Leader. Consistent. Anchor. Happy-go-lucky. Hard-working. These are the words teammates use to describe Giants closer Will Smith.
He’s the kind of guy who couldn’t help but erupt in peals of laughter last month —unwritten rules be damned — as he stood beaming on first base with a grin splitting his face after swatting a two-run single in his first at-bat since he was in college over a decade ago.
The kind of guy who set a goal of 30 saves for himself in 2019. Then decided to raise the bar by 10 after he hit his original target with a month to spare, ultimately notching 34 saves with six wins and a 2.76 ERA in his first full season as a closer.
The kind of guy who rallied his bullpen mates to vote on a tongue-in-cheek warmup song for August call-up and submarine-style relief pitcher Tyler Rogers. The corps ultimately selecting the very apt Beatles tune “Yellow Submarine” over Men At Work’s “Down Under.”
The kind of guy who struck out 96 batters in 65-1/3 innings and gave up just 10 homers in a season that will go down in history as the year of the juiced ball.
The kind of guy who will shamelessly put his favorite sugar-free Double Bubble gum back in his mouth after it falls into the dirt:
“When it’s the ninth inning and I’m warming up, I’ll take my two pieces — I have them under my glove the whole game — and I go out there and do my thing. Sometimes it falls out of my mouth and I gotta pick it up and put it back in. [Bullpen Coach Matt] Herges has seen it — I threw a warmup pitch and it fell out of my mouth and I had to pick it up and keep chewing. It was all sandy and grainy and stuff but I gotta have it, I guess that’s my thing.”
But playfulness was not always a part of the southpaw from Newnan, Georgia’s baseball persona. It was the perspective gained from 13 months away from the game that allowed him to find a balance between discipline and fun that’s been a recipe for success in presiding over one of the best bullpens in the majors for much of 2019.
Veteran reliever Tony Watson said Smith’s personality and work ethic were major factors in the bullpen’s success:
“The closer always kind of takes on the so-called leadership role just because he’s the back-end guy and he’s getting the last three outs, but Smitty gets along with everybody so well down there. The bullpen transformation from Opening Day til now is full-circle but he remains steady, and I think that’s why he’s so good.”
A tantalizing trade chip the Giants opted not to play at the deadline, not only did Smith have an incredible year, but over the span of less than a week this July he turned 30, appeared in his first All-Star Game and got engaged to his girlfriend of nearly five years.
But through it all, not to mention the trades of three major bullpen pieces and the season-ending injuries of several more, manager Bruce Bochy said Smith has maintained a calm equilibrium and a steadying force for the team on and off the field:
“The leadership he provided in just helping us keep the bullpen in order, roles defined and just keeping a great attitude and wanting to be the best bullpen in baseball — I think it’s fair to say that starts with Will.”
Bochy said Smith’s contributions go far beyond his stellar performance on the field. He’s provided mentorship, guidance and a welcoming environment for a succession of call-ups, all the while maintaining a carefully balanced culture of work ethic and light-heartedness.
Bullpenner Trevor Gott said that he is among those who have benefited from Smith’s mentorship and the mellower culture he’s fostered in the bullpen:
“I’ve been in some bullpens where it’s the opposite, and I feel like in the relaxing environment when new guys come up they feel welcome. I think personally for me, that kind of attitude in the bullpen is beneficial.”
The Giants first acquired Smith from the Brewers at the 2016 trade deadline for catcher Andrew Susac and pitching prospect Phil Bickford in an effort to plug a leaky bullpen. A bullpen that would ultimately represent San Francisco’s Achilles heel in their postseason push that year. Nevertheless, it was a deal that then-general manager Bobby Evans most certainly got the better return on, though he wouldn’t be around to enjoy the dividends.
At the time, Smith was a setup man coming off a knee injury sustained prying off one of his cleats after a Spring Training game. He’d missed the first two months of Milwaukee’s season and, since returning June 2, had posted a 3.68 ERA in 22 innings. But with the Giants he found his mojo and provided dominant relief, striking out 26 over 18-1/3 with a 2.95 ERA.
He was one of five relievers who combined to a blow a three-run ninth-inning lead in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Cubs, ultimately dashing the Giants hopes of a fourth World Series Championship in seven years. A Brandon Crawford error compounded the nightmare inning and Smith got the official loss.
But the addition of insult to injury for Smith — or rather, the injury to insult — was the gut-wrenching decision to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair his left ulnar collateral ligament after developing elbow inflammation just two outings into the 2017 Cactus League.
Smith said when he realized he needed Tommy John surgery, one of the first things he asked head trainer Dave Groeschner was if he could remain with the team during his rehab. He preferred that over going to the Giants complex in Arizona, where players working their way back from Tommy John or other long rehabs typically stay. And he was extremely grateful when the organization granted his request because being around his teammates was extremely important to him.
