Not your average Joe

I’m not going to lie, it’s fun writing about and trying to predict the Opening Day roster. But, here’s the thing, that roster is only for April 5. It could change a day later. A couple weeks or months into the season and the 25-man roster may have already seen more than 30 players.

So, when a player “isn’t ready for Opening Day,” it isn’t always as bad as it sounds on the surface. And, in some cases, a week or two of missed time at the start of the season is the best strategy for being available for six or seven months.

Last season, Joe Smith provided an example of how being unavailable for Opening Day can work out in a player’s favor. Smith came down with an abdominal injury last spring and he was unable to break camp with the big league club. Smith was eventually activated from the disabled list on April 15.

“I really feel it was the best thing that could’ve happened,” Smith said on Wednesday morning.

Why? Because while Smith was out of the mix, Vinnie Pestano and Tony Sipp took hold of the eighth inning duties. The seventh landed in the capable hands of lefty Rafael Perez. By the time Smith returned, his role was to mainly work in either the sixth inning or the seventh inning.

Under the circumstances, manager Manny Acta began trusting Smith with more than just handling right-handed hitters. Smith was being used less as a specialist and more as a middle reliever, because he wasn’t appearing in the high-leverage, late-inning situations.

What happened was Smith showed he could finally handle lefties. From 2009-10, left-handed hitters posted a .348 (24-69) average against him, compared to .178 (36-202) for right-handers. Over that span, he had just 82 plate appearances against lefties. That grew to 90 PAs in 2011, when he held left-handed hitters to a .152 (12-79) average.

Smith made the reasoning behind his success sound simple: “getting ahead.” Last season, he pumped 65 percent of his pitches in there for strikes — up from 61 percent in the previous four years. His first-pitch strike rate jumped to 59 percent — up from 54 percent over the previous four seasons.

The end result was a 2.01 ERA and the second-best groundball percentage (70.2) among American League relievers with at least 65 innings. He held all hitts to a .217 average and a career-best .541 OPS. Smith appeared in 71 games, logged 67 innings, created 113 groundballs, posted a 1.33 grounder/flyball ratio and had a 1.09 WHIP.

For more on Smith, read today’s feature on Indians.com.

Some notes from Wednesday…

  • Indians manager Manny Acta doesn’t see it as Jack Hannahan vs. Lonnie Chisenhall for the starting third base job. Acta said Wednesday that it is more like Chisenhall vs. Chisenhall. The young third baseman needs to convince the team — with his bat and his glove — that he’s ready, at 23 years old, to be The Guy at the hot corner.
  • I took Acta’s comments to mean that Hannahan is on the team one way or another, which is what we’ve figured to this point. If he’s the starter, Chisenhall will be at Triple-A to open the year. If Chisenhall grabs the starting job this spring, Hannahan moves to the bench as a strong defender capable of handling multiple infield positions.
  • Second baseman Jason Kipnis had some fun during Wednesday’s 10-2 win over the D-backs. Kipnis homered in the first inning as part of back-to-back with Shin-Soo Choo. The second baseman (mic’d up for the TV broadcast) was later caught softly single an Adele song during MLB Network’s broadcast.
  • Center fielder Michael Brantley has enjoyed a hot start to the Cactus League slate. On Wednesday, Brantley went 3-for-4 with a double and a run scored. On the spring, all Brantley has done is go 6-for-10 out of the leadoff spot for the Tribe. Cleveland is hoping and praying this is a sign of things to come.
  • Lefty David Huff became the first Indians starter of the spring to build up to three innings. He was charged with two runs on two hits — a missed catch in left-center by Fred Lewis didn’t help — and ended with two strikeouts and one walk.
  • Huff said he had a little trouble staying back on his left leg at the start of his delivery in the second inning. The result was a chain reaction that had his front arm lower at the start and the released pitch popping higher in the zone. For Huff, keeping his delivery in fluid motion is key and it got a way from him a brief moment Wednesday.
  • One thing righty Frank Herrmann is working on this spring is his approach against left-handed hitters. It’s why he’s been developing a splitter for much of the past two years. Last year, lefties still hit .386 off Herrmann. On Wednesday, Herrmann logged two shutout innings and held lefty hitters to an 0-for-4 showing.
  • Right-hander Hector Ambriz, who missed all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, logged one shutout inning on Wednesday. Acta praised Ambriz’s willingness to move to Arizona last year to be close to the training/rehab facilities. Right now, though, Ambriz is not in the mix for one of the two bullpen jobs.
  • Injury updates: closer Chris Perez (left oblique) played catch at 75 feet on Wednesday. He’ll likely have a day off Thursday before advancing to 90 feet Friday. Raffy Perez (left shoulder) is slated to throw off a mound Thursday. Righty Austin Adams (shoulder) did throw off a mound on Wednesday.

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Photo of the Day

Pitching coach Scott Radinsky’s levitating ball trick.

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Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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