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Josh Smoker finally made the majors in 2016

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The lefty missed bats but allowed multiple long balls in improbable comeback.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Mets
Josh Smoker struck out 25 batters in his first 15.1 innings in 2016
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Smoker was called up at the end of August, threw 15.1 innings with a middling ERA, and was left off the Wild Card game roster. Frankly, even if Smoker had been lit up in every one of his outings, it could still be called a success. The 27-year-old was on a major league roster.

A first-round pick by Washington in 2007, Smoker found himself pitching in independent ball by 2014—and not pitching all that well there. Almost immediately after getting drafted, Smoker underwent shoulder surgery. By 2013, beset by more injuries that weighed his fastball down to the mid-80s, the Nationals released the left-hander.

The Mets found him as he was preparing for his second season in the Frontier League. After not pitching at all in 2013, Smoker was hardly noteworthy in 2014, with 4.03 ERA and walking more than seven batters per nine innings. The Mets, however, saw something in a fastball that had now risen to the upper-90s and a major league quality slider/splitter combination.

After breezing through the minors in 2015, the Mets called up Smoker to replace struggling lefty reliever Josh Edgin in August. Although Smoker’s 4.70 ERA left something to be desired, his peripherals suggest the reliever could be here to stay—at minimum as a left-handed specialist if not a true setup man.

Through 15.1 innings over 20 appearances, Smoker struck out 25 batters. Although the sample size is obviously quite small, the 14.7 strikeout rate would put him fourth in the big leagues among all pitchers with at least 10 innings. It would be a mistake to simply extrapolate a full season from little over a month of baseball, but Smoker’s gaudy strikeout rate puts him in league with those posted by Trevor Rosenthal, Kenley Jansen ,and Craig Kimbrel in their first big league cups of coffee.

For all the concerns about his command, Smoker only walked 2.3 batters per nine in the majors. His struggles came from the long ball, as he allowed four home runs, all to right-handed batters. That may mean he needs to work on his approach to right-handers, but it might just a fluke. Smoker was actually more effective against right-handed hitters than left-handed hitters in the minors, and his xFIP, which attempts to create an ERA-type stat by factoring out luck from balls allowed in play and from a pitcher’s home run rate, is 2.63. (Although there are exceptions, 10 percent of fly balls tend to leave the park regardless of the batter or pitcher.)

As it stands, Smoker and Edgin are the only two lefty relievers left on the Mets roster. Edgin had a 1.32 ERA in 2014, but after undergoing Tommy John surgery during spring training in 2015, he struggled with diminished velocity in his brief 2016 return. The Mets appear to be pursuing another lefty reliever, but it may take a three-year-deal to land Jerry Blevins or another major name, and under Sandy Alderson, the Mets have never given that many years to a reliever. Given that the Mets opened each of the last four years with at least two lefty relievers, Smoker should have a good shot at making the Opening Day roster whether or not the Mets sign another bullpen arm.

Should Smoker stay in the majors, early forecasts are bullish on his chances to succeed. Fangraphs’ Steamer projections peg him with a 3.11 ERA and an 11.08 K/9 over 55 innings. In a game increasingly centered around a strong bullpen, a pitcher of Smoker’s potential—a left-hander with a power fastball who can retire batters on both sides of the plate and who’s under control for another six seasons—could be a highly valuable commodity.