Staying in touch with his brothers-in-arms, including teammates who had already been through Tommy John, on a day-to-day basis offered an important comfort and outlet during a difficult time. Among those who had a major impact on his recovery was Buster Posey, whom he said offered a view of the light at the end of the tunnel:
“The day I found out I needed to have Tommy John I was in Groesch’s office feeling sorry for myself and Buster came up to me and he’s like, ‘Your responsibility to the team now is to get better.’ and I took it seriously. That was a big, big moment.”
From there, he embarked on a 13 month-long rehab process in April 2017 that has changed the way he sees the game.
Giants fans might be surprised to know that Smith used to be the kind of guy who didn’t smile out on the mound. He said he also took failure personally and often wore it like a dark cloud long after the last out was recorded.
“I used to take it home, too, which was no good. I’d be just a quiet asshole. … You wanna win, you wanna do well, you don’t wanna let the guys down, so when it doesn’t go your way it stings. It hurts.”
The irony of the visage of Smith as an intense and even angry guy out on the mound is that the opening he seized in earning the closer role last season came when the fiery, former-Giants closer Hunter Strickland fractured his hand punching a door after a blown save late last June.
It’s an image that’s hard to square with the towering, fair-haired, bright-eyed lefty regularly pictured in an expression of pure joy. Often baring a precariously perched wad of pink Double Bubble in his cheek as he fist pumps and cheers defensive plays behind him in the ninth.
Posey certainly was astonished to learn of Smith’s alter-ego:
“It’s interesting to hear that he hasn’t always been a guy who’s been able to relax [because] since he’s been here, he’s been pretty good about having a very good perspective. … He’s probably been the best guy I’ve ever been around in the closer role that can go out to a game and give up a run but [when] we still win [he can] still be genuinely excited after the game.”
But his fiancée Taylor Dunagan, 26, was around before Smith figured out how to balance discipline with an even-keeled approach.
The couple first met at Smith’s friend’s annual Christmas sweater party in 2014 back in Georgia, and Smith said they were quickly drawn to one another:
“We just hit it off at some point that night and we just kind of talked all night and hung out. And then we hung out the next day and the next day and the next day.”
Dunagan grew up watching NASCAR with her dad, so baseball, with its vast array of rules and complexities, written or otherwise, opened up a whole new world to her. She said she still asks Smith questions from time-to-time almost five years in.
One thing she picked up right away, though, was the superstition shot through the sport:
“I do this thing where, if it gets intense, I close my ears and I look down the minute he throws the pitch. Sometimes I swear I feel like it’s a strike every time I do that, so it’s like a superstition I have now and it’s the weirdest thing. I know I probably look crazy in the stands doing it but I definitely still get nervous. I wish I didn’t, but I think that’s always going to be a thing.”
Their relationship was long-distance for the first few years while Dunagan finished her degree in psychology at the University of West Georgia. Back then, especially after Smith was traded to San Francisco, a three-hour time difference, plus Dunagan’s school and work commitments limited the time they had to communicate. And she said Smith’s performance on the field often created an additional wedge:
“We would talk maybe about once a day, and by the time the game was over I was asleep, it would be like two or three in the morning our time. Sometimes he would get in those moods if the game didn’t go his way and he wouldn’t want to talk. And I was like, ‘OK, well, we don’t really get to talk often, so I guess if you’re going to be like that, I’m just going to go to sleep.”
But things changed for Smith after Tommy John, and somewhere along his journey back to the mound, he said he rediscovered the importance of fun. An entire season on the bench gave him a lot of time to think, and he realized he had been taking for granted the privilege of playing a kid’s game for a living:
“I just had so much more appreciation for being able to play. We started playing this game when we were little kids because it was fun. I’m sure we smiled and goofed off on the field when we were little kids. Yeah, it’s at the highest level but I think you can still have a little bit of that inside of you.”
Gott said he, too, has struggled to get a handle on what can feel like a roller-coaster life in professional baseball at times. So not only has the bullpen culture fostered by Smith been helpful for Gott, but the advice he’s provided has been major:
“I’ve learned a lot, not just baseball-wise, but how to go about your business every day. He brings the same attitude to the field whether he doesn’t pitch how he thinks he should or if he pitches really well — you get the same Will Smith. I think that’s been big for me because I used to get really pissed off, a really high, really low type of guy, and just to see how he goes about all that stuff, I think that’s really helped me this year.”
Smith said the time on the bench during rehab also made him mentally stronger and altered the way he thinks about baseball in a way that has provided important perspective for him on the mound:
“I’d be sitting on the bench knowing I’m not playing, and it’d be first and second, one out in the seventh inning — it could seem like a pain but it’s really not. If you could slow it down just a little bit more, you’re just a ground ball away from getting out of this thing. It taught me how to just really slow the game down. It sucks sitting out a year, but you can learn a ton of stuff from that.”
By the time Smith was rehabbing from surgery in 2017, Dunagan had finally finished her degree and moved to San Francisco to be with him. He said her support along with that of his teammates and the Giants training staff was imperative to his successful recovery.
But Dunagan said it was Smith’s drive to claw his way back to baseball that got him where he is:
“I don’t think he ever thought of giving up. … He had the support but he really did the grind himself. He worked for it. He wanted it.”
