** This interview was conducted with Josh Smoker in early January, prior to him being designated for assignment on January 26.**
When Josh Smoker made his major league debut with the New York Mets back on August 19, 2016 at the age of 27, he knew how difficult the road had been to make it there.
Smoker, a former supplemental first-round pick of the Washington Nationals back in 2007, overcame two shoulder surgeries, a release by the only team he had known, and the uncertainty of ever playing professional baseball again.
His tenure with the Nationals was beset by injuries, requiring shoulder surgery to fix a bone spur in 2008, followed by a subsequent surgery to repair a torn labrum and and rotator cuff in 2013. The left-hander sat out the entire 2013 season to heal, however, the Nationals released the once promising pitcher.
Dejected and with a sense of defeat, unknowing of whether he’d ever fulfill his potential, Smoker along with his father Mike, made endless phone calls and sent out email after email to area scouts, in hopes of catching on with another team.
After mostly silence on the other end, Smoker and his dad discovered tryouts in Kentucky for the independent Frontier League. The Rockford Aviators, located in Illinois, signed Smoker for the 2014 season. It was there, Smoker says, that he had the chance to mature and regain the appreciation and love for the game that was missing after several disappointing and injury-riddled seasons.
With improved velocity, sitting around 92 m.p.h. which was about a four mile increase from when he was pitching hurt with the Nationals, Smoker posted a 4.03 ERA with Rockford in 28 games. Smoker was finally healthy and had a new outlook on the game, reminded of why he fell in love with it in the first place.
At the conclusion of the 2014 season, Smoker was still looking for scouts to come watch him throw, hoping that his season in Rockford would lead to more interest. The interest remained tepid, so Smoker and his Rockford manager decided that he would come back for one final season, in which he would start.
In late January of 2015, Smoker was getting ready to throw a bullpen with his usual catcher, one he’s had by his side since he was a young teen. Unable to catch due to an illness, he set Smoker up with another catcher instead. Paul Fletcher, a bird-dog scout and the pitching coach for the independent league York Revolution, caught Smoker that day, and would forever change Smoker’s professional baseball career.
After the bullpen session Smoker received a call from a New York number. It was the Mets, who had heard from Fletcher of Smoker’s bullpen, and asked if he’d like to come tryout for them in Port St. Lucie. Finally, a major league team came calling.
Smoker was signed by the Mets not long after he threw his bullpen at their spring training complex. Smoker appeared in 41 games between three levels of their organization in 2015, posting a 3.12 ERA while averaging 11.0 strikeouts-per-nine innings. After opening the ’16 season with Las Vegas, Smoker would make his long awaited major league debut on August 19 against the Giants in San Francisco.
It was a tale of two seasons for Smoker in 2017, as the lefty posted a 7.45 ERA over 22 games, allowing a .924 OPS to opposing hitters. After critiquing his slider and working back from a stint on the DL with a left shoulder strain, Smoker showed a near five-run improvement in ERA, down to 2.63 in the second half of the season.
Having the improved slider meant that Smoker didn’t have to be so perfect with his fastball, and saw better results against left-handed hitters, where he had reverse splits for much of his career. In the month of September Smoker held lefties to a .226/.258/.345 slash, a strong way to end the season. For Smoker, the development of his slider along with continued improvement of his command gives him much encouragement heading into the 2018 season.
On January 26, to make room for the recently re-signed Jose Reyes, Smoker was designated for assignment. An unpopular move by most, considering Smoker is just the second left-handed reliever on the roster, the effervescent reliever will certainly be missed by teammates and fans alike.
I had the privilege of speaking to Smoker in January, where we discussed his setbacks early on, time in the Independent League, and his tenure with the Mets thus far.
MMO: Who were some of your favorite players growing up?
Josh: I was a big John Smoltz fan growing up in Atlanta. Obviously that was in the time of the dominating pitching staff they had. It was really cool getting to watch all of those guys throw but I really liked the mentality that Smoltzie had. For him to be able to be a starter and closer was pretty cool to watch.
MMO: At what age did you start primarily pitching?
Josh: Probably when I was fourteen-years-old is when I started really focusing in on it more. And then freshman year in high school is when I really kind of focused in on pitching only and putting everything else to the side.
MMO: What are your memories from the 2007 MLB Draft? Did you have any inclination that the Nationals were looking to take you with that pick?
Josh: I actually had no clue. I hadn’t talked with the Nationals really that much, there were other teams that I had been in contact with a lot more than the Nationals. All it was with those guys was an occasional phone call and just to check in with an area scout and things like that.
When they called me and told me that they had picked me it was kind of a big surprise, something that I wasn’t really expecting.
