Comstock Park, Mich. — It’s a short list and long odds for guys as tall as Hugh Smith to make the major leagues.
But, listed at 6-foot-10, the 22-year-old West Michigan right-handed pitcher could someday become the tallest Tiger ever, eclipsing Doug Fister and Tony Clark, who were both 6-8.
“I know I have longer levers,” said Smith, who admits he's an inch shorter than his listed height. “I can get down the mound where I can get more extension, which plays into perceived velocity.
“And then, I kind of have a little bit of a crossfire going, so I kind of stride across my body a little bit. And just because my arm is coming like that, it makes it look like it’s coming from behind the hitter.”
But while long limbs can be advantageous for a pitcher, there’s more that can go wrong in the delivery.
“There’s a lot of moving parts there,” Whitecaps manager Lance Parrish said. “You’ve got long arms and long legs and you’ve got to try to maintain your balance, being mechanically in sync and it’s hard to do that when you’re that big.”
Parrish has some experience in the matter, catching 6-foot-10 Hall of Famer Randy Johnson for six starts with Seattle in 1992.
While Parrish was in the twilight of his career, the “Big Unit” was building his reputation before eventually becoming one of baseball’s most feared pitcher.
Through four Whitecaps starts in Low-A, Smith, a Seattle-area native, is 0-3 with a 4.82 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 18.2 innings. On Friday night, he threw a season-high six innings and 87 pitches in a 5-3 loss to South Bend.
But the more tantalizing numbers are on the radar gun, where Whitecaps radio voice Dan Hasty said Smith has reached 97 mph.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he was throwing in the triple digits sooner rather than later,” Hasty said. “The one thing that’s really stood out for me about him is his ability to add and subtract off his fastball. Usually you see guys throw their fastball around their same speed, but I’ve seen him touch every number in the 90s (up to 97) on his fastball.
“I think that will serve him well down the line.”
Pretty good for a guy who nearly hung up the cleats in favor of the books out of high school.
After graduation, Smith thought a summer travel ball tournament in Cheyenne, Wyoming, would be his last on the mound.
He was already enrolled at nearby Washington to study biomechanical engineering, but an inspiring tournament run with his buddies pulled surprising heartstrings.
“I was walking off the field and crying, and I was like, ‘Dang, I didn’t know I liked it this much, or I loved it this much,’” Smith said. “So I pretty much talked to my parents after that and decided I needed to look into baseball a little bit more.”
Smith revisited earlier interest from Whitworth, a Division III school in Spokane, Washington.
There, he cracked the rotation as a freshman. After a disappointing sophomore year, his career took off in the summer as a reliever for the Wenatchee AppleSox of the West Coast League.
“I feel like I kind of worked out some things mechanically and mentally, figured out what I wanted to be doing and where I wanted to go,” Smith said.
Smith was the Whitworth ace as a junior, striking out 9.6 batters per nine innings during a 6-1 season, before the Tigers made him a day-two selection last summer in the sixth round
Tigers minor league pitching instructor A.J. Sager, who threw five seasons as a 6-foot-4 big leaguer, said the main focus is getting Smith’s direction to home plate on track.
“The delivery was raw, we knew that, so we’re trying to clean that up,” Sager said. “We’ve made some strides, but there’s still some strides to be made. But Hugh is extremely intelligent, extremely coachable and extremely athletic.
“And really those three things usually add to where you should start to see improvement mechanically, and you hope with improved mechanics, we’ll start seeing more stuff coming out.”
Smith, who grew 11 inches in the three years leading up to his arrival at Whitworth, is confident in his change-up and is developing a slider.
The hope is Smith joins six other players in MLB history who are listed at 6-foot-10, just short of Jon Rauch, the tallest MLB player ever at 6-11.
“I’m aiming for the same spot,” Smith said.
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.