Visalia, California —— At this time last year, in the final few days heading into the 2017 MLB Draft, consensus among evaluators held that University of Virginia first baseman Pavin Smith was among the best pure hitters available on day one. While there were some questions about his power profile as a first baseman, nobody doubted Pavin Smith was going to hit for average in pro ball, and he was among the most coveted high-floor draft picks to enter the minor league ranks in 2017.
After the Arizona Diamondbacks made Smith the seventh overall pick in that draft and handed him a $5 million signing bonus, he summarily rewarded the club by producing exactly what they were hoping for — a robust .318/.401/.415/.816 slash line and a 27:24 K:BB ratio in 195 short-season at-bats with the Hillsboro Hops in his pro debut last summer up in the Northwest League.
With optimism high entering 2018, then, it came as little surprise that the Arizona Diamondbacks bumped the left-handed hitting prospect all the way to High-A Visalia in the California League to start this summer, his first full season as a pro. As polished and mature as he’d been upon entering pro ball in Hillsboro, and with such big-game college experience under his belt, perhaps there’d even be an outside shot to see Pavin Smith in Double-A before the end of 2018.
Once in Visalia, though, things almost immediately went awry.
Smith went just 2-for-20 in his first six games with the Rawhide, and by the end of April, he was hitting just .156/.286/.299 with 15 strikeouts through his first 77 at-bats. It was but a month of games over the course of a season six times longer, to be sure, but the first baseman was producing too much weak contact and hadn’t yet settled in to face High-A pitching; the pure hitter looked worse than pedestrian. But never one to panic, the laid-back Smith chugged along, and things got slowly better into May— though he wasn’t happy about that stumble out of the gate.
“I’m not going to lie, I haven’t been very pleased with myself so far this year,” Smith told me late last week before a home game for the Rawhide in Visalia. “But I’ve been working, searching for adjustments, and I think over the last couple weeks, I found the thing that’s going to make it work. I had been leaning back too much in my setup, and I was drifting a little bit too much coming forward [to the pitch], so 93 [mph] was looking like 97. I’ve quieted that down now. I think slowing everything down will help. I’ve been working on it a lot, and I’m excited to see where it’s going to go.”
If the month of May has been any indication, Pavin Smith is on the right track with that adjustment, and while the season numbers are still ugly, things are getting better in Visalia by the day. Through Sunday, the first baseman is slashing .267/.353/.360 in the month of May, with ten walks and just seven strikeouts in 75 at-bats. That’s not quite the level where Smith left off at the end of 2017, but it’s far more respectable than where he’d been earlier this season.
Entering play Monday, Smith has hit safely in 15 of 21 games thus far in May, and though he hasn’t homered since April 25, he has produced five doubles and a triple this month. With the ability to make contact to all fields now rejuvenated, you begin to get the sense it may be just a matter of time until Smith really gets on a roll in Visalia and acquits himself as that pure hitter again with the numbers to back it up.
“Obviously, you look at your average and it’s not where you want it to be, so you know you’ve got some stuff to work on,” he admitted. “You can’t just ignore it. But at the same time, you can’t panic. And the pitchers here have been pretty much what I expected. They’re obviously better than they were last year, but at the same time, it’s nothing impossible. I think I’ve just hit into their game plan too much so far. I need to get back into doing what I need to do.”
To hear Pavin Smith tell it like that, June may be a pretty productive month for the Arizona Diamondbacks prospect — and as time goes on, it may increasingly become apparent what April really was: just a speed bump, soon to be firmly in the rearview mirror.
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