After Showing Mound Versatility for PU Baseball, Smith Finding a Good Fit with Angels Organization
RYAN’S HOPE: Ryan Smith delivers a pitch this spring in his senior season with the Princeton University baseball team. The recently graduated Smith was selected last month by the Los Angeles Angels in the 18th round of the Major League Baseball Draft. He is currently pitching for the Angels short season Class A team, the Orem Owlz in Utah. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Justin Feil
Whether it’s throwing a 95 mile-per-hour fastball or being fluent in Spanish to bond with his teammates, Ryan Smith has found a fit in professional baseball.
One day after Smith graduated from Princeton University on June 4, he was selected by the Los Angeles Angels in the 18th round of the Major League Baseball Draft.
“It’s been a dream to be drafted and play professional baseball so obviously it’s pretty exciting,” said Smith, who grew up in Garden City, N.Y.
“I kind of had the idea in my head that I would be selected this year, so it was more of where, not if I would. Obviously I was hoping to get drafted as high as possible. The 18th round is a good round to get taken in, but obviously I would have loved to go higher. I can have a chip on my shoulder now.”
Smith’s professional career began a little more than a week after he was drafted as the 5’11, 185-pound left-handed pitcher was assigned to the Angels short season Class A team, the Orem Owlz in Utah.
“I’m getting used to having the mountains,” said Smith. “It’s been awesome so far. We have a beautiful field out here. We get to travel a little bit.” Smith didn’t allow a run in his first two appearances for the Owlz. He struck out two and allowed two hits in his first inning of work against the Rocky Mountain Vibes on June 15. He struck out two and allowed one hit and walked one in two innings of work against Ogden on June 18. Through July 8, Smith was 0-0 in five appearances with a 2.08 ERA and nine strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings.
“There’s a relatively wide range of not talent, but preparedness and being polished,” said Smith.
“There are a lot of young international players here who were signees out of the Dominican Republic or Venezuela and countries like that. Compared to most of those guys, I’ve probably played more and higher level baseball. And there’s also college guys who got drafted two years ago. There’s a wide range of high level baseball experience. I feel like I fit right in. I’ve only had two outings, but I’ve pitched well so far. I’m definitely talented enough and prepared enough to be here.”
Smith is the second Princeton player drafted in two years and follows a line of success stories. Ben Gross, a former Princeton High standout, was selected last year by the Houston Astros before taking a graduate school year at Duke this year and being drafted again by the Minnesota Twins.
“It’s interesting to see the range of places that guys are from,” said Smith. “There aren’t a lot of small schools and conferences like the Ivy League and Princeton, but I think I fit right in. The easiest metric is velocity because that’s a tangible number that you can use to compare guys and I fit right in. I haven’t been overwhelmed at all by pro baseball. I don’t think it’s too different from facing a good college lineup. We’ll see if I’m lucky enough to move up if it changes, but right now it’s not too big of an adjustment.”
Aside from the games, it’s been a smooth transition for Smith in terms of bonding with his teammates. He earned numerous academic awards at Garden City before coming to Princeton, including the Spanish Award after twice being a gold medalist in the National Spanish Exam. He took Spanish courses in his first two years at Princeton and is glad the language has come back quickly to him for baseball.
“We have 15-16 Latin Americans on our team here, and so I can understand everything they’re saying,” Smith said.
“Each day, I get a little more comfortable speaking it again. I figure in another couple weeks, I’ll be back in the groove again. It’s definitely helpful. It helps me speak to the other guys and lets me relate a little to both sides, the American college guys and Latin American guys.”
Smith developed steadily over his career at Princeton, throwing in the mid-80s when he entered college and developing into a harder thrower.
“When Ryan first came in, he was a scrawny little left-handed pitcher that was wiry strong,” said Princeton pitching coach Mike Russo.
“We always knew he had a big arm. When he was recruited he was probably between 83-86 (mph). He really worked hard over the last few years with our strength coaches, with playing summer ball. He’s a baseball guy. A lot of our guys want to explore different options over the summer – they’re able to take classes at different schools, they can travel abroad, there are a lot of different programs that they can do. Ryan was a guy that always chose baseball over all that stuff, not that school was secondary at all to him, but baseball was on the same level as academics for him whereas for other guys it was a little different.”
In addition, Smith displayed his versatility through his changing roles at Princeton. As a freshman, he appeared in four games out of the bullpen. He broke out in his sophomore year when he led the Tigers with 21 appearances and five saves.
“He just had a really resilient arm,” said Russo. “There aren’t a lot of guys who throw a bunch of pitches one day and want to throw again the next day. As a pitching coach, you like that but at the same time you have to be careful about arms and overusing them. Ryan was always a guy that has worked hard in the weight room and was a strong kid and could throw back-to-back days. He adjusted well to the bullpen as a sophomore and then we needed him as a starter his junior year.”