MMO: Did you have any idea of what round you might be selected in?
Josh: Yeah, I had heard anywhere from mid to late first round to supplemental, which I ended up going in with the 31st pick. So I had an idea but at the same time you can never really tell on Draft day. Anything can happen and anything can change so you just have to sit along for the ride and hope that the best happens.
MMO: You experienced a tough early go of it in the minors; requiring surgeries for bone spurs, a torn labrum and rotator cuff. How challenging was that period of time for you, and how did you continue to push through mentally with the setbacks?
Josh: It was definitely tough. Obviously when you know that you’re a lot better than what you’re showing on the field you get to a point where you almost feel defeated a little bit. There were plenty of times where I expected that nothing was really going to come back to my arm and I wasn’t really going to be able to do anything further in baseball. Early on in my career I didn’t know what it felt like to have fun out on the baseball field and get paid to do it just because I was never 100 percent.
I think just having my family behind me was really what kept me chugging along and they knew somewhere inside of me I still had a love for the game, it was just a matter of finding that joy again and getting a little bit healthy. Fortunately for me it took a little bit longer but once everything finally felt good again it was just a clear path from there.
MMO: After the Nationals released you, were there any thoughts that baseball just might not pan out for you?
Josh: Yeah, definitely. Especially that winter was when I really started thinking that I wasn’t going to be able to really do anything else. I couldn’t get any area scouts to come watch me throw; I couldn’t even get any independent ball teams to answer my phone calls. So that was definitely when I thought that it was probably going to be it, but (I) ended up getting on with an independent team so it ended up working out for the best.
I had a good manager there in Rockford, he made everything fun. It was a good group of guys so it was just fun to play the game again and be healthy while I was doing it.
MMO: How did you hear about the Frontier League tryouts?
Josh: My dad and I had been calling around and trying to find some affiliate teams to come watch me throw. I was able to get a couple of scouts to come but really nothing serious. My velocity hadn’t gotten quite back up to where I wanted it, but it was definitely a huge improvement from where I had been in the past.
I tried looking up numbers of independent coaches on the internet and just do anything I could do to just talk to somebody, but nobody would return my emails or phone calls. My dad had found out about the Frontier League tryouts and just so happened it was in Kentucky on that particular year, so we drove out and threw a couple of innings and ended up getting picked up by Rockford.
MMO: What did you take away from your lone season in the Frontier League?
Josh: One of the coolest things about being on that team was there were guys from completely different backgrounds. There were guys that didn’t go to college and just for whatever reason couldn’t get picked up by a college team, and they might’ve had the tools to play at a higher level. There were guys there that had been in Double and Triple-A, that were just on the cusp of getting to the big leagues but weren’t quite able to make that final step. It was just a good core group of guys there that you really didn’t have that competition factor among each other, we went out on the field and just had a good time.
We were playing for ourselves and we were playing for the team and honesty getting picked up by an affiliate team was just kind of in the back of our minds, really. I mean, it’s something everybody wanted but it was more or less just going out there and having fun and playing a game.
It was definitely good for me to get out there and get my mind right with the game again and start to enjoy it and actually have fun with it. I think that looking back it was a huge step and helped me mature a little bit and appreciate the game again to get to where I am now.
MMO: By now many know the story of how you you came to tryout with the Mets in 2015. But for those unaware, can you talk a bit about that experience?
Josh: I had tried to get picked up that offseason again. It was the winter after that independent ball team and tried to get picked up by some teams, but still nobody was really coming to watch. I had talked with my manager in Rockford and we had kind of planned that I was just going to go back and he was going to let me start for him, and just have fun with it and go out on my terms and make it the last hoorah if you will.
I was throwing my bullpens and I’d say it was probably late January and the same guy had always caught my bullpens since I was fourteen-years-old up until that point. He was sick that day so he got me set up with another guy who was Paul Fletcher, who happened to be a bird-dog scout for the Mets and was also the pitching coach for the York Revolution.
I ended up throwing a bullpen to him and it was just another normal day, just trying to get my work in. I leave and I get a phone call from a New York number and it was Ian Levin with the Mets. He’s the director of player development who controls everything and a pretty powerful guy in the Mets’ organization. He was asking me if I wanted to come down to spring training and throw. Obviously that’s something I wanted to do and I went down there and threw a bullpen for him. He signed me on the spot and it was pretty cool, it all happened pretty fast from what I’m used to.
MMO: It must’ve been a bit nerve-wracking for you to essentially have this one opportunity to showcase your stuff?