Those around him saw his fight to return to the field as exceptionally inspirational and after a comeback campaign that exceeded many expectations, he was presented with the 2018 Willie Mac Award as voted on by his teammates, coaches and training staff.
Along with all the work Smith put into getting his body back in shape after surgery, he decided he needed a hobby to fill his time and occupy his mind. So, he decided to pick up the guitar, a hobby he continues to practice today, even bringing the instrument on road trips:
“It was challenging. Since I couldn’t play baseball I was looking for something to do that was hard I guess, and that was really, really hard. It was fun, I enjoyed it and I fell in love with it.”
He doesn’t have aspirations of Barry Zito proportions, far from it. He said he just hopes to get good enough to be what he calls “the campfire guy,” because many of the gatherings among his family and friends are centered around bonfires.
But Smith insists he’s not very good yet and he’s extremely loath to perform in front of others. Dunagan said he even refused to play in front of her for nearly two years:
“We have a basement at home, it’s kind of like his man cave, and he would only play down there. He never knew that I could still hear him, but I tried to pretend like I didn’t. He used to get so shy, even when he would take it on the road in hotel rooms, I would walk in and he would stop playing and put it up.”
Dunagan said he finally began allowing her to listen to him play the small repertoire of country songs he’s learned outside of his “man cave” recently. But when asked about it, Smith humbly insists he’s still only learning the basics.
“I literally practice, that’s really it. I can play like G, C and D and I play quietly in my room.”
Like with his recovery from surgery, though, Dunagan is always in his ear offering encouragement with his music, and with the couple’s July engagement, that kind of support promises to be a long-term thing.
The Giants had the rarest of baseball holidays this season, an off-day on July 4, and Smith made the most of the opportunity. He rented out a boat, the Commodore Hornblower, for the purpose of watching the fireworks from waters just a few minutes out from Oracle Park. Or at least that’s what he told Dunagan they were doing.
He brought along the Giants team photographer Andy Kuno, explaining his presence away to Dunagan as part of a team profile on how players were spending their holiday off. And as the two boarded the 74-foot yacht, Dunagan quickly realized that apart from her, Smith, Kuno and the crew, the vessel, big enough to entertain as many as 100 guests, was basically a ghost ship. Admittedly, she said, she thought it was a little weird, but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth:
“I can’t even remember the last time they’ve gotten Fourth of July off, so I really went with it all. The whole time I’m thinking Andy’s taking pictures to post an article or something but then after we ate, we went outside to see the fireworks and I turned around and Will was on one knee.”
The two plan to marry Nov. 14, 2020.
Five days after the proposal, on the eve of his 30th birthday, Smith took the ball for the National League with two outs in the seventh inning of the All-Star Game in Cleveland. He allowed a solo shot to Joey Gallo before coaxing Francisco Lindor to ground out to third to end the inning.
As Smith closes the book on the best year of his career, free agency looms large this offseason.
He’s spent the last two months enjoying what was a brief lull in the rampant rumors and endless media questions about his future, which reached a fever pitch at the July 31 trade deadline. But there are big decisions on the horizon.
In three years in San Francisco, Smith has developed close relationships with his teammates and others within the Giants organization. He and Dunagan have come to love the eclectic Bay Area and their home in Lafayette that Dunagan said reminds them of home back in Georgia. And Dunagan has forged strong bonds with the partners of other Giants players:
“All the wives are so sweet, it’s just like a little family. You’re away from home and family and friends for so long and you kind of bond with the girls who are living the same kind of life. They understand the baseball part of life when sometimes your own friends and family don’t, so it’s really nice to have them because they do relate to you in a way that others can’t.”
No matter how you slice it, Smith has been an extremely valuable player to the Giants, but it remains to be seen whether he fits into the club’s immediate plans and rather tenuous “competitive cycle.”
He put up the kind of walk-year players dream of, particularly considering the recent trends in the free-agent market that seem to indicate most teams now view many free agents over the age of 29 with a cynical eye. He has likely immunized himself against much of that suspicion and there’s no doubt there will be more than a few bidders for his services.
And though Smith hasn’t explicitly made any statement of intent one way or another, Dunagan expressed some ambivalence, noting that given her druthers, proximity to home would certainly be a quality of life consideration:
“Obviously, ideally I want to be on the East Coast to be closer to family and friends because it is such a strain with the time difference. But I love the Giants. I’ve built relationships with the girls and the families here, so we would love to be back. But I always tell him, ‘Wherever you need to go for your job, that’s where we go, there’s no ifs, ands or buts.’ He’s blessed to be able to do this.”
But there’s no doubt he’s enjoyed his time in San Francisco and it doesn’t sound like he’s explicitly ruled out signing on to stay, either:
“It’s been amazing playing for these guys, playing for Boch and the fans. You look around the clubhouse to see the names on the lockers — there’s some future Hall of Famers sitting here, I think. So it’s nice just to battle with those guys every day.”