PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — In consecutive years at about the same point in the summer, the same part of Drew Smith’s body betrayed him, derailing what had been solid seasons.
The lesson was obvious: He had to make changes. In the offseason, he decided on a pair, switching to a more efficient pitch delivery and changing his diet to drop considerable weight.
He hopes that will help in a yearslong quest to establish himself as a bona fide high-leverage reliever, a role in which he has dabbled but not stuck to in the past — and a role in which manager Buck Showalter believes he can excel.
“My outings I’ve thrown so far, I haven’t been sore at all after, which is a big thing for me,” said Smith, a 29-year-old righthander who hasn’t allowed an earned run in two Grapefruit League appearances. “Even right after my outing, I don’t feel fatigued. It feels more natural, it feels easier on my body. I’m hoping that translates over the course of a full season.”
Showalter said: “He’s been good this spring. He’s going to be more of the guy that was healthy and pitching early (last year).”
Smith’s right lat has been problematic. In mid-August 2021, when he was rolling along with a 2.40 ERA, he suffered a strain that ended his season. In late July 2022, when he again had a solid 3.38 ERA in the first half, he hurt a different muscle in the same group, sidelining him for a month and a half.
“Happening back-to-back years like that, that to me is a sign,” he said. “So I wanted to adjust that and I think I did.”
The mechanical change involves his glove (left) arm. He used to jerk it up high and yank it down, which he said he felt helped him throw hard but “took a toll on my arm over time.” So he tweaked it, turning his glove and forearm in a “more traditional,” natural, athletic manner and not getting his arm up quite as high.
And then there was the diet. He cut down on carbs and cut out artificial sugars, which resulted in a drop of more than 20 pounds in four months. He said he arrived at camp at 186.
His goal with the weight loss was to get back down around 190, which is what he said he was at in his minor-league days “when I was healthy and pitched a lot.”
“I don’t feel like it’s a super noticeable 20 pounds,” Smith said. “I try to think back to when I didn’t miss time and I was a little lighter.”
After making those changes, his fastball velocity is in the same mid-90s range it always is this time of year, which is what he wanted.
“It’s been right in line,” Smith said. “I’ve felt healthier and more sustainable.”
General manager Billy Eppler said before camp that the Mets want to have five definitive high-leverage relievers so they can spread out those intense, late-and-close innings and not rely on any one arm too often.
Closer Edwin Diaz and setup man Adam Ottavino, both of whom returned as free agents in the offseason, are two. So are additions David Robertson and Brooks Raley.
Smith is the obvious choice to round out the five-man group. Showalter came to rely on Smith quickly last season, and he racked up 12 holds by the end of May. But he had just two the rest of the year (in part because of the injury).
“We have a lot of guys who can pitch in those roles, and that’s good,” he said. “You don’t necessarily abuse a particular guy, everybody can take a little bit of that load. Not only physically but mentally it’s draining for sure. I’d love to pitch in those roles again. I know there’s multiple guys that will pitch in those roles. I’m looking forward to it.”