Josh: It was definitely nerve-wracking! I think I remember trying to throw the ball as hard as I could and Ron Romanick – who was one of the guys there watching me throw – told me, “Just take a step back and take a deep breath.” That it wasn’t Game 7 of the World Series, it’s just another bullpen, and that kind of calmed me down a little bit. But it was definitely nerve-wracking.
The guy I threw with was Noah Syndergaard. That’s the guy I played catch with before the bullpen. I had been out of pro ball for a couple of years so I hadn’t really kept up with all the top prospects and things like that, so I actually hadn’t heard of Noah Syndergaard (laughs). I remember Ron Romanick making a huge deal of how I was getting to play catch with a top-50 prospect and I was like, ‘Okay, cool, whatever.’
Sure enough Noah Syndergaard turns out to be the Noah Syndergaard! It was just kind of a funny story that the first guy I ever played catch with in that organization was Noah.
MMO: August 19, 2016: Your major league debut. What memories stand out for you most from that day?
Josh: Oh man, I tell you, there’s two days that mean a lot to me: Number one the day I got married and number two was the day I got called up. I really don’t remember anything from those two days just because there was so much going on and everything was happening so fast. Between talking to everybody on the day I got married and talking to everybody on the day I got called up, honestly I wish I could remember more of it but it really all happened so fast.
The one thing I do remember was in San Francisco there’s no bullpen benches, so everyone sits in the dugout. I remember Terry (Collins) looking over to Ricky Bones, saying, “Get Smoker going.” So me, Ricky, and Dave Racaniello or Eric Langill went running down to the bullpen and I remember I couldn’t feel my body, it was such a rush. I was just kind of going through the motions.
I get that game out of the way and I’m talking to Addison Reed the next day and I asked him, ‘How did you feel after your big league debut?’ And he said, “I never want to feel the way I felt in my big league debut ever again.” That’s probably the best way to explain it, it’s crazy, man. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve actually experienced it.
MMO: Were there certain players that helped assimilate you to the majors early on?
Josh: I think Jerry Blevins and Addison Reed were two huge assets, just being able to talk with them. I’ve gotten pretty close with Jerry. Obviously, we’re kind of completely different pitchers but as far as our thought process we both like to think a little bit too much, which sometimes gets us into trouble, but I enjoy having conversations with him. He’s a really good guy, really easy to talk to and would do anything to help you out. I think Jerry’s one of those kind of guys where you respect him because he’s been around for a long time but at the same time you’re not afraid to go up there and ask him what to do in certain counts or what to do with certain hitters. He’s there to help you and I think he’s a great guy to have around in the bullpen for younger guys, so he’s helped me out a lot.
MMO: I remember speaking to Blevins about what you relievers talk about in the pen during the games. He mentioned it’s a varying list of topics, is that true?
Josh: Honestly, the last thing we talk about is baseball. I know that’s probably not something the Met fans want to hear (laughs). But it’s such a long season that if you talk baseball every day in the bullpen it’ll just fry your brain. So I think once you get to the bullpen it’s almost like we’re getting away from everything, it’s kind of a time to get away from everything and clear our heads and make it where it’s not necessarily as stressful.
It gets goofy down there, man, we do riddles, tell jokes, talk about each other. It’s just a good time. And it’s a good group of guys, there are all types of different personalities and it’s a really good combination.
MMO: The 2017 season was disappointing on a lot of levels; for the team and you personally. What do you contribute your hardships to?
Josh: I think the biggest thing was I didn’t have a slider in the first half of the season. I had one and was working on one but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be; I didn’t have the command I wanted it to, didn’t have the depth that I wanted it to have. And lefties were seeing it out of my hand early, which is one of the reasons why I had reverse splits. However, when I went to Vegas to start, one of the things I had told myself and I had told Dan (Warthen) and Terry that I would work on is improving my slider. I went down there basically with that mindset, not really worrying about the outcome but just fine-tuning some of the stuff I needed to work on.
Once I ended up coming back from the DL it was honestly a completely different season for me. It was a night and day difference and I was really happy with how I ended the season. Obviously I wish the whole season could’ve gone that way but I think working on that slider was huge. It made me tougher against lefties and righties and I didn’t really have to be so perfect with my fastball because they knew in the back of their minds that they had to look out for the slider too. So it was a huge pitch for me and I think honestly it turned the season around for me in the second half.
MMO: I was always curious about that time when you went down to Las Vegas and started. So that was mainly to work on your slider and command?
Josh: It was, it was. The biggest thing was to work with the slider and I think at the time we had so many guys hurt I think there was some sort of thought process that maybe I might have to step into a game or two and start, or be a long guy. But I think that was kind of a secondary notion where as the main focus was going down there to improve my slider and improve my command.
