BOZICH | Former U of L catcher Will Smith powering toward the Dodgers
By Rick Bozich
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Some baseball truths do not have to be explained by Tony LaRussa, Bob Costas or the Science Guy. This is one:
Hitting a baseball a tremendous distance is easier with a metal bat than a wooden bat. That is the way it supposed to work.
Projecting the power potential of a college or high school prospect is a challenging task for major league scouts because of the required switch from metal to wood.
Here is the amazing thing about the numbers Will Smith, a former catcher for Kentucky Country Day High School and the University of Louisville, is delivering in the minor leagues for the Los Angeles Dodgers:
The baseball has soared off his Louisville Slugger farther and more frequently than it did at U of L.
Much more frequently.
Smith kicked up headlines by homering in four consecutive games. Then Smith homered in four straight games a second time.
“I didn't really know I was capable of that, but it was fun,” Smith said, with a laugh. “I’m swinging it well, catching it well. It’s been a pretty good season so far.”
Smith has become one of the Top 75 prospects in baseball, a valuable asset who some project will become one of the Dodgers’ catchers by 2020.
Here are the numbers that would stump LaRussa, Costas or The Science Guy:
From 2014-through-2016, his three seasons as the Louisville catcher, Smith delivered 9 home runs in 412 at bats, a home run ratio of 2.2 percent.
This summer, in 247 at bats for the Tulsa Drillers, the Dodgers’ Class AA Texas League farm team, Smith has 19 home runs, a ratio of 7.7 percent.
Smith ranks fourth in the Texas League in homers after missing 25 games with a broken left thumb. He’s third in OPS (on-base percentage, plus slugging percentage), one of the most important offensive metrics in the game.
Credit Smith with more home runs than any catcher in baseball’s three Class AA leagues. Not surprising after Smith joined current big leaguers Ronald Acuna and Victor Robles on the all-Star team for the 2017 Arizona Fall League, where Smith hit .371.
His .275 batting average at Tulsa is strong. His strikeout rate (27 percent) is reasonable in today’s game. He’s a talented catcher also capable of playing a solid third base.
All the major components of Smith’s hitting approach. At the end of the 2016 season, Smith worked with Dodgers’ instructors in suburban Phoenix on rebuilding his swing. He added a leg kick. He embraced his ‘’launch angle,” the game’s current emphasis for hitters, designed to produce more balls in the air.
“Just trying to create more power,” Smith said. “In college I was more of a bat to ball, line-drive hitter. Now I’ve definitely shown more power, driving the ball into the gaps and over the fence.
“It’s just more of a little bit different swing. Creating backspin, creating a little bit more of a launch angle and creating power with my body and using my power more efficiently. I knew it was a change I was going to have to learn and make.”
Professional pitchers routinely throw the baseball at 94 mph or more. The ball moves in wicked directions. Just when you’re comfortable timing something that’s hard and bearing into your hands, a crafty pitcher will throw something slower that fades away from the plate.
How difficult was it changing a batting approach that Smith had used for years?
“Very hard, especially when hitting is already hard,” Smith said. “It’s just one of those things when you’re going to have to do it, and it’s going to take time to learn. So it’s just sticking with it, not giving up on it and going back to your own ways before you really give it a chance to work.
“It’s not easy. It's considered one of the hardest things in sports. I think it’s more of preparing yourself before the game, in batting practice, the cage, doing drills, hitting off a machine. Just getting ready for the game. It gets your swing locked in to where it can be efficient in the game and on time to the ball correctly.”
Playing in the big leagues has been Smith’s dream as long as he can remember playing baseball. Little League. KCD. U of L.
He managed only four extra-base hits in 77 at bats as a Louisville reserve in 2014. As a sophomore he became the Cardinals’ primary catcher but finished with eight doubles, one triple and two home runs in 178 at bats. Nothing to make pro scouts hyperventilate.
Those numbers will not get you drafted — or even recognized on a Louisville team that featured Corey Ray, Kyle Funkhouser, Zack Burdi, Nick Solak, Brendan McKay and others.
Smith got recognized — and drafted.
His solid spring inspired the Dodgers to take him with the 32nd pick in the first round, the third catcher in the 2016 draft class. Some looked at his athleticism behind the plate and compared him to Giants’ MVP Buster Posey.
Smith isn’t the third catcher in that draft class any more. One service ranks him as the second best catching prospect in baseball. If Smith can continue to hit and play a premium position like catcher the way he’s done it this summer, he can expect to get The Call.
“This year I’ve definitely proven myself to be able to play but as far as getting called up, I can’t control any of that,” Smith said.
“I’m not expecting to be given that, especially with the talent in front of me. Hopefully someday in the near future. This year, next year. Who knows?”
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