Rancho Cucamonga, California —— It’s not every day you see a catcher who can steal a base, beat out an infield single, and then move positions and turn a double play at second base all in one professional game. And so when Will Smith shows off his athleticism like that, be it behind the plate, beside it, or out somewhere in the infield, you remember it. Infielders converted to catcher are seeing something of a resurgence across pro ball right now, but few are like Smith, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ first round draft pick from 2016, because few of those converts can still transition back and forth between each position with ease.
“My athleticism really helps me, I’ve always been good on my feet in the field and I’ve been able to carry that over into catching, in things like throwing down to second and third,” Smith told Baseball Census about his time going back and forth between the infield and behind the plate during a recent pre-game interview at Rancho Cucamonga’s LoanMart Field. “I like getting out there and moving my feet a little bit. It’s fun, and over time it did a lot from when I was a kid to help me get better throwing and receiving behind the plate.”
That’s the note about the University of Louisville product: it’s one thing to have an athletic catcher who can survive behind the plate and then out at second or third base; it’s an entirely different proposition to find a guy who can do both jobs well. The Dodgers think they found that in Will Smith, a Paducah, Kentucky native who parlayed a massive season in his junior year with the Cardinals into a high draft slot and a very bright baseball future.
He’s moved quickly, too.
Smith needed just seven games in rookie-level Ogden to start his professional career last June (he slashed .321/.406/.429/.835 in that short stint with the Raptors) before he was promoted to Low-A Great Lakes. After just 22 games there, the Dodgers bumped him again up to High-A Rancho Cucamonga, where he finished his debut summer having reached the California League even before his first full professional season began.
He’s back here in Rancho Cucamonga to begin 2017 now, but things are looking up for Smith early this year compared to the end of last season. In 97 at-bats with the Quakes at the end of last year, Smith slashed just .216/.333/.320/.653, and struck out 31 times. This year, through his first 110 at-bats (and, coincidentally, his first 31 strikeouts), Smith is slashing .273/.397/.527/.924 with six home runs, six stolen bases, and a Cal League Player of the Week honor already to his name.
That’s not a bad way to return to Rancho Cucamonga; let it go on a bit longer and it’s likely Will Smith won’t be here for long. Of course, his positional flexibility should help with any promotion, too.
“I definitely think I can get on that 25-man [roster] here in the next few years,” he acknowledged, referencing the value his catcher-infielder combo would bring to a tight National league bench. “I think my flexibility [on defense] really helps with that. That’s what I’m working to do.”
Go deeper on Smith’s hot streak to start 2017, then, and you see a very gifted player who battled through a rude awakening a year ago to the realities of professional baseball. Yes, the Los Angeles Dodgers were aggressive with moving him to High-A by the end of his first year; mentally, and defensively, he handled the transition just fine. But major swing adjustments along the way tripped him up for a while at the plate and led to pedestrian overall numbers in that debut summer that don’t tell his entire tale.
“Last year I really struggled on offense because we were really working to change my swing,” said Smith, who is noticeably taller in the batter’s box this year with lower-set hands and a larger leg kick, among several other notable adjustments. “It really took me a lot of work through the offseason to figure out all the changes I had to make. I think it’s starting to get put together now.”
Smith paused, and smiled.
“Hitting is the hardest thing to do in sports, and when you’re trying to do it at the professional level, and you’re changing the swing you’ve used for the last four or five years, you’re going to struggle,” he admitted. “It was tough. But I knew eventually I was going to come out of it.”
Come out of it, he has.
The mini slumps will forever be a part of baseball, of course—in a nine-game stretch entering Tuesday night, Will Smith was 5-for-31 with ten strikeouts—but the larger pieces are starting to fall into place for the Dodgers’ #14 prospect. If all goes according to plan, one would figure he’ll get a shot at Double-A Tulsa later this summer, and from there, he may not be far from that 25-man roster prophecy.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have a liking for flexible defenders (think Kiké Hernandez, Austin Barnes), and Smith has all that plus the makings of an above-average defensive catcher. Not many players can say that.
Smith knows as much, but he’s content to leave the hypotheticals to others.
“I’m starting to see all the hard work pay off from the offseason, but I just have to keep staying consistent with it,” he said. “It’ll work if I keep coming out every day and performing. There are going to be highs and lows, but I’m trying to ride the high out as long as I can, and I’ll make adjustments when it goes south. It doesn’t matter if I’m doing well or badly, I have to keep that same mindset every day.”
So far, so good.
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