In Baseball America’s 2018 Prospect Handbook, 21-year-old Kevin Smith is described as having “a high dose of swing-and-miss… with an uphill swing path that helps him lift the ball but also leaves him with holes pitchers can exploit.” Our own Kiley McDaniel echoed that opinion, writing that Toronto’s 2017 fourth-round pick “has a big swing, raw power, and a glove that can stick at short, but a questionable approach.”
Six weeks into his first full professional season, the University of Maryland product has cast aside those red flags and — thanks to some notable adjustments — turned himself into a blue-chip prospect. He’s currently making mincemeat out of Midwest League pitching. In 146 plate appearances with the Lansing Lugnuts, Smith is slashing a scintillating .387/.430/.664, with 19 doubles, a pair of triples, and five home runs.
Smith discussed his game-changing adjustments, and his analytical approach to the game, this past weekend.
Smith on the Kiley McDaniel and Baseball America quotes: “I think they were [mostly accurate]. After evaluating myself following last season, I knew that I needed to change some things up. My swing plane was kind of a mess. This offseason, I worked on some things to flatten out and be in the zone a little longer, but without losing any of the power I had last year.
“There’s that optimal swing plane where your barrel is in the pitch plane for the most amount of time and gives you the most margin for error. If you’re going to be steep to the ball and down through it, then yeah, obviously getting more lift, or thinking ‘swing up’ will help you. But if you’re the opposite, where I was… I was swinging too far up. I was too much up to where I had a lot of swing and miss, or would hit a lot of pop ups.
“I had a great year on the Cape a few years ago, but I’m always working to get better, and last year, my junior year, I tried some things to get more power and ended up doing a few things I didn’t think I was doing. It wasn’t anything crazy, but over time my swing just got a little messed up.
“Baseball is a game of adjustments. You have to be able to dissect your swing — you have to recognize where you are — and be mature enough to say, ‘Hey, this is what I need to do to get back on track.’ I had to do a reality check and ask myself, ‘Where do I want to go?’”
On making the adjustments: “A lot of guys in the Blue Jays organization have helped me get back on that path a little bit. Working with G [Guillermo Martinez], our hitting coordinator, and here with [Lugnuts hitting coach] Matt Young has helped me tremendously. It’s been fun kind of picking myself apart and seeing where I can get better.
“I went down to [the Blue Jays spring training facility] in January and worked on things. I’d already known when I went to instructs that I wanted to change a few things, and the Blue Jays kind of knew where I had to go, but there wasn’t a great deal of conversation there. We didn’t have a hitting coordinator — G actually came [to the organization] this year — but there was some talk about where I needed to get to if I wanted to get to the next level. But again, I already knew that. I’m a really good self-evaluator. Actually, I probably do it too much.
“A lot of the work has been with G, and he talks about getting your body in the right position to hit. He simplifies it down to, ‘If you can get your body in a position where you can hit more pitches effectively, then you’re going to hit better.’ We’re focusing on that.
“With Matt Young, the focus is on having a routine and getting that feeling down to where I’m consistent at the plate, knowing who I am, what pitches I’m looking for, and what my swing is going to do. I’m trying to get away from the mechanical side of hitting where I was trying to get this one swing that will help me hit a ball like X or Y.”
On adopting a new mindset: “I’d gotten too wrapped up in the swing part of it, and not concerned as much with the hitting part of it. I was trying to swing a certain way instead of hit a certain way. That’s something Matt Young has stressed to me: just try to hit a certain way, don’t try to get the ball to do something. If you hit a ball well you must be doing something right, so keep repeating that swing and don’t worry what it looks like.
“There are definitely differences in my swing now, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I tried to make them. It was more an external approach of, ‘OK, I want to see how many balls I can backspin through the middle, or how many balls I can hit in the gap,’ and when I do that, then repeat the swing. So stuff changed, but it wasn’t like ‘OK, I’m going to work on my hand position now,’ or ‘I’m going to work on my stride, or my leg kick.’ It’s about being athletic and kind of letting my body take over, as opposed to overanalyzing everything. Like I said, I’m not worried about mechanics as much as I used to be. I’m just looking for a feeling.”
On whether the reactive approach to hitting is similar to defense: “That’s a good analogy. I’m a big reader and a big studier of the game, and Shawn Green had a great book out. He said that when he started hitting well, he actually felt like he was just waiting. He saw the pitch and we would just react to it, rather than trying to go get the pitch, or swing here. It was more of a relaxing, ‘OK, I’m going to wait for the pitch and I’m going to react to it after I see it.’ So it is kind of like defense. You get ready, the ball comes, and you react based on the speed of the ball and the situation. The analogy you suggested is one you can definitely use. I’m just trying to put my body in a position where I can hit as many pitches as hard as I can, then wait to see if I get my pitch.”
On defense, math, and science: “Being a shortstop I want to be a defensive-minded player. I want to stick at that position, and I want to help my team win with my defense. Pitchers really like having guys up the middle who are good with the glove. If you look at the big leagues, everyone is a good defensive player to some degree.
“I’ve always prided myself in my defense, ever since I was a little kid back in New York, playing summer ball for the South Troy Dodgers. They really harped that if you want to play short, you have to work defensively, so growing up I spent a lot more time on the defensive side of things than a lot of kids do. I kind of kept that going as I went through high school and college, and obviously in pro ball.
“I actually wanted to be an engineer, but the schedules weren’t going work with practice at Maryland, so I majored in finance. I have about a semester left, and plan to finish up at some point. I kind of am [analytical]. I like studying the types of way people think, and I try to keep up on the new metrics. I’ve always been more of a math and science guy. I like the idea of taking in all of the information and then simplifying as much as possible. I feel that, if you can do that, you can make your game a little better.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.