Josh Smith bounces back after injury last year

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Josh Smith was living out a childhood aspiration playing for the LSU Tigers. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana native, led the Tigers to the 2017 College World Series as a freshman, batting .281 with five home runs and 48 runs batted in. Smith was a key contributor for LSU during the NCAA Tournament where he paced the school in batting average and on-base percentage.

His success his first season caused many to feel he was scratching the surface of his potential.

“I played against some of the best competition in college baseball in the SEC each weekend,” Smith said. “It prepared me for pro ball and life after college. Not everything is going to be easy, but you have to prepare for failure, which helped me in the pros. I got to play with a lot of guys that showed me the way as a freshman. They prepared me for life after LSU and also being a leader by working hard and demanding the best out of yourself and your teammates.” 

Elation would turn into agony the ensuing spring when lower back pain limited Smith to just six games. Smith officially suffered a stress reaction in his vertebrae, and his focus turned to recovery. The injury left Smith frustrated and disappointed.

“It was pretty tough on me because I never missed any time from baseball due to injury,” he explains. “Originally, I was supposed to get back on the field in four to six weeks, but I ended up sitting out longer. It was different and tough because I felt slow in everything that I did, so I had to work really hard to get back to normal for the next year. The mental side of things was the hardest to overcome, but luckily, I have felt pretty healthy ever since.”

As his junior season drew near, Smith used the lost sophomore season as motivation. He recovered gradually during the offseason to regain his role as the starting shortstop for the Tigers. Backed by a determined mindset, Smith became one of the top hitters in the SEC, batting .341/.431/.507 with a .938 OPS and 107 total bases. Smith would help LSU reach their eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament.

“The biggest thing for me was to get back out there and have fun again coming off the injury and not put pressure on myself,” he said. “Being the shortstop at LSU they look at you at as a leader, and the team goes where you go, so you try to bring everything to the table.”

Smith’s performance with the Tigers last spring caused him to be considered a first-day selection for June’s MLB draft. The New York Yankees selected Smith with the 67th overall selection.

The Yankees organization continued to produce quality talent from its minor league system. It’s allowed the Yankees to compete at a high level but also caused shortages in their minor league depth. They understand the need to replenish their talent at the minor league levels to sustain their success.

“The Yankees organization reminds me a lot of LSU,” Smith said. “Except on the professional level they demand a lot out of you. The Yankees come with a lot of expectations and with expectations comes with the responsibility to handle your business on and off the field and paying attention to little details. You get to play for one of the top sports organizations in the world. It is pretty cool to put on that jersey each and every day.”

Smith is a versatile middle infielder capable of playing shortstop and second base with athleticism and anticipation. At the plate, he can turn on the ball from the left with modest power potential to his pull field. He combines his power output with an advanced plate approach that enables him to make consistent contact while working deep counts. An effort-oriented mentality helped Smith attain the most of his ability.

“I want to improve on defense more than anything. Hopefully, I will work on my defense in the offseason,” Smith said. “I’m also looking to get stronger, so I can hit the ball with more power to both sides of the field this offseason as well. The main things are working on my defensive game and keep building up my strength to hit the ball to the gaps. Those are focuses as well.”

As Smith begins his professional career in the New York-Penn League with the Staten Island Yankees, he shares the experience with a familiar face. Antoine Duplantis, second all-time in hits in the SEC and a teammate of Smith at LSU, plays across town with the Brooklyn Cyclones and their paths cross literally and figuratively with both teams competing in a late-season pennant race. Playing as opponents in the same city conjures up reminders of their shared memories as teammates with the Tigers.

“Duplantis and I also played against each other at high school,” Smith said. “I always knew who he was, but when I got to LSU, we ended up rooming together. He is one of my best friends. It’s pretty cool to come out here and play against him in the same league and in the same city. We are living out our dreams of playing baseball in New York against each other. It’s fun to compete against him wearing different colors, but I’m happy for what he’s done this summer.”

Since joining Staten Island in late July, Smith exceeded most expectations, batting .324/.450/477 in 32 games with a .927 OPS. He also has maintained his selective nature, recording more walks than strikeouts. His SEC background along with the guiding presence of former Yankees infielder and Staten Island manager David Adams allowed Smith to thrive in the New York-Penn League. 

With his first professional season about to wind down, Smith will apply the lessons and experience he learned in his first pro season. Being a part of a franchise that has a knack for developing the skills of young players will help Smith build upon his impressive first season as a professional and round him into an all-around player.

“I’d like to get bigger, faster, and stronger moving forward,” Smith said. “Everything I do is about getting better. I’m just going to try to control what I can control in all aspects of my game and work as hard as I can. I feel like it’s still baseball and the same game that I have been playing since I was a kid. The one thing I can always do is find fun in the game, and that’s what I try to do every day.”

Read a MLB draft profile on Josh Smith here.

Video of Josh Smith
Gershon Rabinowitz
Gershon Rabinowitz
Gershon Rabinowitz is a reporter based in the New York market who has covered a variety of sporting events including the MLB draft, the 2016 World Baseball Classic, and Big Ten Hockey at Madison Square Garden. In 2013, he co-founded the website Baseball Essential and currently specializes in coverage of professional baseball and hockey.

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