006 season, and he looks at that as his biggest challenge now.
\r\n
\r\n\"I want to resign, but I know to do that I'll have to prove myself. I never thought I'd be where I am today, so that kind of pressure is what it is. There's no secret, if you're good, they'll resign you.\"
\r\n
\r\nA quick look at Smith's numbers in the AFL might raise some red flags, but a closer look shows that Smith's time in a hitter friendly league has been productive. Despite an ERA over 12 Smith has been very good much more often than he's struggled. In fact, two outings account for 13 of his 20 earned runs, and removing those two stints drop his ERA to the 3.50 area. Smith isn't worried, he's here to improve, the numbers count during the regular season.
\r\n
\r\n\"My focus for '06 is pretty simple. I want to pitch well enough to stay in Triple-A all year, put up some good numbers, and we'll see what happens. What I know is that I've gotten a big opportunity by moving into the bullpen, and now my job is to take advantage of that opportunity.\"
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