Angels Prospect Ryan Smith Is Hungry for Success

© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Smith is a left-handed pitching prospect in the Los Angeles Angels system. Taken in the 18th round of the 2019 draft as a senior out of Princeton University, he is, and always has been, an intellectual player. In fact, he spends time in the offseason tutoring high schoolers preparing for the SAT, a rather unorthodox job for a minor league player. After a 25.1-inning rookie ball debut his draft year, he lost out on a key developmental season due to the pandemic but came prepared for the 2021 season with increased velocity and a hunger to perform.

That year, Smith threw 129.1 innings across four different levels. A workload like that in your first full professional season is extremely uncommon. Indeed, coming off the lost 2020 campaign, many pitchers decreased their workloads. For that reason, Smith has had a unique path. His performance was good enough to rise all the way up to Triple-A in his first full season, but his adjustment to the Pacific Coast League has been a work in progress. I spoke to him about that adjustment, its impact on his game, and his repertoire earlier this month.

Esteban Rivera: What does your pitch mix look like right now, and how has it changed since rookie ball?

Ryan Smith: “I throw a four-seamer with slightly above-average vertical break, but the velo range has been all over the place in pro ball. In rookie ball, the average was around 92 with a couple of outings in the 95-96 range. 2021 it was up to 97-98 in spring, but mostly sat 92-95 the first couple of months, then dropped down to 91-94 in the second half. This past year, my carry was down a bit playing mostly at high altitude, and my velo was 91-93. I’m hoping for it to come back after a velo program I’m on for the winter. I think it was down after the high workload in 2021 after no innings in 2020.”

Rivera: You’re not a super big athlete and your arms are average in terms of length. What do you think that does for your mechanics? In theory, a pitcher like you, with above-average vertical break and shorter arms, might be able to use the four-seamer up in the zone for whiffs if you can get decent extension at a low release point. Does that track for you at all?

Smith: “Yeah, I’m on the smaller size and have a lower release point compared to the average pitcher with my carry and velo. I think it’s definitely helped with Vertical Approach Angle (VAA), which is kinda one of the new big things they seem to be looking at for fastball profile because that can make vertical break play up more. So yes, they definitely want me pitching up in the zone. I have better numbers in terms of whiff rate, chase rate, expected stats, etc. when pitching up in the zone, especially at sea level where my vertical break creeps back up.”

Rivera: That last point is very interesting. It must have been an adjustment dealing with that for the first time.

Smith: “Yeah. And on top of that, that ABS system changed the way a pitcher like me, who has always been told to pitch up in the zone, could approach hitters. It took away the top of the zone a bit, so some of us who pitch up there were stuck trying to figure something out. Some of us turned to throwing sinkers as the year went on. I’m looking into developing one for next season, too.”

Rivera: That adjustment can be tough without a lot of time.

Smith: “Yes, definitely. Everyone was adjusting midseason. Guys would throw off a mound like every day trying to figure stuff out.”

Rivera: Did you try throwing more breaking balls because of it?

Smith: “Yes, I definitely was throwing a ton of more breaking balls. Part of that was because my velo was down too, but without the top of the zone, everyone kinda went breaking-ball heavy.”

Rivera: What’s in the throwing program you mentioned that you think might help you recover some of that velo? Is there a specific part of your mechanics you and your coaches are looking to target?

Smith: “The program I’m doing is pretty much a weighted ball program with an emphasis on pull downs and moving fast. I did a similar program in 2020 and was throwing hard in 2021, so I’m hoping it’ll get me back to that. It’s not really mechanically focused, more so about moving fast and throwing hard. I definitely have some unique lower half mechanics and they haven’t really tried to coach that out of me, which is nice.”

Rivera: Yeah that’s the nice thing about weighted ball programs. If you’re doing it correctly, the mechanics can take care of themselves, rather than you needing to internally cue certain parts on a mound and such. But I want to pivot to your slider. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Smith: “The slider is my best pitch and the one the org likes the most. It’s a sweeper that gets high teens in horizontal break and is best when it has slightly positive vertical break and I’m throwing it in the high 70s to low 80s. Its movement profile wasn’t as good as usual in the PCL this year with the high altitude, so I changed the grip a bit to try and get more depth, and I ended up throwing it a little harder.”

Rivera: Would you mind showing readers your pitch grip and walk them through what you’re feeling when you throw it?

Smith: “It’s a super weird grip. No seams with the index or middle finger. I’m trying to spin it around my index finger with heavy pressure on the middle finger and big seam pull with my thumb. I try to make the move with a wrist turn at release. It’s hard to describe, but when a sweeper is good, you can kinda notice how it catches that seam shift mid-flight and takes off horizontally. Each day it has a slightly different feel out of the hand movement-wise. I remember an outing at Round Rock this year where it was super humid and the ball felt like I could make it move from behind a lefty to behind a righty, so I had to adjust my target/sights. Other days, it doesn’t feel as sweepy and I change my target the other way.”

Rivera: Would you say you’re more open to analytical info than most?

Smith: “I’d say generally yes, but you’d be surprised at how many guys are open to it. In Triple-A this year, we had a group who was super locked into the data side of things.”

Rivera: What does being locked into it look like during the course of the season?

Smith: “We have a game planning strategist who sets up the Trackman, Rapsodo, and Edgertronic for bullpens post throwing program. Some guys wait their turn in line to throw on that mound every day or every other day, and some hop on the mound with no tech. We also get our reports after every outing and will dive pretty deep into those.”

Rivera: So you’re basically always processing and learning from all the information you get?

Smith: “Yeah, and one of the guys made a makeshift ruler/measuring thing to mimic the new ABS zone while we were throwing so we knew where the catcher would need to be to catch each pitch.”

Rivera: To wrap things up, do you want to share your goals for the season?

Ryan Smith: “This may sound simple or cliché, but I stunk last year after a great season in 2021, so I’ve learned that stats and expectations are somewhat out of my control. So I want to focus on having fun. I don’t know when my last day playing will be and even though it’s a grind, it’s a pretty cool job to have.

“That said, this is what I have in mind. Make the big leagues. That is pretty much the main reason everyone is playing for, so it’s self explanatory. Throw 100. It’s unlikely, but if you told college me I’d touch 98 at any point I would’ve been shocked, so who knows. Strike out every batter I face. Obviously impossible, but whenever I used to try and stay motivated in college playing at a small school and seeing other guys at bigger schools getting chances I didn’t, or even during rough patches throughout pro ball, I told myself that thankfully I’ll get a chance to face every hitter at some point. If I strike every one of them out for the rest of my life, I’ll be a big leaguer, All-Star, or even a Hall of Famer. Obviously, the odds are slim, but I just try to believe deep down that as long as I get another outing and can strike out every guy I face in that outing, I’ll keep getting chances to do it.”

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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1 year ago

He’s welcome to the Cubs in the (hopefully near Future) Ohtani trade