Will Smith with the Orem Owlz in September 2008.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The evolutionary path in the Angels’ minor league system starts in Tempe or Orem, then it’s up the ladder to Cedar Rapids, Rancho Cucamonga, Arkansas, Salt Lake, with the prize a trip to Anaheim.
Will Smith was the Angels’ seventh-round selection in the June 2008 draft. He reported that year to Tom Kotchman, the scout who signed him, and who manages Orem. The left-hander helped pitch the Owlz into the playoffs and the only game they won in the championship series against Great Falls.
Click here to watch Will pitch in Game #2 of the 2008 playoffs. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection required.
I named Smith the Angels’ #1 prospect in my 2008 FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects report published in November 2008. It was a controversial selection that received a lot of criticism on fan boards.
Will fell to #3 on the 2009 FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects report — not because I got him wrong, but because Trevor Reckling pitched so well he deserved to be ranked #1. (Reckling is about six weeks older than Smith.) 2009 draftee Garrett Richards leapt to #2 based on his potential as a power starter in the big leagues one day. Smith had a couple injuries in 2009 with Cedar Rapids which were blamed on conditioning, but by season’s end he’d rounded into shape.
More criticism was written on fan boards, but internally within the Angels my sources were very high on Smith. I sought a second opinion from another organization’s manager I knew in the Midwest League whose team faced Will several times that year. He told me that Smith was “the one pitcher I didn’t want to face” on the Kernels staff. He’d filed a report on Smith with his front office, projecting Will as a major league #3 starter.
Smith began 2010 with the Advanced Class-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in the hitter-friendly California League. In six starts, he had a 4.58 ERA in 37 1/3 innings. At age 20, he was one of the younger starters in the league.
Upstream, injuries forced the Angels to promote several Triple-A Salt Lake pitchers to Anaheim. Unwilling to move up any pitchers from Double-A Arkansas, the Angels made the surprising move of sending Smith to Salt Lake. The transaction was said to be temporary, but it lasted longer than many of us expected. Will made nine starts for the Bees before he was finally reassigned yesterday to the Travelers.
Was Will in over his head? Undoubtedly. He doesn’t turn 21 until July 10. But I also know that Smith has one of those personalities where he rises to a challenge. He’s a pitcher I’d want on the mound in a must-win game.
So it didn’t figure that this temporary assignment would ruin his confidence. Quite the opposite. He’d have the chance to see where he needs to raise his personal bar to pitch in Triple-A, one step from the majors.
How did he do?
Better than the overall numbers suggest.
In his nine starts, Smith posted a 5.60 ERA in 53 innings. He struck out 40, walked 20, and opponents hit .305 against him.
But as I’ve preached many times over the years, especially in those annual Top 10 Prospects reports, Pacific Coast League numbers need to be analyzed in context.
The PCL has five hitter-friendly fields, including the Bees’ Spring Mobile Ballpark. The others are Las Vegas, Reno, Albuquerque and Colorado Springs.
Five of Smith’s starts were in Salt Lake. None of the four road starts were in the other hitter-happy parks. So we can use his straightforward home/road splits to get a more accurate picture of how he did in neutral/pitcher-friendly parks.
Home: 6.14 ERA, 29.1 IP, 17 K, 6 BB, 3 HR, .362 AVG
Road: 4.94 ERA, 23.2 IP, 23 K, 14 BB, 3 HR, .221 AVG
Smith has always been a pitcher with pinpoint control. It appears that at home he was giving up more hits and fewer walks, while it was the reverse on the road. It could be that hitters are more aggressive in hitter-happy parks, and more patient in neutral parks, trying to earn walks. Or it could just be small sample size.
In any case, in “normal” parks he averaged a strikeout an inning, his ERA was 1.2 runs lower, and opponents hit just .221 against him.
Will’s numbers should be much better with Arkansas, and not just because it’s one level lower. Dickey-Stephens Park may be the most pitcher-friendly field in the Texas League. The circuit once had a reputation as a hitter-friendly league but most of its older parks have been replaced by new stadia.
Looking beyond the home-field advantage, Smith should take the experience he had with Salt Lake and use it to dominate in the Texas League. That remains to be seen, of course, but when you look at his “neutral” numbers in the PCL they’re not that bad for a 20-year old who’d only pitched in six games in the Cal League and never in Double-A.
Reckling was just reassigned to Arkansas after posting an 8.53 ERA in 14 starts with the Bees. (9.55 ERA at home, 7.87 on the road.) Tyler Chatwood was just promoted to Arkansas from Rancho Cucamonga. Along with Smith, the three should form the core of a much improved Travelers starting rotation. Reckling and Smith will continue to duel for the title of top left-handed prospect in the system.