First: Yes, there are actual human beings named Joe Smith. Just as there are actual Dick Smiths and Bill Smiths and Bob Smiths and Dave Smiths. Once there was even a Dave Smith who performed relief-pitching duties!
There have actually been two Joe Smiths in the major leagues. Granted, one was just briefly in the major leagues, all the way back in '13, and he was a catcher. But he was a Joe Smith. So the next time you want to study up on THE Joe Smith, you can save some time at Baseball-Reference.com and search for the Joe Smith. And that will take you right to him.
And you might want to study up today, since the Joe Smith is moving to Southern California, and making pretty good money for a set-up man who doesn't throw super-fast. But at least he's got some pretty numbers:
Joe Smith is the only pitcher in the majors to have an ERA under 3.00 in at least 70 games each of the past 3 years. #Angels— Jeff Fletcher (@JeffFletcherOCR) November 24, 2013
That is a perfect example of trivia: fun to know, but hardly necessary. Because those numbers don't tell us a great deal about how good the actual Joe Smith actually is. We might reasonably assume that he's a good relief pitcher, but we probably shouldn't assume that he's great.
Which he isn't, actually.
He is good, though. It's funny: In his first four seasons, his ERA was always higher than 3 and lower than 4, but since then it's been lower than 3. Part of this is just dumb luck, but he really has become a better pitcher since those first four seasons. In his first four seasons, Smith's strikeout-to-walk ratio was 1.8 to 1; since then it's 2.2. Okay, not a huge improvement. Especially considering strikeouts are up all over (thanks, wild hitters and generous umpires!). He's also made a small improvement in his rate of home runs allowed; so small, in fact, that it might not mean much.
In fact, it probably doesn't mean anything at all. It seems that for a while Smith was unlucky on fly balls, and then got lucky. He's a sinker-ball pitcher, which means he's going to be stingy with home runs anyway. And when the fly balls are infrequent, it takes hardly any luck at all to make the rate fluctuate in semi-dramatic ways. But if anything, Smith has become slightly less of a ground-ball pitcher in recent seasons, so please don't say he's given up few home runs because he's an extreme ground-ball guy. Because he's not.
So what's the deal with his sub-3.00 ERAs? Over the last three seasons, 308 pitchers have totaled at least 150 innings. With a .263 batting average allowed on balls in play, Smith ranks 36th. That's not crazy ... but in the previous four seasons, he'd given up a .285 BABiP. Which is more in line with what we might expect.
All of which is just a long-winded way of suggesting that Smith used to be an okay pitcher, then became a good pitcher ... but probably not as good as his ERAs suggest.
Is he worth $5 million per season? On paper, he's not. Right-handed relief pitchers who are especially tough on right-handed hitters and post ERAs in the low-to-mid 3's -- which is what we should expect from Smith in future -- are freely available to general managers willing to work hard or convert failing (or surplus) starting pitchers. Just look at either of Missouri's baseball teams.
On the other hand, the Angels seem to have more money than they can spend, and a pitcher like The Joe Smith is a nice security blanket for a manager. Just think of him as Mike Scioscia's $5-million woobie.*
* Please consider this your reward for reading more than 600 words about Joe Smith.