It’s not often that a pitcher out of NCAA Division III creates as much buzz as righthander Hugh Smith did prior to the 2018 MLB Draft. The Detroit Tigers were able to grab him in the sixth round, and in doing so, added a very interesting arm to a larger group of pitchers that is regarded among the best collections in the minor leagues.
Understanding Smith starts with understanding his story. The Tigers were not drafting a pitcher who was close to a finished product. However, it is impossible to ignore the size and potential velocity that Smith brings to the table; even over the course of the 2019 season, he appears to have filled out his enormous frame with some quality muscle. There is a lot of work to be done, but we believe Smith’s ceiling is higher than most of the Tigers’ fringe prospect pitchers.
The Tigers spent a sixth round pick on Smith in 2018 after he finished his career at Whitworth College, a Division III school in Washington. When he stepped on campus as a freshman, he was armed with a low-to-mid 80s fastball and a 6’1 frame. A growth spurt hit, and suddenly Smith was 6’10 and his fastball was on the good side of 90 miles per hour. Former Detroit Free Press writer George Sipple detailed that full story when Smith was drafted.
“When he came in as a freshman he was probably 82-86” on the fastball,” said Whitworth coach C.J. Perry.
”This spring we’ve seen him up to 97. He’s going to sit 92-94. He’ll sprinkle in some 96 and 97 (mph) fastballs. His second best pitch is probably his changeup. He throws it 82-84. Honestly, he has just as much confidence in that changeup as the fastball.”
That velocity bump took Smith from a later round pick at best to a solid selection in the sixth round. However, as a late bloomer, Smith had to learn how to be a pitcher first. That means having a reliable off-speed pitch, hitting corners, and really trying to out think opposing hitters. That may have worked to his advantage in the Midwest League. He showed some ability to change speeds and pitch guys backwards with reasonable comfort, which is an asset at this point in his development.
Size is Hugh Smith’s most obvious strength. He is listed at 6’10 and 214 pounds (though he admits to being 6’9), and by the end of the 2019 season he looked like he put on some good weight. With that size comes a fastball that can touch the upper 90s when he is healthy, with the potential for more as he refines his motion and builds strength.
Of course, there are a lot of hard throwers out there. The extra edge Smith has is the enormous length of his limbs. He throws out of a three-quarters arm slot, but his height and long arms allow him to generate a lot of angle to the plate. That makes it tricky for hitters to pick up a pitch’s initial trajectory. He is also able to still get solid extension despite mediocre stride length. When Smith is in good rhythm, he is capable of blowing Midwest League hitters away, and had short stretches where he was pretty dominant with the heater alone.
In watching Smith, his changeup also sticks out. Early on in the 2019 season, he really relied on that pitch. He would throw it any time in the count, and it worked because he has such great feel for the offering. It can create swing and miss, but it does better in setting up his elevated fastball as a strikeout pitch. His arm-side control is also solid for his experience level, and when combine with the changeup, it makes it harder for lefties to hit him than righties. That isn’t just conjecture; left-handed batters only hit .181 against him in 2019, while right-handed batters hit .256.
Smith draws strong marks for his intelligence and coachability as well, and brings some maturity and presence to the mound. He doesn’t ever seem rattled with runners on base.
For all his physicality, Smith is still a raw product at this point. Right now, the top priorities are developing a better breaking ball, improving his mechanics, and refining his command. While he generally throws strikes, his stuff and location are still inconsistent. Pitchers his size don’t have a good track record for developing major league quality command, and while Smith is pretty athletic for his size, it remains to be seen if he can buck that stigma.
He also needs to improve his breaking ball substantially. As the season went on Smith grew more comfortable throwing his new-ish slider, and would use it in several different situations. When he keeps it down, it is effective, but it’s still a short, inconsistent offering that needs a lot of work before testing hitters in the upper minors.
The Bless You Boys staff got a lot of looks at Smith in 2019, and a key takeaway is that his extension is pretty poor considering his build, and his mechanics in general still need a lot of work. Smith has a simple takeaway, but his spine tilt and a short closed step to the third base side too often blocks his hip rotation and cut off his release. Some pitchers make that work, but in Smith’s case, it flattens his arm slot, limiting both the downward plane on his fastball and his extension, and force him to compensate for being offline. It diminishes the natural gifts of his size, and impedes his ability to locate consistently, particularly to his glove side.
Smith spent several short stints on the injured list in 2019, and his velocity wasn’t quite there early in the season. However, he was back to comfortably sitting 93-95 miles per hour later in the year, with a few tics to spare in the tank. He is an interesting pitcher with a tantalizing ceiling, but the fact remains that he’s still more of a project at this point than most of the other arms on our top 30 prospects list.
The reality is that we’ve only seen 44 2⁄3 innings of Smith in the professional ranks. He made 10 starts in 2019 with a 3.63 ERA, 3.40 FIP, 9.07 strikeouts per nine innings, and 4.03 walks per nine. While he has pitched well, there is a feeling of needing to see more. He had a stint on the injured list from July 24 to August 7, then again from August 16 through the end of the year.
While neither issue seemed particularly serious, Smith’s size, a history of shoulder tendonitis, and a somewhat awkward motion are going to keep the injury concerns simmering until he shows himself capable of chewing up a starter’s innings. Development of his breaking ball is especially necessary to give himself a fallback role as a potential late innings reliever. Much work remains, but Smith was as intriguing as advertised in his first full year in the system.
Projected 2020 team: West Michigan Whitecaps
With only 10 starts in the Midwest League last year, it’s a good bet that Smith starts out there again in 2020. Assuming things go reasonably well, it won’t be long until he sees time at High-A Lakeland. While he is still as much project as prospect, Midwest League hitters aren’t going to challenge him much at this point. It’s possible that a strong spring could force the organization’s hand and allow him to stay in the warmer weather of Lakeland from the jump. While many prospects follow a defined career path to the majors, Smith’s course may become a little more muddled because he had an unusual starting point and injuries have not worked in his favor.