By: Brian Frank
Kevin Smith has emerged as one of many bright spots in the Bisons' lineup this season. The Blue Jays 2017 fourth round draft pick out of the University of Maryland is among the Triple-A East's leaders in numerous offensive categories. He's also starred on defense for the Herd – mostly at shortstop – but also at third base and he recently added left field to his repertoire.
Bisons manager Casey Candaele summed up what he’s seen from his young shortstop this season. “He’s made some tremendous adjustments,” Candaele said. “He’s always been a really good defender – he’s made strides there also. He’s moving around and playing some different positions, which can only help in his versatility and his value at the major-league level. ... Offensively he’s really simplified things and kind of gotten back to where he was in 2018 when he was swinging the bat really well. He’s just more confident at the plate and, like I said, he’s made some adjustments and getting good pitches to hit and being more patient. It’s been a big turnaround for him and he continues to get better. It’s been fun to watch – really good player.”
Smith with the Double-A New Hampshire Fishercats in 2019. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Smith's offensive resurgence with the Herd comes after his numbers dipped a bit in 2019 – the most recent minor-league season. He had a solid 2018 season that saw him rise through the Blue Jays system, hitting a combined .302 with 25 home runs at Low-A Lansing and High-A Dunedin. However, he hit a bit of a road bump in 2019 at New Hampshire, where his average dropped to .209.
Smith was looking forward to getting back on track when he reported to Spring Training in 2020, but everything came to a sudden halt during a March spring game against the Pirates in Bradenton. That was the day players received word that major-league baseball would be shutting down due to the spread of Covid-19 throughout the country.
“We immediately shut down camp,” Smith remembered in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “We were going to have some workouts, but then the next few days everything kind of ramped back up and it started getting kind of crazy around the country. I would say within a few days it went from we’re going to shut down for a few days to a few weeks – and then it was go home it might be a month or two months or three months. By that time I drove to Arizona back to my house and I got back there about a day before they shut the whole state down. So it kind of happened really quick.”
Smith is currently tied for fourth in the Triple-A East in home runs. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Fortunately for Smith and his development, when the shortened major-league season began in July, he was invited to the Blue Jays alternate training site at Rochester’s Frontier Field.
“It was obviously kind of weird just because we were locked in a hotel and then to the field,” Smith said. “We were quarantined like everybody else. That was a little weird.”
During his time at the alternate site, Smith was able to focus on improving specific aspects of his game without the pressure of worrying about results in minor league games. He was also able to pick the brains of pitchers in the Blue Jays organization about how they pitched to him and why.
“It was more just to try to get as consistent as I could,” Smith said. “I think plate discipline was probably the big thing – swinging at the right pitches. Obviously I was facing guys that have been in the big leagues or were in Triple-A before then day-in and day-out. They knew how they wanted to pitch me. It was a good thing to kind of work on selecting the right pitches. They threw what they wanted to try to get me out and then we’d kind of talk about it afterwards. So from that point it helped me out a lot just to see what pitchers were thinking when I’m in the box versus what I’m thinking when I’m in the box against them. It was kind of cool to see that perspective.”
Smith continues to play solid defense for the Herd. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
The improvements he made are evident in the numbers he’s putting up for the Bisons this season. Smith has been one of the Herd’s best hitters all season. He's currently slashing .290/.383/.598. He is among the Triple-A East leaders in numerous offensive categories. Through 66 games, he leads the league with 54 RBI, is tied for second with 18 home runs, and ranks third with a .980 OPS. He’s played mostly his natural position of shortstop, but he’s also played ten games at third base and recently played a few games in left field to add to his versatility.
“Having a better pitch selection and not missing my pitch,” Smith said of what he’s focusing on at the plate this season. “Just kind of just honing in on what pitches I’m swinging at and kind of thinking more along the lines of what the at-bat’s going to be and the situation and stuff like that. I think that’s mainly what I was focusing on and I like where I’m at with that stuff.”
He continued: “Timing and keeping my routine consistent and making sure I’m swinging at the right pitches. I think those are all big things that are real simple that people overlook. But when you hone in and you stay consistent with them it can pay off in a big way.”
Despite not playing outfield since “back in little league,” Smith said he hasn’t felt out of place in the outfield – in large part because he has an expert to help mentor him. “I feel comfortable out there,” Smith said. “And obviously I’m learning from a seven-time gold glover in Devo (Bisons position coach and Blue Jays legend Devon White). He’s helped me a lot. It’s not everyday you get to learn a position from a guy like him. So that’s been fun and just trying to soak it all in and get as much information as quickly as I can.”
Smith has played shortstop, third base, and left field this season. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
It would have been understandable if it took time for Smith – who just turned 25-year-old on July 4 – to adjust to playing in a higher league this season. However, the jump from Double-A to Triple-A hasn’t seemed to phase him at all.
“I think guys are more developed and they’ve either been there before or they’re really close to getting there,” he said of the difference between Double-A and Triple-A. “So you’re seeing consistent talent day in and day out. Guys go up and down and teams change a lot. Obviously, this year I think we only play four or five teams. So it’s been fun to kind of see different guys cycle through, whether they get called up or sent down, you feel like you’re playing different teams every night.”
Smith’s success this season has mirrored the play of the team overall. The Bisons have been climbing in the Northeast Divison standings, going 17-9 in June and 7-5 so far in July, and currently sit just 3 1/2 games back of division leading Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Smith said of the Bisons season so far. “We have a great team and we’re having a lot of fun in the dugout. We’re having a lot of fun out on the field. We’re winning a lot. Our bullpen’s been great. Just all around to see how many players we’ve got on this team, and guy’s are coming back from injury and coming out and playing well and going to the big leagues. We’ve got guys down here that are performing and that are getting shots at the big leagues. It’s just been a lot of fun. I think that would be the first word. I think a lot of guys would say the same thing. In the clubhouse, on the field, and off the field – it’s been a great group.”
Hard work has led to Smith's success. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
His impressive numbers and improved versatility have many Blue Jays fans wondering whether Smith may soon join the big club to make his major-league debut.
“I think it’s something that I’ve thought about since I was like 14-years-old,” Smith said of what it will be like to get called up and step onto a major-league field for the first time. “You know you see on TV everyone making their debuts and obviously the older you get the more your friends are up there making their debuts or playing up there for a long time. So I’ve thought about it for a long time. It kind of is that end goal that you have in mind. It’s something that you’re always working toward and that you have in your mind when you’re making decisions or you’re training in the offseason. I think sometimes having a big goal like that in the back of your head helps to just power through each and every day. I don’t think I’ve thought about it any more than I did back in college or when I was in rookie ball or anything like that, but I think about it from time to time just to keep me on track and to try to keep that motivation going.”
If he continues to perform like he has so far this season, Smith’s long-held dream could soon become a reality.