Hillsboro, Oregon —— Forty-six games and about 200 plate appearances into his professional career, Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Pavin Smith has yet to hit a home run. He’s done just about everything else one can do in the Northwest League so far this year, slashing .331/.418/.434/.852 with 14 doubles, 25 RBI, and an impressive 26 free passes against only 21 strikeouts. In turn, the Hillsboro Hops first baseman leads the circuit in hitting and on-base percentage, and his 14 doubles are good enough for a multi-way tie for third despite having a few dozen less plate appearances than most of the rest of the league leaders.
And yet no home runs! Notable, perhaps, considering Pavin Smith is a top prospect and a major college star playing what ought to be a power-hitting position in a league of pitchers that objectively don’t quite match his natural ability at the plate. Is this a bad sign? Should you be worried? I’m not worried.
But James Anderson is.
Anderson, a fantasy baseball editor at RotoWire, caught my attention when he tweeted this on August 8, back when Smith had about 150 plate appearances:
How are the "will they hit for power?" 1B doing in the Northwest League?
Pavin Smith: .092 ISO, 0 HR
Evan White: .255 ISO, 3 HR
— James Anderson (@RealJRAnderson) August 8, 2017
He and I got into a (civil) back-and-forth for a while about the efficacy of trying to ponder a player’s power profile at this stage of his career, and James followed up with a piece about power-hitting first base prospects including a longer look at Pavin Smith (that follow-up piece, behind RotoWire‘s paywall, can be read in full here). I’ve been meaning to write a formal response to James’ skepticism about Pavin Smith’s power for a full two weeks now, but a decently hectic travel schedule and a timely need to complete some other stories kept pushing this back. (Procrastination may have played a modest role.)
And so, here we are. As I argued in the Twitter debate with Anderson, my concern level right now about Pavin Smith’s (lack of) home run power is literally zero. None of you should be worried about Pavin Smith’s lack of pop right now, either. In fact, you shouldn’t concern yourself with Pavin Smith’s power until the end of the 2018 season. Seriously. Come to me on August 28, 20181 and we can have a longer conversation about the Arizona Diamondbacks prospect’s power profile, but for now, it’s ill-advised to waste one second on whether a guy who has been in pro ball for two months will hit for power.
Patience, patience, patience
I understand the tendency to expect a lot out of Pavin Smith. He’s a big-college product (the University of Virginia) drafted seventh overall in June and given a ton of money before jumping to the top of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ prospect list, and he was arguably the most advanced pure hitter in amateur baseball when he signed his contract. And he plays first base (a pretty good first base, for what it’s worth), so there’s an inevitable expectation that he must show power at the position. As advanced as he is fresh off his dominant college career at UVA against some of the most advanced amateur opponents (Smith hit 28 home runs and 41 doubles in 187 college games over three seasons), it would stand to reason he really ought to be able to poke a few balls over the fence against Northwest League pitchers sometimes two and three years younger with far less top-level college experience than him, right?
I get the expectations. I do. They’re not wrong, really. Even I’m a little surprised that Smith hasn’t hit one measly little homer this summer considering how much better he is than the pitchers he’s seeing in the Northwest League. (To a certain extent, yeah, I’m with you, James.) Beyond that, I need to respect and acknowledge Anderson’s fantasy baseball expertise. I’ve never played a single day of fantasy baseball in my life (I’m sorry, James!), and so I’m incredibly (and regrettably) ignorant to that world2. To that end, I think it’s important to note that, broadly speaking, James looks at prospects from a very different paradigm than the one you’ll find on this site. His work requires a far stronger reliance on numbers and projections, as opposed to my reliance on observation, and interviews, and the lovely art of watching batting practice.
James gets out to plenty of games, too—an exceptional amount compared to most fantasy baseball writers I follow, which makes me respect him considerably, for I’ll always tip my hat to those willing to really, truly grind it out at the ballpark. And there really is plenty in common between his evaluation checklist and mine, I’m sure. But at the risk of generalization, I’d argue his work at RotoWire is pretty clearly far more numbers-oriented than mine here at Baseball Census, and that’s critical here, because I think it ultimately dictates why James is already thinking about home run totals just 150 plate appearances into Pavin Smith’s career. Numbers matter (a lot!) in fantasy baseball.
And so I think that’s the initial place where our Twitter disagreement originated, and it was the main point I initially peppered James with a few weeks ago when we had that vicious Twitter fight3: no matter the caliber of the player when he enters pro ball, player development and patience must go hand in hand. Granted, there are different levels of patience; the Arizona Diamondbacks won’t be quite as patient with Pavin Smith and his major college pedigree than, say, the patience given to a very raw junior college power pitcher, or a fresh-faced high school-product teenager, or a supremely athletic but incredibly raw international signing. But to whatever level necessary, patience in player development is critical, especially in that very first summer allowing a kid to acclimate to the “new reality” of professional baseball.
