Video Produced and Edited by Sean Addis
As the trade deadline approaches, anyone who follows the Toronto Blue Jays expects that a few familiar veterans will be gone by the end of the month. A season that started with the hope of meaningful baseball has shifted focus to the future. Fans are looking forward to seeing what will be the next core of Blue Jay players.
Ken Rosenthal recently reported that teams have inquired about veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson. Should he be dealt, his replacement may already be with the big club. That player is Dwight Smith Jr.
#Phillies talking to #BlueJays about Granderson, sources tell The Athletic. PHI looking for left-handed bat off bench and occasional starter in OF. Demoted fourth outfielder Altherr to AAA last night. Granderson .230/.337/.417 in 274 plate appearances this season.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) July 23, 2018
While Smith Jr. is not ranked as one of the Blue Jays top prospects, he has caught the attention of the Blue Jays manager. “Smitty has always done a good job for us in limited playing time,” said John Gibbons. “When I see him he always plays well.” His stats in the majors back up Gibbons’ assessment. Over 32 games spanning two years, Smith Jr. has a slash line of .314/.400/.500.
— John Lott (@LottOnBaseball) June 17, 2017
Drafted by the Blue Jays in the first round of 2011 as the 53rd overall pick, Smith Jr. comes from baseball blood lines. His father, Dwight Smith Sr., played eight years in the Major Leagues. Over the younger Dwight Smith’s minor league career, evaluators have noted his knowledge of the strike zone and patient approach at the plate. Over the past two years, he has seen an average of 3.9 pitches per at bat, and this year a high in walk/strikeout ratio at 0.92.
When discussing Smith Jr., Blue Jays hitting coach Brook Jacoby made sure to emphasize that his success goes beyond his limited time in the majors.
“He’s had good success in the minor leagues too. Success to him isn’t anything new. He has done a good job for us the times we have used him here over the last two years. He has swung the bat well,” said Jacoby. “He has got a big leg kick, he gets it up early, that is the biggest thing. He is early with it and gets it back down early.”
Smith Jr. introduced that leg kick into his swing at the age of 11. Why? It was the only thing he could do to help him stay back on his leg. Today it allows him to not only stay back longer, but to generate increased bat speed, making him a tougher out as a result.
The humble 25-year-old Georgia native says he has kept the same approach at the plate at every level of professional ball. “I try not to do too much, trying to not get too big in my swing,” said Smith Jr. “It has been working, laying off the tough pitches being patient.” It is this approach that has helped him avoid a trap many young players fall into: being too pull-conscious. It has also seen his OBP increase to above .350 over the last two seasons.
“I think with time kids are less anxious, they start to slow the game down a little bit,” said Jacoby referring to Smith Jr’s plate patience (13.8 percent walk rate). “And hopefully that is a trend that will continue.”
Defensively, Smith Jr. can play all outfield positions with above average speed, but is not blessed with a strong arm. Offensively, he has a knack for hitting, though he doesn’t hit for much power. Some scouts have suggested him as a fourth outfielder at the major league level, but he does enough little things right, both on and off the diamond, that he may exceed expectations.
Prior to every game, Smith can be seen in the outfield participating in pregame drills and his own warm-up regimen with the same intensity whether he is in the starting lineup or not.“I do all my reps like I am starting,” shared Smith Jr. after his pregame preparation. “So whether I am playing, coming off the bench, pinch hitting, pinch running or defence, I work on everything like I am starting. So when I am called upon I am ready.”
Young players who are accustomed to playing every day often get less playing time when they first arrive in the majors, and it can result in struggles at the plate. These struggles can be more pronounced in players that use a high leg kick. Players like Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista, whose swings feature high leg kicks, always stress the importance of their timing when planting their feet for their swing to be successful. And the key to get the timing right is to face live pitching regularly.
Jacoby understands how Smith Jr.’s infrequent playing time can pose challenges for the young player. For Jacoby, the key for success is all in the preparation and simulating game like conditions.
“It is not easy especially being a young kid with a big leg kick that doesn’t play every day that is tough. He has got to work off some velocity, even in the cages” said Jacoby. “Many times with leg kick guys you try to tone them down, but he has been able to get them up and down early so we haven’t messed with that at all.”
Manager Gibbons believes it is important to play everybody as much as you can. He acknowledges that certain guys, such as Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk, will play regularly, but he looks to find a balance to get players like Smith Jr. playing time.
“You don’t want them to sit too long. If you don’t play them the next thing you need them for a stretch and they have no timing,” Gibbons said. “I think that is important. They are young guys trying to make it and they are anxious as it is. So when they are here you give them playing time. That is how guys get opportunities and make it in the big leagues you give them playing time.”
When the trade deadline dust settles, young players will be given the opportunity to audition to be part of the new core. As he has shown already, when that playing time is available, Dwight Smith Jr. will be ready for the call.
Lead Photo © Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports