Sitting in the owner suite watching the Padres Future’s Game with my fellow #SDSocialSummit participants, I witnessed Austin Smith taking a hard comebacker off the back of his thigh. It was really the only hard contact against the right hander in his appearance that day. I texted Austin later that evening to see if he was okay. He responded fairly quickly that he was fine because “I’m a beast”.
He most certainly is a beast, and the #51 pick in the 2015 MLB Draft is blossoming well within the San Diego Padres farm system. Smith has the distinction of being the first pick A.J. Preller made as general manager of the Padres. It’s the first of many great selections, if you ask me.
I recently sat down and spoke to Austin to catch up with him on his first full season. I was anxious to see what he had to say for himself. It’s vital for a young prospect to stay positive, and Smith certainly has that down. He knows his limitations presently, and with that, he is willing to learn and grow as a professional. Austin is great young man. He will succeed in anything he wishes to take on. Thankfully for the Padres, he is focused on the game of baseball. His passion for the sport is evident and his future is bright.
After conversing a bit about family and such, I asked him how he felt his first season went. He responded in an upbeat manner and had no problem talking about his year.
“First off, I thought it was an outstanding year for me. I learned a lot of things with Burt Hooton. I got a lot stronger. It (the season) got me prepared mentally for how I have to pitch next year. I learned a lot about my routine, and what I have to do to stay strong for the entire year. I felt like it was a great first year for me.”
Statistically, if you look at Austin numbers, you will not be blown away. He did give up more than a hit per inning and his WHIP was noticeably high due to increased walk percentages as well. However he made constant strides with his delivery and effectiveness. Smith made 15 starts for the TinCaps, and pitched in 25 games total. He threw just over 90 innings on the year and reported no issues at all with his arm. He was able to sustain his velocity and remain healthy doing so, which is a very productive thing moving forward.
Austin Smith has size, at 6′ 4″ and 240 lbs, but he also has a relatively smooth delivery, and with little to no effort, he is able to throw mid 90s gas. Mechanically his delivery is very repeatable and puts no strain on his arm. His velocity will increase in time, as will his control. That is the exciting thing. He has yet to totally figure it all out. That will come in time, and when he does… watch out.
We spoke about his routine and how the team wanted him to focus on getting regimented. During the season, the preparation leading up to your start every fifth day is when you really need to put in the work. Austin understands that, and for a 20-year-old to adopt that kind of work ethic so early is rare. He talked to me about remaining focused, and no matter what happened the start before, you have to put it out of your mind. Whether it was a positive start or not, every time you are out there it is a new day. Excellent philosophy to have for a pro pitcher.
In talking about the inevitable ups and downs Austin Smith faced this past 2016 season, I was curious to see what he thought he needed to work on. After some deep thought, he told me: “Staying positive and trusting my stuff was difficult at times. Knowing that you are there for a reason. One outing I’d give up no runs and barely any hits, then the next outing I’d give up three runs and a bunch of hits plus walks some guys. Staying on that even keel mindset and trusting your stuff was definitely hard.”
The growth of a minor league pitcher is done in stages. You really do learn more from defeat than you do from winning. In these outings where Smith was roughed up a bit, he learned more than when he was throwing a shutout. In pitching every fifth day, there are times when you head out on that mound with less than normal “stuff” for whatever reason, whether it be your arm is sore, or you are a little under the weather. Sometimes you toe that rubber, and you have to rely on “pitching” rather than “throwing”. Professional hitters are good at what they do. As you develop through the system you face tougher hitters and cannot rely on just your physical abilities. Austin Smith is learning that, and the Padres are excited for his awakening when it comes to the art of pitching.
The conversation turned towards teammates and the friendships he has developed with a lot of his fellow pitching prospects within the Padres organization. Smith was brought in right when the team began to draft and acquire a ton of talent at the low A-Ball level. That particular stage of the minor league system is pitching-rich, and most Padres fans are extremely excited for them to reach the major league level. Anderson Espinoza, Jacob Nix, Cal Quantrill, Eric Lauer, Jean Cosme, Chris Paddack, Enyel De Los Santos, Logan Allen, and Smith all threw at Fort Wayne this year. He spoke to me about how the Padres are working with these young men as a whole: “I have built some great relationships with my teammates. Us, as the Padres, are working on becoming a family and sticking together. As a staff, we are all together as one. Competing in the futures game, we all had the chance to get even closer. Its going to be pretty awesome in a couple of years, when hopefully, all of us are in the bigs together.”
I asked Austin his impression on Quantrill, Lauer, and Espinoza, as each pitcher has a very high expectation placed on their shoulders. He told me Quantrill and Lauer are good guys and he became good friends with both of them. They have already picked each others brains a bit regarding the art of pitching. That is great. You want these young pitchers to communicate with each other and help growth take place. In speaking about Anderson Espinoza, Austin indicated that he is something special. Espinoza works on his English all the time, and in Smith’s estimation, he has a great work ethic. The young Dominican certainly has a big upside.
The Padres futures game was a great opportunity, not only for the fans, but for the young Padres players to be on a major league stage like Petco Park. The exciting play from these young men was impressive to say the least. The experience was great for Austin, as well, and he told me: ” It was a great opportunity and an awesome experience. To be a part of that and have that opportunity was a great moment in my professional career so far. I was very thankful for it. That was my second time pitching at Petco Park, and it keeps getting better and better. Hopefully the next time I am on that mound is when I am making my debut.”
In reviewing Austin’s numbers in 2016, lefties hit .343 off him, while right-handers hit .244 in roughly the same amount of at bats 174/176. I asked him if the Padres were working with him on a way to get lefties out more effectively. He shared this with me: “Basically its throwing inside. I got a lot better during instructionals on throwing inside. I feel a lot more dominant about throwing in there. Not really caring what happens to it, just staying inside on lefties and sticking to it.” Again growth and development as a pitcher will come in time for this young man and Austin should have no trouble backing hitters off the plate with a well-located heater in. It just takes time.
The big right-hander has some early goals set for himself in the off-season. He wants to succeed in the coming 2017 season, and he is already preparing himself for that success. He is working on setting his routine between starts. He told me that, once again, was the key to success at the higher levels. A very astute judgment to make for a young hurler. “I want to get a lot stronger and cut my weight down to 230 lbs before spring training starts. I want to come back strong. Hopefully, my goal is to start the season in Lake Elsinore and work my way up from there. Get stronger and stay healthy throughout the season and be that dominant kid I know how to be. Those are my goals.”
Dominance is something Austin Smith is very capable of showing on the mound. The Padres wisely took it easy on Smith, as he only once exceeded 80 pitches in an appearance. Between some of the bad starts, he had some golden ones as well. On June 30 vs the Dayton Dragoons, he went five shutout innings, striking out six, and didn’t walk a single batter. He did that on 62 pitches of which 43 were strikes. When he attacks hitters, he can be lethal. Smith once again showed that dominance on August 24 vs the Great Lakes Loops, when he threw four shutout innings on one hit while striking out five. He only walked two that day in his 53 pitches thrown. These flashes are what keep the front office excited about Austin. The consistency will come in time. For now, he will just take the lumps and learn from them like all great pitchers have to do at one point in their development.
It is blessing to have the ability to communicate with young Padres prospects like Austin Smith. He is truly a class act, and he has always been very good to us here at EVT. In the near future, expect this young man to take the next step. Once he figures it out, it should all fall into place fairly quickly. A little more fine-polish, and the Padres have the makings of a reliable young starter for the franchise. Austin Smith not only says the correct things when speaking about his future, he shows it. His work ethic and understanding of the mental side of the game will carry him far. San Diego Padres fans will just have to sit back and enjoy the benefits of his growth. Its coming.