I spoke with Pavin Smith’s manager in Hillsboro, Shawn Roof, ironically about a week before James and I got after it on Twitter, and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ player development whiz discussed this exact transition to pro ball and how hard it can be for players regardless of their raw talent level, draft position, or major college pedigree.
“The biggest thing about their first year, yes, it’s about seeing better competition, but really it’s about coming to the ballpark every day and answering a few questions,” Roof said when I asked about how Smith was adjusting to the pro ball lifestyle in Hillsboro. “How do you prepare yourself? What is going to be your routine as a player? How do you take care of your body in the weight room, and hydrating, and eating? Things like that. The wins, the hits, the home runs, all those things will be a big deal later on. Right now it’s about learning how to prepare yourself. I don’t care where you come from, it’s a major adjustment to get to pro ball and then realize it’s a new reality here.”
I believe Roof is right about that, and not (only) because he conveniently sets up my argument; professional baseball is really, really hard (James never said it wasn’t!), and often the hardest parts don’t even happen between the white lines at game time. Pro ball is an everyday, interminable grind and it’ll mentally and physically break you down no matter how prepared you may think you are: the endless days on the field putting in relentless early work (especially on a short-season team run by the remarkably energetic Roof), the long overnight bus rides to small towns (Smith was flying charters at UVA; it is not a small adjustment to ride the bus to Boise4), and the everyday-is-a-gameday scheduling reality (the Hops got two scheduled off days in August: the 2nd, and the 31st). Those are massive adjustments no matter whether you went to UVA, or a small high school, or if you came out of the Dominican Republic, and it’s those adjustments that always give me pause to project anything too definitive about rookie and short-season guys, especially those in their first pro year. It’s why I don’t really like to write up specific projection notes on those guys, either. It’s not about getting it wrong (believe me, I’ll be wrong about more than my fair share of prospects) as much as it’s that there are still too damn many off-field lifestyle hurdles as they adjust to their “new reality,” and I’d rather delay any formal projection thoughts until after the kid has a chance to catch his breath in the pro game.
(Sample) size matters
Another issue here is sample size. Of course, James knows what he’s doing and evaluates prospect through a long lens fixated on trying to forecast future development, so I realize his argument about Pavin Smith wasn’t to draw any firm conclusions right now based only on 150 plate appearances; Anderson is more so pointing out a short-term trend and pondering whether (and when) it could change. But I see too often people who do draw conclusions too soon on a player, and this debate with James provides a great platform for me to remind anyone else reading this: it takes a lot of plate appearances before we really know about a guy — especially a prospect who could be as impactful as Smith with the Arizona Diamondbacks. My personal magic number is 1,000; by the end of Smith’s first 1,000 professional plate appearances, we’ll know exactly what to expect of him. Maybe that number is too high for many people; there’s really no right answer (750 plate appearances? 600? 500? Make your case!), but I think the wrong answer is 150 plate appearances.
I’m serious about that August 28, 2018 deadline I mentioned a bit earlier; assuming good health, Smith should ideally collect somewhere around 500 plate appearances next year in what’ll almost certainly end up being his first year in full-season ball — a season I think he’ll spend in High-A Visalia (more on that in a moment). Assuming Smith racks up a few dozen more plate appearances in Hillsboro’s final six regular season games this week, and then in the Northwest League playoffs, that’ll probably put him somewhere around 250 professional plate appearances in 2017—just one quarter of my magic number to really figure a guy out. Add that to his (hopefully) 500 trips to the plate in 2018 and suddenly, a year from today, you wind up with about 750 career plate appearances. Not quite my personal magic number, but more than enough, I should think, to begin to draw some conclusions on whether Pavin Smith will hit for power. So let’s have this conversation a year from now. (James: have me on the RotoWire Fantasy Baseball Today podcast exactly a year from today and we can have a raucous debate that’ll make Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless look like choir boys.)
Power takes time to show up
‘Power takes time to show up’ is both a true phenomenon that requires sluggers to be patient in their physical development, and yet also a convenient opt-out excuse for alleged power-hitting prospects who haven’t dropped enough bombs to legitimize their future role. I’ve done too many interviews with too many players at too many minor league levels in too many organizations and with too many varying degrees of experience who have spouted too many various off-shoots of too many industry buzzwords centered around this ‘power takes time’ cliché. View it cynically and a hitter arguing how ‘power takes time’ is really just trying to buy his career some time, right? You can decide for yourself whether those ‘power takes time’ prospects are making excuses5, or they’re really on to learning how it takes a nuanced approach more than raw strength to hit home runs. Players naturally want to come across as well as possible in interviews, of course, so you should at least be slightly cynical about the ‘power takes time’ argument as an easy out.
