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Division III Pitcher Grows Into Draft Prospect

Image credit: Hugh Smith (Courtesy of Whitworth University)

High school senior Hugh Smith was, like most high school pitchers, saying goodbye to baseball. He was a 6-foot-3, 165-pound righthander who survived by mixing his pitches and getting good movement on his modest fastball. And like most high school pitchers with a low 80s fastball and feel, Smith was preparing to move on with his life.

“I was 82-84 mph,” Smith said. “I was definitely just trying to spot the fastball, get some two-seam movement. And I was pitching guys backwards.”

Smith enjoyed playing baseball and he had pitched well for Skyline High in Sammamish, Wash., but college beckoned. An excellent student, Smith was headed to the University of Washington to study biophysics. Smith wasn’t going to play baseball for the Huskies, but he had no offers to play baseball, so  that never really factored into the decision.

Whitworth (Wash.) College junior Hugh Smith is now one of the top draft prospects in the Northwest. He’s likely to be drafted early on day two of this year’s draft, completing a wild ride that saw him go from saying goodbye to baseball to becoming one of the top draft prospects to come out of a Division III school this decade. The pitcher who figured his baseball career was over when high school ended is now aware he may have to put his biology studies on hold to become a pro baseball player.

Smith is now on the tail end of a pretty amazing growth spurt. His driver’s license (from the end of his sophomore year in high school) lists him at 5-foot-10, 130 pounds. Smith is now 6-foot-10, 215 pounds. As he gained 12 inches in height, he also added 12 mph to his fastball.

He went 6-1, 1.66 this year for Whitworth, earning Northwest Conference pitcher of the year honors. He’ll pitch in his final game of the season on Saturday against NAIA power Lewis-Clark (Idaho) State in front of a large number of evaluators who will get a last chance to evaluate him.

Those scouts are enamored with Smith’s rare combination of size and athleticism. He carries his velocity deep into games and shows an understanding of how to pitch.

Smith’s path from non-prospect to potential top 100 pick began with a chance meeting.

Whitworth (Wash.) coach C.J. Perry saw Smith pitch for a club team in the summer after his senior year in high school. Then the school’s assistant coach, he was impressed by Smith’s feel for pitching and told the still-growing righthander that if he wanted to keep playing, Whitworth would have a roster spot for him.

“What really stood out even in high school is everything he did was fluid. Watching him run sprints, there was no baby giraffe movements,” Perry said. “Usually you see a lot of young basketball players who don’t know what their limbs are doing. Everything looked controlled and fluid and athletic.”

Smith politely declined. He was headed to Washington. This wasn’t an offer for a full ride. Whitworth is a Division III school, so no one on the team receives scholarship money to play.

“I was flattered. But I didn’t want to ditch the UW thing,” Smith said.

But the idea of getting a chance to keep playing baseball kept appealing to Smith. He ended up taking a trip to check out Whitworth’s campus that August. He met with Perry and then-Whitworth head coach Dan Ramsey, who has since taken a job as a manager for the Twins.

“I had a ton of questions, they answered all of them. I loved their energy,” Smith said.

And by the time he headed home, he was heading to Whitworth. As a freshman, Smith got into the weight room as he kept growing. As a 6-foot-6, 200-pound freshman, he started to brush 90 mph at his best. As a 6-foot-7, 205-pound sophomore, he touched 93 mph. Pitching in the West Coast League that summer, he started touching 93 mph more often.

This year, he’s able to pitch off his fastball as his 92-96 mph two-seam fastball still has excellent movement, but now he can blow hitters away as well as trick them.

“He had to learn how to pitch at 81-84 to get outs in high school,” Perry said. “In order to compete he had to locate his secondary pitches. It’s a pitching coach’s dream. He knows how to locate a fastball.” 

Smith pitches primarily off his fastball, but he can also front-door or back-door his potentially plus slider and his changeup has late fade. His control has continued to improve as he’s matured.

“Whitworth is a smaller school, but 96 mph plays anywhere,” said a scout who has evaluated Smith this season.

And now Smith’s success may help another Whitworth player fulfill the dream of being a pro player as well. Whitworth has had only four players drafted in school history and none since 2001. But scouts who came out to watch Smith have also noticed shortstop/righthander Joel Condreay.

Condreay leads the team with a .357 average, but it’s the shortstop’s plus arm that gets the most notice. He’ll likely follow Smith on the mound on Saturday, and has a chance to be drafted either as a senior-sign shortstop or as a reliever with a 91-94 mph fastball.

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