Toronto Blue Jays prospect, Kevin Smith is tearing it up recently and JFtC looks at what is behind his performance
The Kevin Smith story is well-known to those who follow Blue Jays prospects. Drafted out of college in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, Smith had a fine (if unspectacular) pro debut with the Advanced Rookie Bluefield Blue Jays, before breaking out in a big way with Class A Lansing in 2018 (190 wRC+ over 204 PA). He hit for a ton of power (.284 ISO), while showing effective plate discipline (8.3% BB rate, 16.2% K rate) and on-base skills (.397 BABIP).
This production led to his promotion to High-A Dunedin. He continued to be an above-average hitter (127 wRC+), but wasn’t as much of a standout as he’d been a level lower, something that is not unexpected for any promoted prospect.
Heading into 2019, Smith found himself among the Top 10 on various Blue Jays top prospect lists, including the eight-spot on our list. Moreover, fans heard rave reviews about his makeup. Clearly, expectations would be much higher in 2019 than they were to start 2018. In that vein, as a college player who dominated in A-ball, Smith still had work to do to convince plenty of evaluators that he was the real deal.
Given these high expectations, it was tough to see Smith stumble out of the gate this year. After his first month at Double-A, Smith was struggling to hit for power (.118 ISO in April). Moreover, a high strikeout rate (27.2%) and a low BABIP (.259) kept him from getting on base very often (.253 OBP). All told, he was limited to a 67 wRC+ in his first 21 games at the level.
In May, Smith was able to recapture his power to a large extent (.200 ISO). Unfortunately, further deterioration of his strikeout rate (31.7%) and BABIP (.200) caused his on-base percentage to keep falling (.248). He was hitting better (79 wRC+), but still nowhere near his 2018 level.
In June, he posted another 67 wRC+. His power was still solid (.171 ISO), but he was striking out even more often than before (37.9% K rate). Then, Smith hit the injured list for an undisclosed issue, sitting out for the first week or so of July, before returning on the 11th.
He’s played 12 games since that mid-season pause. He’s hit seven home runs in those 12 games (49 PA). Those seven homers lead the entire Double-A level since the beginning of July, made more impressive by the fact that he has missed about half the month so far. To put it another way, Smith has turned 14.3% of his July plate appearances into homers. The next best hitter has hit homers in 8.7% of his plate appearances (min. 25 PA).
With two doubles to go with those seven homers, Smith has posted an eye-popping .548 ISO over this 12-game stretch. Unsurprisingly, this mark leads Double-A batters in July, with the next-best batter posting a .378 ISO. Smith has never produced this much power over a 12-game stretch in his career, with the closest being a dozen games during his breakout at Class A Lansing, when he posted a .457 ISO.
These homers have not been cheap, either, with four of them travelling at least 400 feet. In this vein, Smith is tied for first among Double-A batters in 400-foot-plus homers this month.
For the season as a whole, Smith’s power ranks among the level’s best: his 15 homers are tied for 12th, his six 400-foot-plus homers are tied for seventh and his .217 ISO ranks 18th among batters with at least 250 PA.
At the same time, over the course of the season, he has struggled to avoid strikeouts (31.3% K rate) and to turn balls in play into base hits (.239 BABIP). That’s even been in the case during his hot July—he’s struck out 26.5% of the time and has run a .208 BABIP.
Smith owns the level’s 19th-highest strikeout rate and it’s well-supported by his swinging strike rate (17.1%), which is the 14th-highest mark across Double-A. His propensity to strike out was one of his yellow flags in 2018 and it certainly continues to be one of his biggest issues in 2019.
With respect to his low BABIP, one hopes that it’s mainly a reflection of bad luck. That said, as his groundball spray chart can attest to, nearly every ball he hits on the ground is to the pull side. This makes it easy for teams to put three infielders on the left side of the diamond and turn even well-hit grounders into outs.
A counter-point to this is Smith’s relatively low batting average on line drives (.515). Line drives are generally very productive batted balls—across Double-A this season, 71.7% of line drives have turned into base hits. Moreover, Smith has generally produced well off of line drives—83.3% of his Class A liners went for hits, while the same was true for 74.5% of his High-A liners. If there is some regression to the mean for Smith’s line drives, his BABIP would benefit—if he had been turning liners into hits as often as the level average this season, his BABIP would have been a more modest .275—as would his wRC+.
In terms of Smith’s defence, his performance at short has continued to be solid—he’s produced 1 fielding run above average (FRAA) there for the season. He’s also been league-average (0 FRAA) when used at third base.
After the first three months Smith had, seeing his wRC+ at 94 is a welcome sight. While his resurgence has been far from balanced, nobody will complain about a guy averaging a little more than one extra base per two at-bats. It’s been 12 games, but what a set of a dozen games they’ve been. Here’s hoping that Smith continues to build on this run and puts up a strong second-half that sets him up for a 2020 Opening Day in Buffalo.
*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.