December 5, 2013 was a crazy time in the world. Latin music sensation Thalía was awarded a star on the lauded Hollywood Walk of Fame. Moviegoers were just eight days from celebrating A Madea Christmas, and Will Smith references were clogging Twitter timelines. No, DJ Jazzy Jeff hadn’t died, and (at least to our knowledge) a sequel entitled I, (Still) Robot wasn’t in the works. Rather, Brewers fans were dusting off their best The Legend Of Bagger Vance callbacks in regard to a transaction that would send a hefty lefty reliever with the famed actor’s name to Milwaukee in exchange for fan favorite Nori Aoki.
When the novelty of the trade that launched 10,000 shitty Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air jokes had subsided, the Brewers faithful were confronted with the gripping realization that the team’s front office had just dealt an affordable, and more-than-capable everyday right fielder to the Kansas City Royals for an unproven young pitching project with a 5.12 ERA and a staggering 65 earned runs surrendered in just 35 career games. The vast majority of people in Milwaukee, us included, questioned the move. To that point, Smith had given up 18 home runs in those 35 appearances. He couldn’t hack it in the rotation of a third place Royals team, and he couldn’t cut it in KC’s bullpen either. Meanwhile, Aoki—an established Japanese baseball star who worked pitch counts, offered an above average outfield glove, and helped the team store bring in an insane amount of kanji t-shirt jersey revenue—thrived in Milwaukee.
We were left to handle the loss of a beloved Brewer and, once again, rest our increasingly fragile hopes in yet another offseason move to bring in a reliever to bolster a bullpen that had been a deterrent for a franchise in the midst of a half-committal rebuilding process. With images of Scott Linebrink, LaTroy Hawkins, Kameron Loe, David Riske, Mike Gonzalez, and so many other outsourced relief letdowns fresh in the fanbase’s recent consciousness, Brewers fans were left to pray “Mr.Smith Goes To Milwaukee” would have an unexpectedly positive plot. Beyond rave reviews from Brewers GM Doug Melvin, the only means of promise was the concept of time. Amidst speculation that Smith got in one little fight and Kansas City got scared, reluctant True Blue Brew Crew supporters tried to stay hopeful, peppering terms like “someday,” “high ceiling,” and “if he can get it together” in reference to the 24-year-old who will reach free agency in six seasons. Turns out, we didn’t need to wait long for Smith to Hitch to a meaningful role in Milwaukee’s bullpen. Exactly a third into his first season in a Brewers uniform, Smith has been incredible; the vast majority of us look like morons, and we couldn’t be happier.
Hitters just don’t understand
At the 54-game point of the year, Smith has an unthinkably low 0.36 ERA through 28 appearances (25.1 innings). Over that time, the southpaw has held opponents to a .200 batting average, whilst giving up only three runs (one earned) and fanning 36 batters. In addition to his lone save, the middle reliever is the Brewers outright leader in holds (which essentially means coming into the game with the lead during a non-save situation and preserving it) with 12. That holds tally is also tied for tops in the National League and second most in all of baseball. The only somewhat disappointing stat is Smith’s 11 walks, though oftentimes entering the game in high-leverage situations with runners on base surely finds him pitching around hitters on occasion. Sure, the former starting pitcher logged nearly 100 more innings in a Royals uniform than he has with the Brewers so far, but it’s tough to discount the vast differential in his Royals-to-Brewers totals in runs (70 to three), earned runs (65 to one), and home runs allowed (18 to none). People in the know are starting to declare Smith a deserving All-Star Game candidate, and with good reason.
Aside from getting Ryan Braun back from suspension, one of the main reasons Aoki was even traded is because the play of 26-year-old outfielder Khris Davis made the aging outfielder expendable. In Braun’s absence late last season, Davis managed 11 homers and showed flashes of (now realized) defensive prowess over 56 games. Now free to play regularly, the everyday left fielder has picked up where he left off. He’s played in all but six games this season, has nine more longballs, 21 RBI, and has climbed into the top five of almost every major Brewers offensive category during his ongoing hot streak. The team is giving its outfielder of the future some playing time in the present, and he’s starting to come through. Also, Davis and Smith—who are both under team control through 2019—have a combined 2014 salary just over $1M, slightly more than half of what Aoki is earning in his final season under contract.
The slap-swinging and charismatic Aoki will always have a soft spot in Milwaukee’s heart. However, it appears the Brewers picked the right time to cut ties with the once-impressive import. At 32 and with a growing scouting report on his tendencies at the plate in the Majors, his best days could be behind him. Aoki’s 54 hits, .265 AVG, and goose egg in the home run department make him just one of many under-performing employees of the 25-28 (third place) Royals. At 32-22 meanwhile, Milwaukee leads its division and has the second best record in the National League. Smith helping to finally usher in some bullpen stability is partially to thank for the unexpectedly hot Brewers start.
Sure, we’re only a third into the season, but it’s safe to say that based on present performance and future promise, Milwaukee has already gotten the better end of the trade. And even if the pitching phenom falters and becomes Enemy Of The State of Wisconsin, we’ll always have those sweet, sweet Will Smith jokes.