But there is something to this notion of patience in developing power, and it should be taken at least somewhat seriously. It takes time for a guy to really learn his swing, how to pick his spots, how to figure out his hot and cold zones, how to consistently find the barrel, how to synthesize scouting reports on opposing pitchers against real-time pitch-by-pitch adjustments, and how to understand the situations in which he’s being asked to drive in runs (and the way he’s being pitched in those at-bats). Considering Smith’s college pedigree, the Arizona Diamondbacks likekly hope he’ll learn those things quicker than most, but it’s still going to take time for him to do it, and forty-six games into his career, I thus have literally zero concerns that he has yet to show it off in game action.
Don’t take my word for it, though; go back to Shawn Roof, who dove into this during our discussion on Pavin Smith:
“[Smith] hasn’t put up the power numbers that he did in college, but that’s going to come,” Roof said. “I think if he had hit in [the Northwest League All-Star Game] home run derby the other day, he would have won it. He has that ability to manipulate the barrel, and he’s just so content to stay within himself and take what the pitcher gives him. He never gets out of his game. That’s why he’s hitting .330 or whatever right now. As time goes, he’s going to learn to jump on some pitches and bang them out of the ballpark, but you can’t force that right now, especially when he’s reacting so well to how he’s being pitched. He’ll learn how to find that pop.”
I think that’s a good way to sum up the Pavin Smith I watched in Hillsboro this summer; he goes the other way with ease and smokes line drives gap-to-gap based on how he’s being pitched; he understands his strike zone very well but still has quick enough hands to drop the bat head when necessary; he walks more than he whiffs, an encouraging sign for any corner infielder’s future; and he makes a ton of contact, manipulating the barrel well enough to find the sweet spot remarkably often. He’s better than the pitchers he’s facing, full stop. He just hasn’t quite figured out how too swing to hit the ball over the scoreboard when he’s ahead in the count and gets a pitch to drive. That’ll come in time, though, and as it does I think he’ll realize that in order to take the swings necessary to produce consistent over-the-fence pop, he must sacrifice a little bit of his exceptional strike zone discipline and plate coverage. Everything’s a trade-off. Soon (maybe by August 28, 2018!), he’ll understand how (and when) to make that trade-off, and you’ll see him start to hit home runs.
Besides, as Pavin Smith continues to play pro ball, he forever must adjust to better and better pitchers, in turn learning new things about his swing and what is required to be a slugger. In turn, his contact skills and strike zone discipline will give the Arizona Diamondbacks prospect enough margin of error to experiment more with how to lift and drive the ball over the fence; more so than an easy excuse, it’ll be this trial-and-error period that will show power really did take time for Pavin Smith. New York Mets first base prospect Dominic Smith actually really opened my eyes to this sort of slugger development path back in April: the idea of being meticulous in consistently picking up new skills at the plate every year while also being patient enough to know the raw power will eventually arrive, secure enough to realize there are ample opportunities to find it, and open enough to adding wrinkles to an approach at the plate so as to manipulate more of that power each successive summer.
“The first year [of pro ball], it was learning how not to chase and really to control my strike zone,” Dominic Smith told me back when he was playing with Triple-A Las Vegas in April. “The second and third year, I learned how to use the whole field and how to be a hitter. And now, I’m learning to take a few pitches and wait. Instead of swinging at that pitch away for a base hit, I’m trying to take a few pitches and wait for a pitch I can drive.”
That’s money, man; meticulous, and measured, and mature, and a wonderful way to think about developing as a complete hitter who will also eventually hit for power. Then again, I’m openly bullish on Dominic Smith soon becoming the best hitter in all of baseball, so maybe the New York Mets’ young first baseman is an outlier in his development as a pure hitter while waiting for his power to arrive. Or maybe power really does take time to show up, and Pavin Smith has already taken the first few steps down a path similar to Dominic Smith’s evolution to become a hitting slugger.
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Oh, yeah — Pavin Smith is really good
If player development weren’t about patience and playing the long game, and if a prospect’s first season of professional baseball didn’t also require that he learn how to navigate a million mental, emotional, psychological, financial, and lifestyle adjustments, Pavin Smith wouldn’t be in short-season ball. He’s really, really good at baseball (power or not!), and if it only came down to raw talent on the field—in a vacuum with no variable draft-to-pro-ball adjustments needed—Pavin Smith has enough natural ability today to hit .300 for the Visalia Rawhide in the (admittedly hitter-friendly) High-A California League.
Ironically, Shawn Roof—having seen Pavin Smith every day now in the first few months of his pro career—had his own hypothetical sights set even higher than that.
“Another thing Pavin does really well, he doesn’t panic,” Roof marveled. “Whether it’s ninth inning, bases loaded, and we’re down by three, or if we’re up by 15 runs, Pavin is Pavin. He’s a very even-keeled person. The heart rate stays the same. You could put him in the big leagues tomorrow and he’d be the exact same guy. You put me in the big leagues, and the moment I walked into the dugout my heart would be ‘thump thump thump thump thump.’ But he’s the kind of kid that is special, the kid that you can’t teach. Whatever the situation is, he’s the same person, and he just tries to stay within himself, stay through the middle of the field, and take what the pitcher gives him.”
