Kevin Smith’s Triple-A season is one of the best stories going in the Blue Jays’ minor-league system.
It didn’t happen out of thin air.
The last time the 25-year-old utilityman played a full season, with the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats in 2019, Smith produced a subpar .209/.263/.402 slashline. Those struggles at the plate were born out of a misdirected attempt to improve.
After batting .302 in 2018 and finishing the year ranked No. 6 in the system, Smith and the Jays agreed his numbers might continue to improve if he worked on hitting more pitches up in the zone. So he tweaked his swing, attempting to flatten it out.
“It kind of got me away from hitting mistakes, and hitting balls lower in the zone that I usually barrel up,” Smith said this past week. “The combination of now swinging at higher pitches — because I was trying to prove I could hit ’em — with missing pitches that I usually hit, it ended up being not a great season.”
Smith abandoned the approach late in 2019 and said he started to feel comfortable again. Losing the 2020 minor-league season because of the pandemic was tough to swallow, but he considers the work he did instead at Toronto’s alternate site “huge” for his development.
Smith leads the Buffalo Bisons with 12 home runs, 40 RBIs and a .917 OPS, and Jays general manager Ross Atkins has dropped his name as a big-league option on more than one occasion. The GM also mentioned that Smith’s progress made it easier to trade utility infielder Joe Panik to the Miami Marlins for pitching help.
“Now you’re seeing the byproduct of getting back to who I was in 2018, and who I’ve been most of my career — except for a few months in 2019. So it’s exciting to see some of that work paying off,” Smith said.
While he may be getting back to his old self at the plate, Smith is a different player mentally than he was a few years ago, more confident in the basics of his game. Trial and error, like in 2019, is inevitable. Baseball is a game of adjustments. But now he understands the foundation that works for him, a baseline he can return to as he strives to improve.
“You need to do that to know, ‘Hey, can I get better here? Will this work for me?’ And when it doesn’t, just have the maturity to say, ‘No, it’s not going to work’ and get back closer to your centre,” he said.
Smith is also open to new things in the field. When he was drafted in the fourth round by the Jays in 2017, he played shortstop exclusively. In recent seasons, he saw time at second and third base. This year, he has had reps in left field for the first time, and expects to play first base at some point.
“It’s been fun, just seeing the game from a different perspective,” said Smith, who sees elite defence at multiple positions as his ticket to regular playing time.
“I think a lot of guys have dreams of getting to the big leagues, but for me, when I get up there, I want to stick there and help the team win a World Series. I’m always working toward that goal, knowing whenever the time comes it’ll happen when it’s supposed to.”
DOWN THE PIPE
The Blue Jays’ prospect pipeline is among the best in baseball. Here’s a look at one player at each level who excelled over the past week.
Zeuch has logged 49 big-league innings but he’s still a prospect, ranked 26th in the system. After a rocky start to the minor-league season, his 3.81 ERA is second-best among qualified starters in the Triple-A Northeast and he has surrendered just 12 walks.
New Hampshire Fisher Cats
The Jays’ No. 11 prospect had another good week at the plate, going 7-for-22 with a home run, picking up some of the slack on offence without injured catcher Gabriel Moreno (thumb).
Sebastian Espino, SS
Espino went 9-for-30 with four RBIs last week for the slumping Canadians, and led the club with a .314 average and .496 slugging percentage as of Saturday.
P.K. Morris, 1B
Dunedin Blue Jays
The 14th-round pick from the 2017 draft is hitting .316 in July after averaging .254 in June. He went 6-for-18 last week with two home runs and four RBIs.