The Toronto Blue Jays have a number of exciting prospects in their system, Kevin Smith has established himself as one of them
A few weeks ago, I labelled Blue Jays prospect Cavan Biggio the most improved prospect in the system this season. Now, it’s time to talk about the other most improved prospect in the system: shortstop Kevin Smith.
Over the course of the 2018 season, Smith has seen his stock rise. MLB Pipeline elevated him from the 25th-highest ranked Blue Jay prospect all the way up to number six. FanGraphs, too, has become a bigger and bigger fan of Smith’s, moving him from unranked in the pre-season to 15th to 10th in the most recent update.
FanGraphs has covered Smith a few times this season. Back in May, David Laurila interviewed Smith about the changes he had made, which helped drive his electric start at Low-A. Among other things, the interview highlights Smith’s analytic mind and ability to adapt, key traits for a successful major leaguer.
In July, FanGraphs convened a handful of Midwest League broadcasters to discuss their picks for best players in the league over the first half of the season. Smith’s home broadcaster, Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, named him the best player in the MWL. Two of the five other broadcasters also had rave reviews for him. One concurred with Jesse that Smith was the league’s best player, highlighting both his shortstop defence and his ability to produce with his bat. The other noted that in Smith’s two games playing in Wisconsin, in the midst of very poor weather, he went 6-for-10 with two doubles and a triple.
On Monday, FanGraphs included Smith in a list of prospects with updated evaluations: “At Maryland, Smith was a swing-and-miss power hitter who could play a solid shortstop. In pro ball, some swing and approach adjustments have unlocked more contact ability. He now looks like he may be a regular of some kind, which would be quite a find in the fourth round.”
I think that any discussion of Smith’s potential should start with his defensive ability, which helps frame everything else. Smith has received solid grades for his defence at short, with FanGraphs (50 FV for fielding, 55 FV for throwing) and MLB Pipeline (55 FV for fielding, 50 FV for throwing) in close agreement.
These grades jibe with his defensive performance on a statistical basis—in terms of Clay Davenport’s fielding runs above average, my go-to for MiLB advanced fielding statistics, Smith has consistently been an above-average shortstop for his level. Last season, he produced an impressive +16 FRAA for Rookie-ball Bluefield, far and away the best mark in the 2017 Appalachian League. Early this season, he produced +3 FRAA for Low-A Lansing in only 23 games at the position. After his promotion to High-A Dunedin, Smith produced +8 FRAA at short, the second-highest mark in the league (after the Mets’ Andres Gimenez, a Top 60 prospect ranked seventh among SS by both FanGraphs and Pipeline).
Shortstop is the second-most defensively challenging position on the field, after catcher. As such, an average fielding shortstop is a very valuable thing. Take Tim Anderson. He’s played nearly a full season at shortstop for the White Sox (143 games, 568 PA). By both DRS (+1) and UZR (+1.1), Anderson is considered an average fielder for his position. So, in spite of the fact that he’s a below-average hitter (90 wRC+), he’s produced enough fWAR (2.3) to be considered a solid MLB starter. The point is, if you can defend well at shortstop and are not terrible at the plate, you can be a very useful starter in the big leagues.
Fortunately, it looks like Kevin Smith has a strong chance to be better than “not terrible” as a big league hitter. At High-A, Smith’s overall production at the plate (127 wRC+) put him among the league leaders (83rd percentile). The key to Smith’s production has been power—his .194 ISO ranked in the 86th percentile (among batters with 250+ PA). His spray chart at High-A makes it clear that his power is not cheap.
His ability to produce a large number of outfield flies helped drive these strong power numbers. With Dunedin, 34% of Smith’s batted balls were outfield flies, an 80th percentile mark. Smith also produced an above-average number of liners (his 21% liner rate put him in the 62nd percentile), which likely helped drive his average BABIP (a .319 mark that ranked in the 53rd percentile). Smith does a great job avoiding grounders—his 39% GB rate was much better-than-average for his level (76th percentile).
Smith’s main issue as a hitter is his plate discipline. At High-A, he walked less often than most (6.2% walk rate, 20th percentile) and struck out more often than most (23.7% K rate, 33rd percentile), resulting in a very poor walk-to-strikeout ratio (0.26 BB/K, 15th percentile). Underlying this issue is a whiff rate that is higher than most (14.7% SwStr%, 17th percentile). Ultimately, if he can keep smacking liners and long flies, these shortcomings won’t stop him from being an average-or-better hitter.
Given the importance of age in evaluating prospects, I always like to compare players to past hitters at the same age and level. First of all, since 2006 (the time frame of all historical comparisons I’ll refer to), 68% of plate appearances by batters in their age-21 season occurred below High-A. Therefore, Smith is already somewhat advanced for his age just by playing at the High-A level.
Smith compares to past age-21 High-A batters in the ways you’d expect. He’s got exceptional power (88th percentile ISO) and gets on base well enough (50th percentile BABIP). While he struggles with drawing walks (31st percentile BB%) and limiting strikeouts (23rd percentile K%), his overall production is still quite strong (82nd percentile wRC+).
To be fair, Smith is about as old an age-21 player as you can get, with his birthday (July 4th) just after the July 1st cutoff used for baseball age. For the sake of completeness, let’s pretend for a moment that he was born a week earlier and just completed his age-22 season.
As was the case with age-21 batters, the majority of plate appearances by age-22 batters since 2006 came below the High-A level (55%), so hypothetically-born-a-week-sooner Smith still wouldn’t really be that old for his level. Moreover, his power (78th percentile ISO) and ability to generate base hits (51st percentile BABIP) remain relatively strong enough that he still stands out in terms of overall production (78th percentile wRC+), in spite of his poor plate discipline (23rd percentile BB%, 22nd percentile K%).
Let’s conclude by examining Smith’s potential as a base runner. Both FanGraphs and Pipeline consider Smith to be a 50 grade runner, unsurprising given the athleticism needed to play shortstop well. The available base running metrics speak to Smith’s skill on the base paths. He produced a strong speed score of 6.5 during his time at High-A, which compares very well to other players at High-A in 2018 (82nd percentile), age-21 batters at High-A historically (73rd percentile) and age-22 batters at High-A historically (77th percentile).
Moreover, he specifically showed a knack for stealing bases effectively, posting 1.3 weighted stolen base runs above average. That mark compares favourably to other High-A players in 2018 (88th percentile), past age-21 High-A players (84th percentile) and past age-22 High-A players (85th percentile).
Kevin Smith just finished an excellent 2018 season. He destroyed the ball at Low-A Lansing to start things off and, while he slowed down some, he continued to produce with the bat following his promotion to High-A Dunedin. Throughout, he has displayed very good defence at short and strong base running. Hearing him discuss his process and adjustments, one gets the feeling that he has what it takes to continue to be a solid all-around player as he moves to Double-A and beyond. As is the case with countless Blue Jay prospects, I’m very excited to see what 2019 holds for Kevin Smith.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.