I write this to remind myself, and James (who knows this!), and any of you who may be curious about him, to argue that Pavin Smith is almost certainly going to hit for average and get on base a ton throughout his entire career. Regardless of the degree to which his power comes, Pavin Smith has a very good chance at providing significant value to a big league team in a few years. Obviously, plus powe would help boost that value significantly. But he’s a remarkably good all-around player with a notable knack for hard contact that should succeed in short order. To that end, I think it’s extremely likely Pavin Smith begins 2017 with High-A Visalia. A lot can happen between now and Smith’s team assignment next April, but with the way he’s been executing his approach this summer in Hillsboro, I can’t imagine why he’d need to prove himself at Low-A Kane County before being tested in the Cal League. Like I said above, just on raw talent alone, Smith is ready to play in Visalia right now; this kid is a really good hitter. And while some notable 2017 draftees have moved quickly enough to already be in High-A, those are exceptions far more than the rule; even with his impressive production in Hillsboro, I have no issue with the Arizona Diamondbacks letting their first base prospect acclimate to the game for a full summer in one spot. They ought to push him a little bit in 2018, though.
In the long run, I actually agree with James
I hope James stopped reading far before this sub-header so he doesn’t see that I am given him credit here, but ironically, I think his concerns about Pavin Smith’s power—while far too premature at this point—may well be proven right in the long run. Smith has some room to fill out as he ages and added bulk will help his raw power, but he’s also been training in a high-level, near-professional environment for several years now and he’ll be 22 years old in February, so there may not be significant physical projection left. And yet his bat speed is good and he manipulates the barrel well enough now to suggest to me that he’ll soon pick up on the nuances of hitting the ball over the fence.
On the other hand, Pavin Smith’s approach strikes me as extremely similar to that of Dominic Smith, and veering too far off that all-fields, hit-for-average approach to hit a few home runs and meet his role may adversely affect Pavin Smith’s hit tool to a larger degree than the value any modest home run power would bring. He’s already a notably professional hitter who has the strike zone discipline, all-fields awareness, situational hitting knowledge, and barrel skills to hit for average for the rest of his career. Too radically altering that impressive ability in order to add lift and distance—especially to his pull side—might also get Smith too far away from his gap-to-gap line drive approach. While the end result could be marginally more home run power, is that worth it if his hit tool regresses in turn? Not a great trade-off.
I don’t know; this is a hunch more than a cut-and-dry projection at this point, and I’d really need to sit on Smith for another 5-10 games to feel better about this, but something in my gut6 tells me he’ll be an 18-20-homer guy when it’s all said and done, which would make him about average or slightly above. Would Pavin Smith be valuable enough as an everyday first baseman with the Arizona Diamondbacks if he drops 18 bombs a season but hits for average, gets on base, and plays good defense? Is it worth a more pointed push for power if, in turn, it negatively affects his exceptional hit tool or his ability to draw walks and avoid strikeouts?
Time will tell. Let’s re-visit this in a year.
1 I’m serious about that. Bookmark this August 28, 2018 date, and if Pavin Smith is still power-less, you’re welcome to yell at me all you like.
2 James: beyond Pavin Smith, I’d actually love to have a much broader discussion (Debate? Lecture? Give-and-take? Podcast? Info session?) about the differences between you and I in player evaluation relative to the respective angles of our work. I think it’d be very enlightening to better understand how a fantasy baseball expert analyzes prospects, what kind of weight you put into minor league numbers, how you use projections, what value you put on statistical output compared to physical projection in younger prospects, the balance between going with the numbers and your gut, etc., etc. Let me know, I’m around.
3 It wasn’t vicious, nor was it a fight, and last I checked James and I hadn’t unfollowed or subtweeted each other… but you should join our weird 140-character world and follow us both on Twitter if you haven’t yet: James can be found here, and I’m over here.
4 Last year, Colorado Rockies pitching prospect Parker French (a University of Texas alum) told me the toughest early adjustment to pro ball was the long bus rides after he flew so much at UT; I often take that into account now with major-college guys new to pro ball.
5 To be clear, Pavin Smith did not use this ‘power takes time’ cliché in our interview earlier this month, so I don’t want to insinuate that he sees it as an excuse. Rather, I find it to more generally be a common cliché, whether legitimate or a dodge, coming from young corner infielders and corner outfielders who have yet to put up significant home run numbers.
6 Please feel free to partially or completely discount that projection on account of it being a gut reaction, of course; if Smith does get to Visalia next summer, I’ll luckily be able to offer a far more in-depth, measured read.