Rookie Kevan Smith wanted his first career walk in the worst possible way on Tuesday night.
The White Sox catcher was so intent upon ending a lengthy walk drought to start his career that he determined to lean in against one of the hardest throwers in the league.
Ahead 3-0 in the count with one out in the ninth inning against New York Yankees reliever Dellin Betances, Smith inched closer to the plate. The four-pitch walk Smith drew in career plate appearance No. 130 not only ended the second longest walk-less streak to start a career since 1990, it also jumpstarted a game-winning White Sox rally. Smith was afforded plenty of time to enjoy the moment, too, as manager Rick Renteria immediately pulled him for a pinch runner.
“Oh yeah (I knew),” Smith said. “One hundred percent. I got way on the plate and was like, ‘You’re either going to hit me or walk me’ because I’m not letting this one slide. I’ve been to a few 3-0 counts, but finally got the first one out of the way. Everybody was laughing at me.
“It was a celebratory thing. I got to come off the field on my first one.”
Smith’s moment was worthy of a celebration.
Whereas Tim Anderson’s base on balls-free stretch to start his career got a ton of notoriety in 2016, Smith’s received almost none despite the fact that he soared past Anderson. A highly touted rookie known for his aggressive approach at the plate, people kept close tabs on Anderson’s stretch when he went 85 plate appearances without a walk to start his career. But Smith eclipsed that mark with a strikeout in his lone trip to the plate on June 9. It wasn’t until 44 plate appearances later that Smith could walk the walk.
Since 1990, only Jeff Francouer had gone longer among all major leaguers when he didn’t draw a free pass until his 131 plate appearance in 2005. Smith tied the Yankees’ Oscar Azocar (who walked in his 130th trip in 1990) when he ended the seventh inning with a strikeout against New York starting pitcher Luis Severino.
Other notable White Sox players with lengthy walk-less streaks to start their careers include: Jeff Abbott (84, 1997-98), Dayan Viciedo (83, 2010) and Josh Phegley (83, 2013).
“Dang,” Anderson said with a smile. “Nobody made a big deal about his though.”
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Similar to Anderson, Smith has always been fairly aggressive at the plate. His career walk-rate in the minor leagues is 8.7 percent (195 in 2,229 plate appearances). But that aggression hasn’t prevented Smith from finding offensive success during his third stint in the majors. After going 5-for-42 to start his career, Smith has heated up, hitting .313/.322/.422 with six doubles, one home run and eight RBIs in his last 87 plate appearances.
“The more at-bats he gets up here it's natural to start getting a little more comfortable,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He's certainly showing that he's able to do a few things at the plate. He's handling at-bats more a little more calmly.”
The calmer demeanor has helped Smith stick to an approach in which he has confidence. In seven minor league seasons, Smith carried a .285/.361/.449 slash line. He believes staying with what works will be the key to whether or not he can continue to perform.
“I think what makes guys successful up here is they stick to their approach,” Smith said. “I always use (Joe) Mauer as an example. He stays so true to his approach and looks for what he wants to hit that it’s almost frustrating as a catcher and a pitcher. But there’s a reason he’s been around for so long and I’m envious of what he does in the box. I’m just going to keep trying to get as comfortable as I can and strive for that approach each game and each at-bat.”