NEW YORK -- Drew Smith had only begun fooling around with cutter grips during quarantine when a future Hall of Famer arrived at his alma mater, Dallas Baptist University, and began training there as well. Smith had known Clayton Kershaw a bit from previous interactions, working alongside him for three years at a Dallas-area baseball camp for underprivileged children. He had talked pitching with Kershaw on occasion.
This, though, was different. This was a front-row seat to watch a three-time Cy Young Award winner train. As Kershaw threw live bullpen sessions at Dallas Baptist, Smith made particular note of how his slider looked identical to his fastball coming out of his hand. It was a relevant lesson for Smith, who was in the process of expanding his repertoire as he prepared to compete for a Mets bullpen job.
“Just from watching him throw his, the way it looks so much like his fastball, I realized that that’s more important than the amount of movement you have on it,” Smith said. “If you can make it look like your fastball for as long as possible, even if it only moves six inches … I think that’s even better than a pitch that moves twice as much. He does that exceptionally well, and I got to see it firsthand standing behind home plate. So that was really beneficial to me.”
Smith’s new pitch is more of a cutter than a slider, with a grip he picked up from a buddy in Texas. Tinkering it until he made the cutter work for him, Smith began receiving compliments from the Minor League batters he faced at Dallas Baptist. So he continued refining it as he prepared for Mets Summer Camp.
“The first time I started throwing it to hitters, they all said that it was one of my better pitches,” Smith said. “That’s when I knew I might be onto something. … I think it’s going to be a big pitch for me this year.”
The Mets could see it in regular-season games sooner rather than later. Had the schedule began as planned in March, Smith either would have broken camp with a Minor League affiliate or stayed back in Florida for extended spring camp. He underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2019, and he did not begin throwing off a mound again until February. But he’s been doing so for five months now, showcasing a fastball that’s back up to 96-97 mph, along with a curveball, a changeup and his newest weapon.
“He’s got a good repertoire, adding that cutter,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said. “It can make the fastball play a little more.”
The return on the trade that sent Lucas Duda to Tampa Bay in 2017, Smith debuted for the Mets the following season, posting a 3.54 ERA over 27 appearances mostly down the stretch. He would have been a prominent part of the team’s bullpen last season had surgery not interfered. Instead, Smith missed the entire season.
Last Friday, he appeared in a competitive game for the first time since his operation, striking out Yoenis Céspedes (looking) and Pete Alonso (swinging, on a cutter) to escape a jam. Two nights later, Smith retired Yankees hitters Gleyber Torres, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sánchez in a scoreless fifth, before running into trouble when the Mets asked him to return to the mound for more. The resulting two home runs did not bother him nearly as much as the previous inning encouraged him -- not to mention the way his arm felt following the 38-pitch outing.
“To be able to do that just kind of eased my mind a little bit like, ‘You’ve still got it. It’s going to come back fully. It’s not going to be an issue,’” Smith said.
Given his velocity and four-pitch mix, the 26-year-old Smith has as much upside as anyone in the Mets’ bullpen competition. It’s now up to the team to determine if he’s ready. With Robert Gsellman, Brad Brach and Jared Hughes all potentially sidelined for Opening Day, the Mets could have as many as six bullpen spots up for grabs.
Sixteen months removed from surgery, and only weeks removed from his most recent look at Kershaw, Smith has put himself in position for one of them.
“I’m just doing everything I can, doing the best I can trying to show them that I’m healthy and ready to go,” Smith said. “Whenever I get my chance -- whether it be Opening Day, whether it be a week after -- I’ll be ready to go. And I’m excited to be back out there.”