Lee Smith and the Maikel Cleto Upside

This originally started out as another Player A vs Player B piece, but thought I might go a different route and get right to the point.  Maikel Cleto reminds me a lot of a young Lee Smith.

Calm down.  I’m not talking about the Hall of Fame hopeful who terrorized hitters in both leagues for more than a decade (Smith had a brilliant 18 year career).  At the same time, there is something eerily similar about the two, if you will just take the time to look.   It starts in 1975.

Here are some snippets from Smith and Cleto’s minor league stats, courtesy of baseball-reference.com.

Here is one of the two ….

Age Level ERA H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
19 A 4.29 9.1 5.9 5.7 0.96
20 AA 5.98 9.3 7.4 4.1 0.55
21 AA 4.93 10.6 7.4 4.0 0.54
22 AAA 3.79 7.0 5.6 6.3 1.13

And here’s the other.

Age Level ERA H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
19 A 4.25 9.3 2.3 5.4 2.28
20 A 5.33 12.4 3.9 8.5 2.18
21 A+ 6.16 11.0 3.9 7.3 1.89
22 AAA 4.29 7.2 5.4 8.3 1.53

Neither of these really look like the beginnings of a long and distinguished career, do they ?  Yet, one of them is, and the other could be.    Of the two, the second set is Lee Smith, right  ? Maybe more to the point, we all know of Maikel Cleto’s control problems, so he has to be the first one.

A clue.  No.

Eerily similarity number 1: Both pitchers began their careers as starters.  Cleto was moved around much more often than Smith, but in both cases, the bulk of the data comes from their time in the minor leagues where they struggled as starters.

For Smith, the turning point in his career happened in 1979 while he was pitching for the Midland Cubs, the AA affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.  They moved the big right hander into the bullpen, where he could turn into a max effort pitcher, hopefully capitalizing on that 90+ mph fastball.

A similar move was made in Memphis this year, and the results are even more striking than with Smith.

Age Level ERA H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
23 AAA 3.94 6.9 2.5 11.5 4.56

Any questions why Cleto is with the big club right now ?  Cleto’s AAA numbers are from 27 appearances and 32 innings, so represent about half of a season.   In other words, not enough to draw a complete picture of his progress, but enough that they can’t be ignored.

Eerily similarity number 2: They could be twins.   Right down to the last detail.

Lee Smith is listed at 6ft 5in and 220 lb where Cleto is 6ft 3in and 235 lb.  They both are imposing figures when standing on the mound, especially when the hitter knows that they can unleash violent heat with every pitch.

Lee “The Big Man” Smith

Maikel Cleto throwing a changeup

It is more than just body type, and this was where Cleto first made me think of Smith.  Both pitchers have big hands.  The baseball looks small when tucked away in those giant mitts.  For Smith, that physical feature turned out to be the key to his success.   Where a lot of pitchers in his era were following Bruce Sutter and learning the split fingered fastball, Smith took advantage of his size and went completely old school and learned the forkball.   Yes, the Roy Face, jam the ball way down between your first two fingers and throw it like a fastball.   That decision not only gave Lee Smith a world class out pitch, but it probably prevented the kind of elbow troubles that plagued other pitchers of his era.   If Cleto can develop anything close to Smith’s second pitch, he could be equally as devastating on the mound.

There are more little parts to this physical similarity.   It always seemed as if you had just awakened Lee Smith, and he lumbered into the game as if he was sleepwalking.   It is not as pronounced, but Cleto also has a bit of that strolling into the game persona.

Once on the mound, Lee Smith looked somewhere between bored and completely fatigued.  This was all part of an act of deception as his minimalistic windup or stretch motion gave the hitter little in which to get their timing down.   A deep breath, just an essance of a motion, and then the ball is on you, either high heat (often described as a rising fastball) or the nasty off speed tumbler of the forkball.

With Cleto, the only difference is pitch selection.  Cleto throws with higher velocity, but Lee Smith had a better slider at this point in his career.  It should be noted that Cleto’s secondary pitches are significantly better this year, perhaps accounting for improvement in both his control and hits allowed.

Is the future bright enough – should I wear shades ?


For Smith, the start to his major league career didn’t exactly signal future major league save leader.  Smith first saw action in the major leagues as a September callup in 1980.  He would see quite a bit of activity as a setup man to Bruce Sutter.  When Sutter left the Cubs for the Cardinals, the northsiders searched for their next closer, and it would take the almost two seasons to settle in on Smith for the role.

In his first three seasons as closer, Smith was used in the same way that the Cubs used his predecessor, Bruce Sutter.   He would come into the game in the middle of an inning, generally with runners on base.  He was expected to pitch out of the jam *AND* finish the game.  As a result, he totaled over 100 innings for each of those three years.

After that, the role of the closer started changing, albeit rather slowly.   By the end of his time in Chicago, he was down to about 1 1/2 innings per appearance, and that ratio would drop even more in Boston and St. Louis.  Under Joe Torre, Smith became the archetype of what we see today – the 9th inning guy when you have a lead.    As a result, his save totals jumped through the roof.  Smith would record 40 or more saves  for three consecutive seasons while in St. Louis (1991 – 1993) and lead the league again in 1994 with Baltimore (33).

When the Big Man finally hung up his glove and spikes after 18 seasons, his career numbers are impressive.   He posted a career ERA of 3.03 (good for the era) with 475 saves (a major league record).  He would average just under one strikeout per inning and a nice K/BB ratio over 2.5.  Not too shabby for a pitcher that had some serious control issues.

Whether any of this applies to Maikel Cleto remains to be seen.   At this point, all we know is they both share a similar path to the big leagues.  Perhaps we are watching the development of the league’s next elite closer, or something entirely different.  The next few years should be very interesting.

This entry was posted in 2011 Season, General History, Unforgotten Cardinals and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Lee Smith and the Maikel Cleto Upside

  1. Steve Wade says:

    Love the thought of what could be. On top of that, love the website. I stumbled across it about a week ago and have spent hours going through it!


  2. Thanks, Steve. Appreciate the comment.

    I agree, thinking of what Cleto might become is fascinating. Cardinals fans need to remember that we saw him after a decade in the league and he was already an established closer. I remember watching him in those early days in Chicago, just like Cleto is right now.

    It’s a fun speculation.


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