MMO: Is it difficult to go from starter to reliever, to be stretched out for a long man role?
Josh: It definitely is. I’ll tell you, that one day in particular against the Cubs (June 13), I was worn out after the third inning. I really didn’t have anything left in the tank but at the same time there was nobody left in the bullpen, so I had to wear that one. There’s nothing bad about it, it’s one of those situations where you have to do what you have to do. But I liked the fact that I was able to show that if I need to do something a little bit longer, I showed myself and the Mets that I can do that if it comes down to it.
When you start getting into a role and then it changes it’s tough, but at the same time we’re in the bullpen, so you kind of have to be ready for stuff like that. Anything can happen once the phone rings so that’s just the way the game is. I think that you need to be as versatile as you can, especially being a younger bullpen guy that only has a couple of years in the big leagues and hasn’t established himself yet.
MMO: As a team, how hard is it to come to the ballpark in a season where you know you’re already out of it?
Josh: Well I can’t really for speak for any of the other guys. Me personally, I know I’ve been in a lot worse situations in the past, so just coming to a big league park I was perfectly okay with. You’ll never hear me complain about going to the stadium, that’s something that I will always be grateful for and the fact that I can still put a jersey on I’ll be forever thankful for that. I don’t think you’ll ever hear me say anything negative about going to the park.
The season definitely didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to but at the same time we had a lot of freak injuries that we had no control over. I mean, Travis (d’Arnaud) throwing a ball and hitting a bat and breaking his hand, what are the chances of that happening? It’s not like it was something that the Mets were doing and a lot of the injuries were just freak injuries, stuff we had no control over. I mean, it’s hard when pretty much your whole roster goes down at least once or twice to be on the DL, it’s hard to have a successful season.
I’m just proud of the fact that the team stuck together and by the end of the year no one had mailed it in and everyone was still playing hard until the last out. I feel that’s a hard quality to find in a team of a bunch of guys getting paid a lot of money to go out every day and play hard. Even if they statistically have been eliminated from the playoffs, our guys kept fighting until the last game and that’s something that I’m proud of.
Josh: I’m super ecstatic about it. I talked to Dave a couple of times on the phone, he seems like a great guy. Haven’t spoken to Mickey yet but from everything I’ve heard he’s a great guy, a guy that you can talk to.
I think with us as a younger team, having a manager that you can approach and feel comfortable talking to about really anything, whether it’s on the field or off it, I think that’s huge. I think that’s big for some of the younger guys like Amed (Rosario) and Dom (Smith). Having guys that haven’t really been there for very long to have someone to talk to is going to be understated, but I think it’s a big deal so I’m super ecstatic and looking forward to working with them.
MMO: When it was announced that the Mets signed Jay Bruce to a three-year deal a few weeks back, it was met with a lot of enthusiasm from you and your teammates via Twitter. What does having a guy like Bruce back on the team mean for you guys?
Josh: Jay is an absolutely fantastic guy. When all the hurricane stuff happened in Texas, his hometown of Beaumont got hit pretty hard. He had created a Twitter right away to raise as much money as he could, and I’m not sure the exact amount but he raised a lot for that. That’s just the kind of guy he is, he just wants to help people out and he’s going to do whatever he can to help people.
He’s a great guy to have around the clubhouse; he’s a professional through-and-through. He does everything the right way and he’s a good role model for really anybody on the team and especially for the younger guys. Just to kind of watch him and how he goes about his business, it’s pretty cool to watch and he’s a good family man and I’m definitely looking for him coming back.
MMO: What have you been up to this offseason? And what are you hoping to improve upon heading into the 2018 season?
Josh: I started a new workout program this winter to try and slim down a little bit. I was happy where I was last year but I think there’s always room for improvement as far as your physical fitness goes. I tried to lose a little bit of body fat this winter, just to try to make me a little more agile off the mound. I think there’s always room for improvement in fielding your position and things like that.
Pick-off move definitely needs to improve; it’s almost kind of embarrassing to even peek over to first base sometimes, that’s how bad it is. So that’s something I’ve been working on.
Command will always be an improving thing for me, trying to get dialed in to where I want it to. I think the biggest thing is to continue to work on my slider and continue to learn the command of it where I can do whatever I want to in whatever count. I think that’s going to be a big thing for me. If I can keep the command where I want it to, it doesn’t have to be great, I think my stuff’s good enough where I don’t need to nibble on the edges, but if I can command the fastball and throw the slider where I want to I think it should be a really good year for me.
MMO: Appreciate your time, Josh. All the best in 2018!
Josh: Awesome. Thank you very much, man.
Follow Josh Smoker on Twitter, @Josh_Smoker