Smith learning ropes of big league catching

Smith learning ropes of big league catching

CHICAGO -- As Kevan Smith undresses near his locker after a June victory over the Rangers, sweat and dirt still smeared over his face, the White Sox catcher recounts each detail aloud, piece by piece.

Two outs. Bases loaded. Two strikes. One-run game. David Robertson, the White Sox closer, is on the mound, and Smith signals for a curveball that he knows will be in the dirt. Robertson executes: the ball is in the dirt, but it scoots behind Smith and the potential tying run comes barreling in from third.

A "calm panic," as Smith described it postgame, ensues. Smith finds the ball, then dives to tap home plate with the ball in his throwing hand just before Joey Gallo's cleat does. Game over.

"Eventually, it'll all slow down," said Geovany Soto, the veteran catcher who was slated to be the everyday man behind the plate on Opening Day.

Soto has been limited to 13 games and 48 plate appearances this season due to right elbow surgery, giving the load to a pair of unproven young catchers in Smith and Omar Narvaez. Smith, who through Sunday had caught just 48 games at the Major League level, called Soto's presence a "blessing in disguise."

Smith made his Major League debut last year, but he wasn't seen as a part of the organization's long-term future -- even being removed from the 40-man roster before the start of Spring Training -- but he's suddenly playing himself into consideration for something deeper.

"That was definitely a blow to the confidence," Smith said of his career outlook this spring. "You think, not that you're untouchable, but that you would never think coming into the spring that you would be designated like that. When I was told about it, it was kind of a blowback, like, 'Maybe I'm not as important to this organization as I thought I was.'"

Injury, circumstance and performance have combined to position Smith in Majors, where he's finding his own. He's hit over .300 the last month and is splitting time with Narvaez, getting more and more comfortable. With each positive -- such as crediting a new shipment of Louisville Slugger bats for his first Major League home run -- there are the realities of the negative, such as the fact he's caught just one of 30 basestealers this season, and his pitch-framing numbers fall below the league average.

"The big word for me is being comfortable," Smith said. "Being comfortable with the game plan, being comfortable on the field, not letting the adversity or the distractions or the negativity, any of that stuff get to you."

Smith's name falls below those of the White Sox top prospects, like 2016 first-round selection Zack Collins, Seby Zavala or even 2017 selection Evan Skoug, but the former seventh-round pick is hoping his continued development can help keep him as part of the White Sox future plans.

The 29-year-old Smith is learning the variety of frazzling decisions that can enter a young catcher's mind during a game. What he's excelled at, White Sox manager Rick Renteria said, is an unteachable skill for a catcher -- dealing with a pitcher.

"Pitchers and catchers have their own language," Renteria said. "I think when there's a trust involved in their work -- I think he's able to calm down pretty much anybody if they need to calm them down or speed them up, whatever the case might be."

Smith's time in the Majors may not be guaranteed, but he's making the most of it.

"A lot of players can get overwhelmed with it," Smith said. "I think now I have some time under my belt working with these older guys and the confidence is coming. I feel comfortable. I've just got to keep rolling with it."

Fabian Ardaya is a reporter for MLB.com based in Chicago. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.