As a starting pitcher for the first time in college in the 2018 season, Smith struck out 52 in 48 innings, getting better as he gained experience in his new role.
“That was a learning curve because he wasn’t used to going the distance,” said Russo.
“He was more of a power guy who went out for a couple innings. He’d go out for a couple innings multiple times in a week. It took him a while and he had to learn to pitch differently. By his senior year, he was pitching into the sixth, seventh; and one of his goals throughout the year was to throw a complete game and he achieved that in his next to last start. He really evolved as a pitcher over the four years.”
This spring in his senior campaign, Smith led the Tigers with 11 starts, 75 2/3 innings, 76 strikeouts, five wins and an ERA of 3.45. He had a career-high 11 strikeouts against Harvard on March 30.
“Overall, I was happy with the way I pitched,” said Smith. “I think I may have pitched even better than my numbers showed because I would stay in games for a while and give up a run in the seventh or eighth inning after I threw six scoreless. Overall, I definitely had a good season. I think I developed a lot. I was hoping to get selected in the draft last year and it didn’t work out, but I came back and had a better year this year. I’m honestly happy it didn’t work out because I was able to improve a lot and be a lot better prepared than I would have been if I had gotten selected after my junior year.”
While not getting picked in the draft was disappointing, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Smith.
“There aren’t that many lefties in the country that are touching mid-90s,” said Smith.
“I thought maybe I’d get a chance. But honestly it worked out for the best. I was super happy I was able to graduate with my class and have my last year of baseball at Princeton. It was kind of nice to be able to close out my career not just as an athlete but as a student. Now I’m fully ready to dive into the life of pro baseball.”
After four years of college baseball, Smith is better equipped to succeed on the pro level. He made himself a more polished pitcher each year at Princeton, developing velocity as well as a stronger mindset on the mound after learning how to pitch smarter.
“I don’t think I threw a changeup in my first two years at Princeton,” said Smith. “This year, I threw it probably 30-40 percent of the time. Those are the most tangible things. I became a lot more mature and was able to slow the game down. Something people talk about is slowing the game down. At each level it’s a little bit quicker, so from my freshman to my senior year I recognized how I can control the game a little more and feel more comfortable on the mound. That comes with experience and I was lucky I got to throw a lot of innings the past couple years. I do have a lot of experience so I’m able to carry that over to professional baseball now.”
As a result, Smith was thrilled to get a chance at the next level. After being drafted, he had a few days at home to enjoy where his progress had brought him before reporting to Orem. He is still learning about how the Angels organization operates and the parent club.
“I probably know less of them than an East Coast team but I’m learning,” said Smith.
“I’m following a lot of the Angels beat writers and fans on social media so I can learn a little more about the team. I think it’s a pretty cool opportunity, and obviously a lot of their minor league affiliates are in places I’ve never been there before so I think that’s a cool opportunity I’ll have. As I work my way up, I’ll be able to see a lot of the country. I think it’ll be a good time.”
Actually, Smith had hoped to be drafted out of high school, but when that didn’t happen, he felt confident in his decision to come to Princeton because of the Tigers’ track record with placing players in the pros.
“Princeton has had guys in the big leagues throughout the past decade,” said Smith, reflecting on a program that has produced such Major Leaguers as Chris Young, Will Venable, Matt Bowman, David Hale, and Mike Ford.
“There’s a guy getting drafted or signing nearly every year out of Princeton. Once I realized that – and when I was in high school I didn’t know a ton about college baseball – but once I was talking to some of these teams and realized you’re going to go and get a good education and most of the guys won’t be playing professional baseball but some will have the opportunity, it was a good balance.”
Now that Smith is settling into the next level, finding his role will be an important adjustment. He did a little of everything at Princeton and is open to whatever the Angels need from him.
“With all their first-year pitchers, guys who are recent draft picks, they’ll only throw a max of two innings at a time,” said Smith.
“Right now, all the draftees are relievers. I think I’d be a reliever in the future just because I’m a little smaller than the average pitcher, so the idea is I won’t hold my velocity for as long. I throw pretty hard for a lefty, so as a reliever, I can throw as hard as I can for a couple innings and help the team that way. I would think I’d be a reliever, and it’s the fastest way to move up in theory, so I’m obviously fine with that. I’m not exactly sure. I think after next year’s spring training, guys will be put more into roles.
In Russo’s view, Smith will be a good fit no matter how the Angels organization decides to use him.
“He’s been a starter, he’s been a reliever, he’s even been a set-up guy in the Cape Cod League, and whatever role he’s given I think he understands those roles,” said Russo.
“He has experience now and the biggest adjustment is going to just be understanding what role he’s in and just trying to be the best that he can and not try to do too much, just pitch the way that he knows he can in the role that he’s given.”