Nate Smith ’13 isn’t there yet, but it appears to be only a matter of time until the Furman baseball program has produced its second Major Leaguer in as many seasons.
Less than three years after becoming the school’s highest draft pick since 1977, Smith’s meteoric rise through the Los Angeles Angels’ minor league system has him on the cusp of the big leagues as a member of the Triple-A Salt Lake City Bees. There’s nowhere higher to go than the mound at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, which the left-handed pitcher will almost certainly climb this season if he keeps pitching like he has.
“I try not to think about it too much. I have a great group of friends, all my teammates at Furman especially and then guys from back home, family, that keep me grounded. I lean on them, talk to them a lot. They don’t let me get too big of a head,” Smith said. “Every single player thinks about (playing in the majors) as soon as they pick up a baseball. For me, I just try to be best where I’m at and let the rest play out.”
Being the best wherever he has been, from Utah to California to Arkansas and back to Utah, is a big part of the reason Smith, an eighth-round draft selection, is rated the Angels’ third-best prospect according to both Major League Baseball and Baseball America magazine. The 24-year-old has dominated the competition at four different professional levels, including this season where he has a 2-0 record with a 1.75 earned-run average over four starts as of Monday against many players who have or will play in the majors.
“We follow him very closely. Very proud of him,” Furman Baseball Coach Ron Smith ’79, who was picked 230th overall by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1977 and advanced to Triple-A himself, said. “He’s not a guy who overpowers you, but he throws hard enough. And he’s got an excellent change-up, and that combination along with being left-handed is very good. He’s developed a breaking ball as well, but I think what sets him apart from others is his approach, his mental toughness.”
Nate Smith posted a relatively modest 15-15 record as a Paladin, with a 5.43 ERA over 43 starts (sixth most in school history) in which he struck out 216 in 265.1 innings. The strikeouts are seventh most by a Furman pitcher, and more importantly Smith improved every year while seeing his fastball jump from the mid-80s to low-90s—good enough to get professional attention especially after he grew from a 6-foot, 2-inch freshman who weighed 170 pounds to a sturdy 6-3, 200.
Still, few expected him to display dominance that defies radar-gun readings. Smith has handled pro hitters better than he ever did college ones, holding them to a .230 batting average while increasing his strikeout rate with 277 in 316.1 innings.
“Not so much, no,” Ron Smith said when asked if Nate Smith was a pro prospect when he recruited him out of West Chester High in Ohio. “I don’t know that there was any one year that he made significant strides more than any other. He just got better each year. Became more confident, became more precise, and it was a result of his hard work and his competitiveness and his approach. He’s just always had a great approach.”
Smith’s impressive performance this season is an especially encouraging sign for his future considering how he struggled at the end of 2015 at the same level. After facing virtually no adversity as a pro, he was promoted to the highest level of the minor leagues and was promptly rocked by the talented and more experienced hitters.
Batters posted a .302 average in 36 innings to send Smith into the offseason with an ugly 7.75 ERA, but rather than have his confidence shaken he focused on improving.
“At the end of the year last year, it was a little bit rough, but it was a learning experience,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t say (I was) surprised. It’s part of the game. Even the best pitchers in the big leagues get hit around from time to time. It just means you have to reassess what you’re doing and try to find what’s going wrong and change it.”
Ron Smith says that’s the mental focus he came to expect as a coach.
“From day one when he set foot on our campus, he just did what he was supposed to do,” Ron Smith said. “He dealt with success very humbly. He dealt with the inevitable failures or adversity you’re going to have in baseball with a lot of poise and understood it.”
Smith majored in health sciences, and he admits that he never dreamed he might one day be pitching in front of Mike Trout, the best player in baseball over the past four seasons.
“When I got to Furman I was just hoping I could pass classes. I was more worried about the homework than I was baseball,” he said. “I went to Furman to play baseball but also for the academics. I knew I could get a good education there.”
Smith still keeps in close contact with the program, and as an added bonus whatever homesickness he may have had this year has been alleviated somewhat by Furman’s all-time leading home run hitter and former teammate, Chris Ohmstede ’15, coincidentally taking a job in Salt Lake City.
“The senior class now was the freshmen class when I was a senior, so I still know a couple of the guys. I’m always checking the box scores, seeing how they’re doing,” Smith said. “Here it’s your job. You’re fighting to put bread on the table … I’ll never forget the memories I had in the Furman locker room.”
If he makes it, Smith would be the third of Ron Smith’s former players to appear in the major leagues, joining right-handed pitchers Tom Mastny ’03 and Jay Jackson ’08. Mastny, an 11th-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays, pitched 108 innings over three seasons with the Cleveland Indians, posting a 9-5 record with a 6.13 ERA, while Jackson, a ninth-round pick by the Chicago Cubs, got to the bigs last year with the San Diego Padres and pitched 4.1 innings with four strikeouts and a 6.23 ERA.
In addition to Mastny and Jackson, four other former members of the Paladin program have played in the majors, highlighted by Jerry Martin ’71.
Martin, a member of the Furman Athletic Hall of Fame, starred on the basketball court and baseball field for two seasons before signing as a free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1971. He made it to the majors in 1974 as an outfielder and played for 10 seasons, hitting .251 with 85 home runs in 2,652 at bats and appearing in three World Series.
Pitcher Elbert Andrews ’23 (Philadelphia Athletics) and outfielder Blackie Carter (New York Giants) made brief big-league appearances in the 1920s, and pitcher Art Jones ’26 played in one game with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1932.
Oddly, the most successful professional baseball player with Furman ties outside of Martin never competed on the school’s team. Rick Wilkins spent the fall of 1985 as linebacker on the Paladin football team before being picked in the 23rd round of the 1986 draft by the Cubs and going on to have a 10-year major league career in which he hit 81 home runs and batted .244 in 2,114 at bats.
Jackson currently pitches for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of the Japanese League. Right-handed pitcher Matt Solter ’15 is the other former Paladin currently playing pro ball. He was recently acquired by the San Francisco Giants but has yet to be assigned to a team.
A total of 23 Furman players have been selected by major league teams since the amateur draft began in 1965. Catcher Don Leege ’72, who went 169th overall in 1972, remains the highest pick.
For more on the Furman baseball program, click here.