Consistency is key for Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Riley Smith each time he toes the rubber. His calm demeanor and reliable mechanics helped his meteoric rise up the Diamondbacks’ minor league system and eventual MLB debut in 2020.
But Smith’s first big league appearance with the Diamondbacks on Aug. 26 against the Colorado Rockies didn’t go as planned. He faced the heart of the Rockies’ vaunted lineup and gave up a grand slam to four-time All-Star Charlie Blackmon.
Despite the rough introduction to the majors, Smith regained his composure with five straight outs over two innings. The outing could have gone better in Smith’s mind, but it was a sign of things to come as he improved with each appearance.
“Giving up that grand slam just helped me get things out of the way,” he said. “I settled down and pitched well that outing. I had three quick outs the next inning, so I had the confidence knowing I can pitch at that level… I don’t want any opponent thinking I’m scared or anything like that, because they were in my position at one time. So I just stay poised out there.”
Smith, 25, surrendered just one run through his next five outings with the D-backs, finishing the season with a 2-0 record, 1.47 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 18.1 innings. His confidence and poise took a step forward with every opportunity on the mound.
Recording outs at any level in professional baseball is a difficult task. Smith’s consistency and resilience to shrug off any adversity led him to Arizona, and he’s determined to stay in the big leagues long term.
“I like to think of myself as a gamer,” he said. “When my name is called, I’m giving them 100 percent effort until I can’t walk off the mound. That’s been my drive through this whole process. Whether it’s throwing quality strikes, or just competing as hard as I can. That’s been my whole outlook is to get outs and compete.”
A 24th round pick out of Louisiana State in 2016, Smith served as a reliever for the Diamondbacks for the first time since 2017. The right-hander logged 98 starts over four seasons in the minors.
Whether it’s starting or coming out of the bullpen, Smith’s consistent approach stays the same. He attacks the strike zone with a heavy sinking fastball that tails out of the zone along with a pair of off-speed pitches in a curveball and slider.
He struck out Rockies shortstop Trevor Story for his first career MLB strikeout in his debut.
“You can’t be a reliever if you can’t throw strikes, and you can’t be a starter if you can’t throw strikes,” he said. “That’s what you need to do and I’ll continue to do that throughout my career.”
Smith learned the importance of throwing quality strikes early in his career, which helped his steady rise up the D-backs’ minor league ranks. Smith and pitching coach Jeff Bajenaru tinkered with his fastball command and location in 2018 with High-A Visalia.
As Smith improved his repertoire, his work ethic and determination to get to the major leagues grew with each season. Bajenaru still remembers the countless bullpen sessions and throwing regiment Smith put upon himself to pitch at the next level.
“He was a guy that did everything he needed to do to make himself successful,” Bajenaru said. “That stood out to me from the moment I met him. He takes pride in his work and it shows.”
Smith was promoted to Double-A Jackson in 2019 and earned a mid-season All-Star selection. He reconnected with Bajenaru when he got the bump up to Triple-A Reno that same season.
The adjustments from the Southern League in Double-A to the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League can be a pitcher’s worst nightmare. Smith struggled to find his footing in Triple-A and saw his ERA balloon to 6.89 in 12 starts.
Statistics can be quite deceiving in the PCL. Home runs are launched at historic rates and the thin air makes it difficult for pitchers to adjust on the fly. With the help of Bajenaru, Smith trusted his stuff and performed well enough to earn a spot on Arizona’s 40-man roster by the offseason.
“He’s been in my corner since Day One,” Smith said. “He’s a great coach and he’s always helpful. He gives it to you straight, having a guy like that in the organization was great for me… He helped me notice that guys put better swings on good pitches at each level. That’s the same here in Arizona, if you don’t execute your pitch they’ll hit it out of the park.”
Smith was relied upon out of the bullpen in his first season with the Diamondbacks, and he made the most of every opportunity. With the big league debut out of the way, he has goals of challenging for a spot in the starting rotation for 2021.
Consistency and a tireless work ethic brought Smith to the majors, and he is driven to keep improving at baseball’s highest level.
“The thing I try to do as much as I can is stay consistent,” he said. “It’ll be great to be a starter… That’ll be my goal for spring training next year is to put my best foot forward and see if I have what it takes.”
Smith’s name may still be under-the-radar with the Diamondbacks, but he’s opening eyes of fellow coaches and players throughout each step in his career. Bajenaru had a first-hand view of Smith’s development from the minors to the majors, and he knows how much he relishes each opportunity to compete on the mound.
“I’m excited to see him thrive and open some of the eyes who didn’t know who he was,” Bajenaru said. “I’m not surprised to see him reach his goal. This whole season was out of control, but he worked and prepared to get to this moment and I couldn’t be happier for him.”