Smith's growth lands him in Futures Game

Angels' top pitching prospect maturing into a better pitcher this season

Smith's growth lands him in Futures Game

It was a rough afternoon for Nate Smith, the Angels' top pitching prospect and their lone representative for the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game, back on May 28 in Salt Lake City, Utah. He lasted four innings, surrendered 10 runs on 10 hits and walked three batters, just for good measure.

What hurt most was that he never really pitched the way he wanted to.

The Salt Lake Bees' catcher for that game, Erik Kratz, was a Major League veteran of seven years. He ran the pitchers' meeting, and Smith blindly went right along with it. He never shook Kratz off, never expressed how he wanted to attack hitters, and thus never fired any of his pitches with much conviction.

Smith grew that day. He realized he needed to take control of his own starts -- not because Kratz was incapable of formulating a game plan, but because every starting pitcher should dictate terms.

"He's taken ownership more of what's happening in his games since then," said Pat Rice, who has filled in as the Angels' Triple-A pitching coach this season. "Because of it, he's more confident in what he's doing when he's pitching, and it's kind of parlayed itself into a really nice stretch of good starts."

The six-start stretch that followed included a 2.54 ERA, with nine walks and 31 strikeouts in 39 innings. Smith allowed only one home run, which is excruciatingly difficult with the thin air that engulfs most ballparks in the Pacific Coast League. He also elevated himself to the point where Angels manager Mike Scioscia was floating his name in conversations about Major League starting-pitching depth, saying last week that Smith has "definitely opened some eyes."

Smith was the Angels' Futures Game representative from Petco Park on Sunday, giving up two runs and four hits in the sixth inning of the U.S. team's 11-3 loss to the World team.

Given all the injuries in the Angels' rotation -- not to mention the debilitative state of their farm system in general -- the 24-year-old could be pitching in the Major Leagues soon after that.

"It's something you try not to think about too much, because that's just completely out of my control," said Smith, who sports a 3.99 ERA, a 1.31 WHIP and a 2.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first full season in Triple-A. "The only thing I can control are my execution of pitches, how I prepare in between each start, and then, obviously, how I pitch when I get my turn."

Smith, ranked third overall in the Angels' system by MLBPipeline.com, signed for just $12,000 as an eighth-round Draft pick out of Furman University in South Carolina in 2013. He reached Double-A Arkansas toward the middle of his first full season in professional baseball and received an invitation to Major League Spring Training before the start of his third.

When his stint in big league camp was over this March, Scioscia and Angels pitching coach Charles Nagy told Smith that his slider, a pitch he was merely experimenting with, needed to become viable.

It has now evolved into a crucial weapon. It's thrown at 82-83 mph, giving the 6-foot-3 left-hander another speed variance from a fastball that clocks in at 90 mph, a curveball that averages 75 mph and a changeup that is generally 72-73 mph. The changeup remains Smith's best out-pitch, but it used to be his only one, so Smith threw it too frequently, and hitters saw it too often.

The slider -- Smith calls it a "slutter," because he throws it with the mentality of a cutter -- has become his best pitch to generate ground balls, Smith's greatest asset. He throws it up to 25 times a game, and now he doesn't even have to show his changeup until he's through an opposing batting order for a second time.

"There were situations earlier in the year where it got hit, because it wasn't quite there yet," Rice said, "but he just kept pressing the issue and just kept working on it and putting it in his game plan -- and all of a sudden it became a better and better pitch. And it's still evolving; it's still getting better. He's learning to backdoor it, learning to drop it on right-handers' feet. It's going to be a really good pitch for him. And it is, right now. Ultimately, it might end up being his best pitch."

Rice -- the Angels' pitching coordinator for the upper levels of their system -- coached Smith during his time in Double-A and has been by his side in Triple-A, because Angels bullpen coach Scott Radinsky has spent most of the year recovering from double-bypass surgery and Triple-A pitching coach Erik Bennett has been needed in the big leagues.

He sees Smith as "a guy who probably fits in the back end of a rotation; that can give you 190, 200 innings." To Rice, Smith is a left-handed Doug Fister, someone who can eat innings, induce ground balls and isn't afraid to attack hitters.

Said Rice: "Nate has the same type of ability to do the same things Doug has done."

Alden Gonzalez has covered the Angels for MLB.com since 2012. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.