Smith-Njigba putting strong eye, stronger bat on display

March 17th, 2023

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Canaan Smith-Njigba has no reservations when it comes to mimicking his favorite player.

On an otherwise nondescript summer night on July 1, 2014, David Ortiz had one of the most iconic plate appearances of his career, walking to first base before the Cubs’ Neil Ramirez could deliver his 3-0 offering. Ramirez missed wide for ball four. Following Ortiz’s retirement, a Texas kid with his own affinity for drawing walks would follow the Hall of Famer’s ways.

“I’m not going to lie, I’ve pulled that a couple times,” said Smith-Njigba, who homered in the Pirates’ 6-2 win over the Rays on Friday. “When I know they’re not throwing, absolutely.”

Smith-Njigba has done the move as early as the Gulf Coast League, when he was still a teenager. He’s pulled the move as recently as last season with Triple-A Indianapolis. But he’s yet to do so at the Major League level. Should Smith-Njigba keep impressing during Spring Training, he might have his opportunity in The Show.

“I think getting on base helps the team win, and I feel like that’s the only thing that we’re focused on: winning,” Smith-Njigba said. “If I can get on base for Oneil Cruz or Carlos Santana or somebody who can come up and drive me in, it’s 2-0 instead of 1-0. I just want to help contribute to this team winning and get on the right track for us to be playing in the postseason.”

Smith-Njigba’s discipline and on-base ability are his calling cards. In the Minors, he owns a career 15.2% walk percentage and .387 on-base percentage. For context, Joey Votto has a career walk rate of 15.7%. Before suffering a fractured right wrist that ended his season, Smith-Njigba reached base in each of his first three Major League games.

This spring, Smith-Njigba’s offensive abilities have been on full display. In 12 games, he’s produced a .259/.375/.481 slash line with two home runs, four walks (12.5% walk percentage) and a steal.

Smith-Njigba hit his second homer of spring on Friday, but technically, he has hit three balls over the outfield wall this spring. The left-handed hitter cleared the fences against the Orioles on March 8, but due to some confusion -- Smith-Njigba thought Baltimore’s Colton Cowser robbed him, causing him to pass Travis Swaggerty on the bases -- he ended up with a single and two RBIs rather than a three-run home run.

The phantom long ball won’t show up in the stat sheet, but manager Derek Shelton counts it all the same. If that home run against Baltimore counted, Smith-Njigba would have, all things being equal, a .968 OPS.

“I think it’s really important that he’s doing damage, because we know he controls the zone,” Shelton said. “Him impacting the baseball is something we’ve challenged him on, and I think we’ve seen that this spring.”

Smith-Njigba hasn’t just been impressive with his plate discipline; he’s been mashing the baseball, too. This spring, the lefty has generated an average exit velocity of 92.7 mph on 18 batted balls. For context, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had the 10th-highest average exit velocity last season at 92.8 mph. Of the 18 balls Smith-Njigba has put in play, six have produced exit velocities of at least 100 mph. Smith-Njigba’s hardest-hit ball of Spring Training was an 111.5 mph single, which would have ranked in the 78th percentile last season.

“I’ve always hit the ball hard,” Smith-Njigba said. “It’s just about getting the ball more in the air, and I feel like I’ve been doing that. I feel like every time I put a good swing on the ball, it comes off hard. I’m a big, strong dude. I feel like it’s only a matter of time until it really clicks and then it’s over from there.”

For all Smith-Njigba has done this spring, a spot on the Opening Day roster isn’t guaranteed. 

The competition for the fourth outfield spot appears to be a two-man race between Smith-Njigba and Travis Swaggerty, the latter of whom owns a 1.069 OPS in 14 games. Swaggerty, arguably the best defensive center fielder on the 40-man roster, has his own case to make. If one tapers off, the other could pull ahead.

Smith-Njigba isn’t focusing his attention on the competition. He can’t control who the team picks. He can control the quality of his at-bats. If he maintains his plate discipline and if he maintains his hard contact, Smith-Njigba will have his opportunities to mash -- and continue paying homage to his favorite player.