After high school, Hugh Smith had no college offers to play baseball and was ready to move on from the game to pursue a bio-engineering degree at the University of Washington.
Now he is a top collegiate prospect primed to get drafted in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft next week.
Smith is a 6-foot-10 right-handed pitcher at Whitworth University. The junior boasts a 96-mph two-seam fastball and put up stellar numbers in the Division III Northwest Conference this past season.
Standing 6-3 his junior year at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Washington, Smith’s fastball ranged from 77 to 80 mph before jumping to the mid-80s his senior year.
“His fastball was probably 81-85 miles per hour,” Whitworth head coach CJ Perry said. “He had a really good feel for his changeup, he was really good at executing pitches, working off the two-seam and knowing who he was and what his strengths were as a pitcher.”
Perry, who was Whitworth’s pitching coach at the time, first got a glimpse of Smith during a pregame bullpen at a summer league game in a Fourth of July Tournament.
“Everything he did looked effortless,” Perry said. “He was hitting his spots, he was working all over the strike zone with his fastball, he had command of his secondary pitches, which is always a plus. He was fun to watch, pretty much in everything he did.”
Perry offered him a spot on Whitworth’s roster, but Smith turned it down because everything was already set in place for him to go to UW. Then summer ball ended for Smith in a regional semifinal game in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
After what had seemingly been his final game, Smith recalls sitting on the field thinking, “I don’t really know if I’m ready to give this up quite yet.”
That triggered Smith to consider his opportunity with Whitworth. Realizing they had the academic program he wanted, along with smaller class sizes than UW would offer, Smith decided on Whitworth by later that August.
Smith came out his first season at Whitworth stronger and more in tune with his mechanics, ultimately earning first-team All-NWC and All-West Region (third team) by D3baseball.com. He began the season out of the bullpen, not allowing a run over his first 17 innings.
From there he moved up to a starting role, finishing the season as the team’s No. 1 starter after going 6-1 with a 2.57 earned-run average. Smith also led the team with 48 strikeouts over 77 innings.
He endured a bit of a sophomore slump the next season, finishing 3-4 with a 6.08 ERA. Smith said his mechanics were off after not throwing enough during the summer, although he still struck out 42 over 47 1/3 innings.
Now Smith has established himself after a strong junior season. His fastball peaked at 97 and he finished 6-1 with a 1.58 ERA. He also didn’t surrender a home run while striking out 67 over 62 2/3 innings.
Perry attributed some of Smith’s development to a slight change in approach. Once sitting with a fastball in the mid-80s, Smith’s mindset has matured from pitching to contact, to knowing he can blow past hitters.
“Every time he steps on the mound, he has the potential to beat guys with the fastball,” Perry said. “Every time he takes the mound, he’s the best guy on the field, and he’s starting to pitch like that.”
Smith’s talent, along with that of shortstop Joel Condreay, who may also get drafted, brought in MLB scouts to every game this year. That exposure of playing under the eyes of scouts helped the rest of the team grow.
After the Pirates finished 24-17 in 2017, Perry felt this season (17-20) didn’t meet expectations in his first year as head coach.
“I think we underperformed and I think if you were to ask our team, they would tell you the same thing,” Perry said.
The team played well over the last three weeks of the season, winning three of its last five games and ending on a high note by beating Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston.
“I couldn’t think of a better way to go out, given the circumstances of this year,” Perry said.
Since the season ended, the coaching staff has been assisting Smith and Condreay in lining up their final workouts before the draft. Smith lines up a top-100 collegiate draft prospect.
“I’ve heard that he’ll be probably a second- through sixth- or seventh-rounder,” Perry said.
Smith is back in Sammamish and will be there with his family during the draft, which starts Monday at 3 p.m.
Smith said he has no idea where he’ll be drafted, but he’s having fun with it.
“(I’m) just enjoying it,” Smith said. “It’ll be a good day, I’m sure.”
If he could go back and tell his high school self where he is now, Smith said he wouldn’t have believed it.
“It’s been a pretty unbelievable ride,” Smith said. “The journey’s been incredible and I’ve loved every second of it.”