Smeltzer's slider work yields improved results

Twins left-hander continued to improve pitch during downtime

July 9th, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- When Twins players scattered from their Spring Training complex in mid-March due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, pitching coach Wes Johnson used an analogy to describe the situation to his players, as he does: "You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube."

Translating from Wes-speak, the insinuation was that the situation was out of their hands and that this might be the only time in his pitchers' careers for them to go home during what would have been a season and still do some focused work to make themselves better.

That's the attitude that carried with him as the days stretched to weeks, then to months, putting on hold a season that was shaping up to be a significant one for the young left-hander as he looked to further establish himself in the big leagues after a successful taste in 2019. In fact, Smeltzer feels that the opportunity to work in isolation on his new slider might actually prove to be an advantage in his development.

"I think, honestly, it makes things a lot easier when you’re not facing big league hitters, because it’s not result-driven," Smeltzer said. "I can sit down with the Rapsodo numbers, with the TrackMan numbers, and really break down video on what I’d have to do to make that pitch better. I know the numbers are going to tell me if a pitch is going to be successful or not, so I don’t have to go out and face the Cardinals in a Spring Training game."

When camp was suspended, Smeltzer knew where his spin rate, spin axis and velocity were on his slider, and also where they needed to be. So, instead of needing to cater his routine around preparing to regularly face Major League hitters and get outs, he could instead dig deeper into tinkering with the pitch while evaluating his incremental progress via video recordings and data from Rapsodo and TrackMan.

Working on that slider in game situations clearly had Smeltzer out of sorts during Spring Training. Instead, over the past few months, he threw to a local high school catcher in bullpen sessions, progressed to a simulated game every week and even got to pitch against some travel ball teams for the month-and-a-half prior to his arrival in Minneapolis for Summer Camp. He spoke with Johnson on the phone every other week and kept in touch with his coaches and the medical staff on a group text.

And the early returns?

"In my first outing the other day against big league hitters, it went extremely well," said Smeltzer, who threw batting practice on Sunday. "I was getting swings and misses on it, results I've never seen with the pitch before. I feel confident with it."

Smeltzer hopes to stake his claim to a more prominent role in 2020, after an impressive 49-inning stint with the Twins last season. He had a 3.86 ERA over 11 appearances and threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief in Game 2 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium.

Over the course of a normal 162-game season, Smeltzer likely would have had a much more prominent role due to the injury ebbs and flows that naturally hit a pitching staff. But as the Twins prepare for this 60-game season, the newfound health of Rich Hill means that Smeltzer is, at best, competing for the fifth rotation spot among a crowd of 10 starters being stretched out. There could also be a possible fit in the bullpen as one of the two starters the Twins plan to carry as long relievers.

"I’m extremely self-driven," Smeltzer said. "I’m always attacking and going for a role. I want to be a part of this. I got a taste of it last year, and once you get that taste, you never want to go back. And I have the confidence in my stuff, my mentality, my routine, to be a competitor and compete at this level for a long time. I can’t express this enough, it comes down to controlling what I can."

Fortunately for Smeltzer and the Twins, that control wasn't prematurely taken out of his hands by his medical history. Smeltzer survived a childhood cancer battle with pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma, and his oncologist felt that the 24-year-old's heart and lungs were strong and healthy, leaving him without significant added risk posed by COVID-19.

"He had been down in Florida working out, and Wes was in touch with where he was from a throwing-program standpoint," Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. "He had kept himself ready to go for this."

Smeltzer is taking every possible precaution. He only shuttles between the ballpark and his home every day. He gets his food and groceries delivered instead of venturing outside. There's a lot of Netflix and gaming involved. (He said, laughing, that he actually pitches as himself on MLB The Show to practice his sequencing, mentioning a game he played online against a kid on Wednesday morning.)

All that focus, care and work are in the name of being part of this team when it achieves success. Smeltzer will settle for no less, even with a difficult roster situation to navigate in the days and weeks ahead.

"For me, I’m so driven to be a playoff team every year, just because that feeling was incredible, and we lost at the end of it," Smeltzer said. "I can’t even begin to fathom what that’s going to feel like when we win a round, two rounds, go to the World Series, stuff like that. So, for me, it’s that drive to chase that ring and win for this city and just continue to better myself so that I can help the team win."