NEW YORK -- Three times per week this winter, back home outside Atlanta, Dwight Smith Jr. dug into an indoor batting cage to swing against his most trusted and constant advisor: his dad. Dwight Smith Sr. has thrown to his son forever, since his playing days as an outfielder for the Cubs, Angels, Orioles and Braves, the latter of whom he won a World Series with in 1995. Their sessions have evolved over the years, as Smith Jr. grew to follow in his father’s Major League footsteps.
But through the years, one central theme remained the same.
“He always told me, 'You can’t miss your fastball,'” Smith Jr. recalled Wednesday, sitting in the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. “He preaches that a lot. That’s the main thing we talk about, the one thing he always got on me about. 'Don’t miss the fastball.'”
Consider it a lesson learned for Smith, who’s had great success during the past few weeks while heeding his father’s advice. Of the several underlying skills contributing to Smith’s breakout with Baltimore, the root cause is how well he’s handled the heater. Peel back the curtain on Smith’s .286 average, .844 OPS, eight homers, 42 hits and 27 RBIs entering Wednesday -- all by far career highs -- and you see those numbers are fueled by a .372 average against fastballs, tops among American League hitters with at least 75 plate appearances.
Smith is slugging .615 off heaters and batting .545 against the hardest ones, with an MLB-best 12 hits coming on pitches in excess of 95 mph.
That puts him atop a list that includes All-Stars like Kris Bryant (10 hits), Freddie Freeman, Manny Machado, George Springer and Mookie Betts (nine each).
“I’ve always been able to hit the fastball,” Smith said. “I try not to get too big with it, take the same swing I would on a curveball. I feel like guys tend to overswing when they see guys with high velocity. When guys are throwing 95 plus, you can’t do that. The one little bit you’re off, you’ll miss it.”
That’s part of the professional approach that’s impressed the Orioles since they snatched up Smith in an under-the-radar trade with Toronto this spring, and it helps explain his production in other advanced areas as well. The left-handed hitter spent much of the season’s first six weeks leading AL lefties in hits against same-side pitching, and currently ranks fourth in the category behind Michael Brantley, Rafael Devers and Dee Gordon.
All told, Smith is hitting .300 with an .808 OPS against left-handed pitching, better than all but three of his right-handed teammates.
He’s also hitting for power like never before: Smith’s eight homers already eclipsed his output from five of his seven Minor League seasons, including the six he hit at Triple-A across 85 games in 2018. It took Smith just 34 Major League games in 2018 to match that total.
“I think it’s about him getting the opportunity,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “If you go back into his numbers, he’s always been a really good hitter, with power second. It’s still that way for me. I think he’s a really balanced hitter that uses the whole field, and he’s learning to drive the ball.”
Knowing they’d need to cover at least 18 innings between Wednesday afternoon and night, the Orioles fortified their bullpen by recalling right-hander Evan Phillips to serve as their 26th man for the doubleheader. They also scratched left-hander Josh Rogers from his scheduled start Tuesday at Triple-A Norfolk in a move Hyde characterized as a contingency plan in case the club burns through too many pitchers on Wednesday.
“I think there are a lot of things that are in consideration when you have a doubleheader,” Hyde said. “It’s not only about today or tomorrow. You just don’t know how today’s going to go. It could go two games at 15 innings [each]. Your starter doesn’t last long, and all of a sudden, you’re short the next couple of days."
That ended up not happening, as the club received six-inning starts from David Hess and Andrew Cashner and used just four relievers -- only Branden Kline for multiple innings -- in the twin bill. As such, the Orioles left the Bronx with their bullpen in relatively good shape. Phillips never appeared and was returned back to Norfolk on Wednesday night.