Lots of zeros made Smyth a hero
A's prospect earns MiLBY after scoreless debut season
It's a challenge for every team's player development staff to familiarize itself with its draft class each year, handle the influx of players into camp, evaluate them and assign them to the appropriate affiliates -- all within a matter of days.
In the case of Paul Smyth, the Athletics' 35th-round pick in 2009 out of Kansas, that transition was made a little easier by the fact that player development director Keith Lieppman already had been following the right-hander's career.
That's because Lieppman, like Smyth, was a Jayhawk.
"He went to my alma mater, so I already had interest in him because you don't see a whole lot of kids come out of Kansas," said Lieppman, the 2009 winner of the Sheldon "Chief" Bender Award, given annually by Minor League Baseball to someone with distinguished service in player development. "I was told he was a competitor who throws strikes, has a good sinker with tremendous deception, and an outstanding kid to have on the ballclub."
Nobody predicted, however, that Smyth, a senior signee who already had his diploma, would not allow a run in his professional debut, a span of 36 1/3 innings over 25 games between short-season Vancouver and Class A Kane County. He limited opponents to a .114 average and walked only four while striking out 44.
As a result of his 0.00 ERA over 29 1/3 innings at Vancouver -- where he walked four, struck out 37 and scattered 12 hits -- Smyth was a no-brainer when it came time to hand out the MiLBY for Best Short-Season Reliever.
With literally hundreds of player reports streaming in nightly from managers and coaches, Lieppman remembers how the dispatches from Vancouver manager Rick Magnante and pitching coach Craig Lefferts started coming together on this late-round sleeper.
"First, they started mentioning things like, 'He's solid, he likes to get the ball.' Then you start getting more embellishments about how he's unafraid in tough situations, how he pounds the lower half of the strike zone," Lieppman said. "Then they start saying how great he is off the field, how he's fluent in Spanish and helps with our Latino players, and he starts taking on this whole air, personality-wise."
At that point, Lieppman got to watch Smyth in action and saw even more reasons why the scoreless streak kept going.
"He gets swings and misses, he's getting flinches from right-handed hitters," said Lieppman, explaining why he felt comfortable moving Smyth up to a full-season club that needed a closer down the stretch. "We think we got a steal in the 35th round."
A northern California native who grew up rooting for Oakland, Smyth jokes that he thinks part of the reason he got the initial assignment to Vancouver -- the higher of the A's two short-season clubs -- was that he happened to have his paperwork in order.
"I went hoping I'd go to Vancouver but not sure how it would be decided," he said. "But a few people didn't get to go there because they didn't have their passport ready yet. I had my passport ready."
A reliever throughout his college career, Smyth knew he'd remain in the bullpen but wasn't sure what his role would be, especially since the Athletics have a policy under which they won't tweak a player's mechanics for the first month unless the player specifically requests it.
But success, obviously, came quickly, something Smyth attributes partly to the Athletics' coaching drills, which he took to immediately.
"I felt like I was doing things right and that the drills we'd been working on were paying off," he said. "I was developing comfort in my delivery and buying into everything they were teaching us."
Still, a streak like Smyth's is treated a little differently than, say, a pitcher who is throwing a no-hitter.
"I think pitchers throwing a no-hitter have it easy because no one talks for about three, four hours, whereas for me -- since it lasted for a couple of months -- people wanted to talk about it," he said. "I try not to look at stats, but this is a stats game. It definitely got brought up a lot. I tried to see how many jinxes I could get past. One time, our pitching coach introduced me to a whole group of school kids as 'The guy who hasn't given up a run yet this season,' and everyone was like, 'Well, that was nice while it lasted.'"
Not surprisingly, comparisons have been made between the side-arming Smyth and his scoreless streak and A's side-arming reliever Brad Ziegler, who set a record in 2008 when he opened his big league career with 39 shutout innings.
While neither is a prototypical over-the-top pitcher, Ziegler made the transformation from three-quarters to underhand; Smyth has been a side-armer for as long as he can remember. He also throws harder than Ziegler and probably has better "stuff" to work with.
"He's a fastball/slider guy who mainly relies on a two-seam sinking fastball but started showing the ability to pop a four-seam fastball at the letters to change the eye level for the hitter," Lieppman said. "But they both can exploit right-handed hitters and have deception in their deliveries."
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.