Is Smith the A's next great third baseman?

May 27th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Martín Gallegos' Athletics Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

From Eric Chavez to Matt Chapman, the A’s have been spoiled with a tradition of defensive excellence at third base over the past two decades. Could Kevin Smith be next in line?

It’s far too early for Smith’s defense to be considered in the same breath as his aforementioned predecessors. However, the metrics on his work so far at the hot corner indicate he might be on his way to reaching similar successful heights.

Entering Wednesday’s series finale against the Mariners, Smith topped the Statcast leaderboards in outs above average (4) and runs prevented (3) among Major League third basemen. Flip over to FanGraphs and you’ll find that Smith’s 4.2 fielding runs above average and 17.0 UZR/150 are also leading Major Leaguers at his position, with his four defensive runs saved second most among AL third basemen.

Examples of Smith's shining defense can be found throughout the first two months of the season. One that stands out came at Tropicana Field on April 13. Determined to chase down a high fly ball hit by Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi, Smith bolted for the A’s bullpen in left-field foul territory. Showing tremendous range, Smith made the highlight-reel catch, covering 103 feet at 25.7 feet per second.

How has Smith evolved into such a supreme defender at third? Well, it helps that he was a shortstop throughout his college career at the University of Maryland and most of his Minor League career in the Blue Jays' system.

Though there are major differences between the two positions, playing so much shortstop helped develop Smith’s footwork and range around the infield. Acquired by the A’s this spring as part of the package of players acquired from Toronto in exchange for Chapman, those inherited skills have been useful in his transition to more of a full-time role at third this season.

“I’m just learning what I have to do over there to be in a better spot for more pitches,” Smith said. “Taking the more efficient route. At short, it’s more about moving more and having better angles. At third, you kind of only have a split second to make some of those decisions. The more balls I see and when I work with [infield coach Eric Martins] out there on replicating that before the game, the more I can just go into a subconscious mode and my body reacts a little better.”

Over the years, the previous Gold Glovers at third base in Chapman and Chavez both learned to master the spacious foul ground that the Coliseum provides, often utilizing that foul territory to create signature defensive gems. Smith has yet to get a chance at one of those plays, but it’s likely only a matter of time before an opportunity presents itself.

“It’s been fun,” Smith said of playing defense at the Coliseum. “Obviously, with the kind of shifts we play, it gets hard. When I’m shifted all the way over to shortstop and there are popups in the dugout or down the line, that’s when it gets tough and you wish you can make all those plays for your pitchers. Trying to blend the two where you can still get those popups for your pitchers and still take some hits away in the field is what we’ve been working towards.”