Progress in any field of endeavour is seldom made in a straight line.
In the world of professional sports, especially one with a development curve as steep and long as baseball's is, progress can come in a series of backward and forward steps that on balance leave the player moving forward.
Organizations don't always mind seeing a prospect struggle. For some, the difficulties they experience in their early years of pro ball are the first extended taste of failure they've ever had at a game that has come so easily for them. The lessons learned from that adversity can go a long way to helping to develop that prospect.
And that may mean that Blue Jays LHP Matthew Smoral is ready to break through, and start to fulfill the potential the team saw in him when they took him as a first round compensation pick (50th overall) in 2012, despite having missed most of his senior year of high school competition with a foot injury.
The accepted wisdom in baseball that left-handers seem to take longer to develop, and tall ones even more so. 6"8" Smoral made his pro debut in the GCL in the summer of 2013, walking 26, hitting 10, and striking out 27 in 25 innings. Invited to Instructs that fall, the organization worked on refining Smoral's delivery to help correct his control issues. Sent to Bluefield for the start of the 2014 season, Smoral had a scintillating Appy League debut, striking out 8 batters over 3 innings. By mid-season, he was promoted to Vancouver, and played a prominent role in the C's bid for a fourth consecutive NWL title that just fell short.
Heading into 2015, the sky appeared to be the limit for Smoral. The year before, he routinely sat between 91-93with his fastball, touching 95 and showing great movement when down in the strike zone, and showed a slider that could be downright nasty when he commanded it. The plan likely was for the Ohio native to start in the Midwest League with Lansing, but back issues kept him in Florida when spring training camp broke. Brought along slowly, Smoral pitched under the watchful eyes of the Blue Jays medical staff out of Dunedin's bullpen in June, then was sent to Bluefield to presumably get stretched out.
Except that Smoral really never did get stretched out, and was limited to 10.2 innings over 8 appearances, before a late-August screaming line drive off of the side of his head caused the Blue Jays to shut him down for the season.
Entering 2016, Smoral has disappeared from the prospect radar. The Blue Jays 9th ranked prospect after 2012, 13th after 2013, and 11th after 2014, as well as the Appalachian League's 7th top prospect in 2014 by Baseball America, Smoral is appearing on few top prospects lists at this point, and for good reason: 2014 was a major step backward for him.
But there is good news on the horizon. Smoral tweeted a video of himself which clearly shows he's healthy once again:
@AssaultAirBike 51 Cals in 30 sec here @FitnessDiesel . What's the 60 sec record? #TrainingThroughPain #SufferBetter pic.twitter.com/JK1SoaLWth— Matthew Smoral (@MattSmoral) January 21, 2016
It would also appear that Smoral has been working with the crew from Driveline Baseball, a pitching consulting firm that has worked with a number of Jays prospects:
A picture of where @drivelinebases has taken my arm path this offseason, compared to the last two years. pic.twitter.com/JXoGgSgIFV— Matthew Smoral (@MattSmoral) January 18, 2016
The improved arm angle should allow Smoral to stay on top of his pitches better, and keep the ball down in the strike zone with greater consistency. Besides staying healthy, command has been his biggest issue since turning pro.
Undoubtedly, Smoral still has a long road ahead of him. Entering his 4th pro season, he has thrown all of 4 innings above short season ball. At the same time, his health and his mechanics appear to be the best they've been in some time. It's hard to predict a breakthrough season for him just yet, but some of the ingredients are there.