Today at the Prospect Stock Watch we’re going to take a look at a struggling prospect who entered 2019 with some hype: shortstop Kevin Smith of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Smith landed on a number of pre-season Top 100 lists, although I was not one of the people on the bandwagon. With that said, I listed him as “The Riser” in the Jays system prior to 2019 based on the hype he was generating but offered these words of caution when discussing his mid-season promotion from Low-A to High-A ball in 2018:
“He then received a promotion to High-A ball around mid-season and continued to produce over-the-fence power but his approach at the plate de-evolved to more of his pre-2018 style. The walks dried up and the strikeouts rose… Smith’s prospect value is up but I’m hoping to see more of the early-2018 Smith rather than the later-2018 Smith.”
Unfortunately, we’re once again seeing more of the later-2018 Smith’s production at the Double-A level. I was surprised to see him start 2019 in Double-A but the Jays were stuck after Logan Warmoth (another shortstop who was drafted in the first round of the same draft as Smith) was terrible for all of 2018 at High-A ball and was forced to repeat the level. That pushed Smith up by default.
With 29 games under his belt this year, Smith is hitting just .153 and has an eye-catching 33 strikeouts in 111 at-bats (26% K-rate). As a college player in Low-A ball last year, he dominated the league while striking out just 16% of the time and also maintained a decent walk rate at 8.3% (It’s at 8.8% in AA). But strikeouts aren’t really the main source of his issues this year (although they definitely aren’t helping).
This year, Smith’s line-drive rate is down from a pre-2019 average of 21% to just 13%. All those lost line drives are showing up in his fly-ball rate… but they’re not ending up in the outfield.
He has added almost 15% to his fly-ball rate and Smith’s infield-fly-ball rate has also risen from 17% in High-A ball last year to an unsightly 26%. He’s getting under a ton of balls and producing one of the least dangerous types of balls in play that you can generate. His BABIP is sitting at .197 and you can’t really say it’s bad luck because an infield pop fly is almost always going to be an easy out.
So what’s the problem? The first thought I had was that it’s a mechanical issue – either caused by bad habits or perhaps an injury. And after watching some recent video of the hitter, I definitely think that’s the issue at hand.
I watched Smith’s at-bats from games on May 3 and May 7. He showed a good eye (perhaps better than some of the umpires) and also displayed solid bat speed. But the issue was with his swing. He drifted a bit when he swung at the baseball, which resulted in him wrapping the bat around the ball. Because he was making contact with the side of the ball (and at times under) — rather than the back — he wasn’t in a position to drive the ball.
This is good news. Bad habits can be fixed. And as mentioned earlier, he also has a healthy walk rate while seeing a ton of pitches. The one at-bat I saw included 10 pitches. After he took a called first-pitch strike, he then watched three balls before taking another strike. Then at 3-2, he fouled back four offerings (again not hitting the ball well) before taking a walk. In another at-bat, he took seven pitches to coax a walk out of the pitcher. The bat speed is also there to start punishing pitches once the bat starts making contact with the right part of the baseball.
I may not be the biggest Smith fan out there but I can definitely see signs that he isn’t nearly as bad of a hitter as he seems right now. If I’m Smith, I’m focusing on taking as many balls as possible to right field now to get back in the habit of staying back in the box, keeping my hands in and letting the ball travel deeper in the zone to force the bat back to the ideal part of the baseball.
From a fantasy baseball perspective, Smith is owned by about 50% of fantasy managers in Ottoneu’s dynasty format, obviously based on the pre-season hype. There are quite a few other prospects out there more worthy of a minor league roster spot right now but I’d keep an eye on his stock as the weather warms. If he starts to punish the ball again for a healthy stretch of time, he might be worth a flyer but he’s also a volatile prospect right now with only about half a season of really good baseball in his two-year pro career.
Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.