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“It was great,” Smith said of starting the season with former teammates Daniel McCutchen and Russell Raley, “because coming out, meeting new guys, you don’t know what to expect. So when we all found out, we were kind of happy that we knew people to talk to at least. We met everybody. They knew people. It was great getting drafted. It makes it easier to play.”
If there’s one thing that Smith made sure to bring with him from Oklahoma, it was his glove. The Sooners had the best fielding percentage in the NCAA tournament this season and Smith’s .995 fielding percentage at first was a huge reason.
“He plays the heck out of first base,” said manager Gaylen Pitts. “He’s an excellent first baseman. He’s helped us out a lot just by low throws, scooping out balls in the dirt.”
Smith credits Oklahoma’s baseball program for his focus on defense.
“The first part of the year in college our coach [. . .] just stressed defense,” Smith explained, “and we worked on defense a lot—everyday, everyday—and constantly put in our head that we’re going to be the best defensive team in the nation and it turned to be that we were the best defensive team. So we took a lot of pride in that on and off the field. It was just constantly ‘Defense, defense, defense’ and defense wins championships.”
Usually the best defensive first basemen throw left-handed because of the demands of the position, but the right-handed Smith has managed to overcome those challenges.
“I would say the pick-off’s harder,” Smith said. “Right-handed, you have to come across your body and lefties just drop the glove straight down. Turning double plays is kind of difficult. You either have to spin out and throw it or you have to make your inside turn and it makes it hard to get something on the throw. I think those are the two most difficult things. Otherwise it’s the same as every other position out there.”
“I’ve done pretty well,” Smith said of how he’s handled those drawbacks. “I don’t have any errors. That’s good. Knock on wood. I hope I don’t get any.”
Smith has had to split time at first base this season with the returning Kyle Larsen, but he is happy with the situation.
“Kyle [Larsen]’s a great first baseman,” Smith said. “Splitting time with him has been great. You have time to recover from game to game. He’s an All-Star, great player. So I’ve learned a lot from him, him being here a year already.”
In the near future, though, Smith may start seeing time at other positions on the diamond to increase his playing time.
“He can play third too,” Pitts revealed. “We worked him out there one day. He might [see some time there]. And he’s a good enough athlete I think he could play the outfield. That increases his value if he can play there [at first], and there [at third], and in the outfield. That’ll help him down the line.”
Besides his defensive prowess, Smith has a clutch bat that the Yankees would like to keep in the line-up. A left-handed hitter, Smith has driven in 11 runs in his 18 games for Staten Island, but drove in 70 for Oklahoma this season. That total ranked 9th all-time in Sooners history. Smith attributes his success in the clutch to his aggressive approach.
“Anytime with less than two-outs and runners in scoring position, you want to swing early in the count,” Smith explained. “You don’t want to get down two-strikes. You definitely want to swing early in the count. It doesn’t have to be a perfect pitch or necessarily a fastball. If you’re a good contact hitter, less than two outs, you want to swing early. Fastball, curveball, change-up, anywhere close to the zone, you hit it. And pretty much you hit it, and you can’t control it. If it lands, it lands, and it worked out for me this year in college.”
Manager Gaylen Pitts appreciates the batting approach he has seen from Smith.
“He’s an aggressive hitter,” Pitts said. “I like him because he doesn’t take a lot of pitches. Usually when pitchers get in trouble, they’re going to try to get ahead of you and he’s ready to hit. And left-handers don’t bother him. He doesn’t get intimidated when he sees the lefty coming in. I think he’s capable of being a run-production guy.”
Smith’s aggressiveness can sometimes get the best of him. Despite a healthy .372 on-base percentage in college, Smith has yet to draw a walk in Staten Island. Pitts believes patience is something Smith could work on.
“He needs a little more discipline in the strike zone,” Pitts said. “But he goes up there swinging, that’s what I like. He ain’t taking too many pitches. He’s aggressive.”
Smith believes there are several other weaknesses he must battle through as a professional ballplayer.
“One weakness is the day in and day out grind of the game,” Smith said. “It’s hard playing everyday. It’s hard bringing your best stuff on the field everyday when you’re tired or you’re feeling down when you’re not doing too well. But that’s everybody’s weakness and there are weaknesses every day. If you have a bad at-bat, that’s a weakness. I [also] need to hit for a little bit more power probably.”
Despite those challenges, his manager and teammates appreciate what Smith brings to the team.
“I like what I’ve seen so far,” said Pitts.
“Very aggressive player,” Mitch Hilligoss said. “Plays hard. Great guy to be around. A lot of fun. He’s done great for us. He’s stepped in and played a great first base and he gives Larsen some days off. He’s earned a spot, no doubt about that.”
“Everybody steps up everyday,” Smith said. “[Tuesday], Brian Baisley had a great game, 3-for-3. Somebody everyday of the week comes out and has a 3-for-3 day. A lot of impressive guys on the team. Great morale. We’re a pretty close team. We’ve been together a month. We have a great time on and off the field. Hanging out all the time. I’d say we’re going in a good direction. We won 10 of our last 11. Great team, good streaks, good hitters, good players, and I think, possibly, another championship.”
As Smith learned in college, defense wins championships, and with Smith manning first base, the Staten Island Yankees could very well be on their way to a second-consecutive NY-Penn League Championship.
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