In Thursday’s 5-1 victory over the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Ryan Smith of the Oilers scored an insurance run after reaching base in the seventh inning when his popup was misplayed by Pilots third baseman Sam Fragale.
For some, reaching on an error would have made the run bittersweet. Not Smith.
“I hate stats,” Smith said. “I feel like people worry about stats too much. They don’t focus on the game, they focus on hitting .350.
“I don’t care how I’m hitting as long as I am on base.”
In Friday’s 7-0 loss to the Pilots, Smith further proved those words true when he finished 0 for 3 but did reach base by hustling down on a dropped third strike by the catcher.
In the bigger picture, Smith’s attitude toward stats allowed him to be the only player to return to the Oilers this season.
Last season, Smith appeared in just four games for the Oilers and got just 10 plate appearances. He also appeared in two games as a pitcher.
Smith said that last season there was a misunderstanding and the Oilers coaching staff thought he was reporting to be a pitcher only, while he was reporting as a position player.
But that didn’t stop Smith from casting his lot with the Oilers again, especially when Jim Dietz took over as head coach in the offseason.
Dietz and Smith go back to Smith’s high school days, when Dietz coached Smith, the son of Mike Elliott and Karmella Smith of Oregon, in his senior year at Siuslaw High School in Florence, Oregon.
Pitcher Jake Thompson, drafted in the fourth round by the Boston Red Sox this year, also was on the team that lost in the high school state championship in 2013.
Dietz put Smith’s athleticism on a par with Thompson, so naturally Dietz was excited to welcome Smith to the Oilers this summer.
“We’re glad he came back even though he didn’t play much last summer,” Dietz said. “He’s a key cog for us.”
Smith shies from comparisons to Thompson.
“We play different positions, so it’s hard to compare us,” Smith, an outfielder, said when told of the comparison. “He throws in the high 90s.
“When you throw in the high 90s, there’s a good chance they’ll find a place for you in baseball.”
While Smith does not throw in the high 90s, Dietz said that the stocky 6-footer does have a cannon arm in the outfield.
That may explain why in three years of junior college — which also includes a medical redshirt season — coaches were always trying to get Smith on the mound, where he could pump his fastball up to 90 mph.
“I’d rather be out in the field,” Smith said. “I like pitching, but I wouldn’t enjoy baseball if it was just that.
“I like hitting too much.”
In 2016 at Lassen Community College in Susanville, California, Smith showed what he could do at the plate by hitting .352 with six home runs and 33 RBIs in 36 games.
From there, he moved to Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph.
But before the 2017 season, his coach suggested a swing change that didn’t work.
Midseason, the experiment was dropped, but that didn’t mean Smith could instantly rewire the muscle memory in his brain.
He struggled to find his old swing, actually having to get his old coach at Lassen, Frank Avilla, to send Smith batting practice tapes so he could watch what he used to do.
“I learn visually,” Smith said. “Players I had played with were telling me what I used to do, but that wasn’t working.”
Smith ended up hitting .265 with 20 RBIs in 37 games for the Griffons. For the Oilers, Smith is hitting .200 for the Oilers with four RBIs and a home run in 15 games.
“I’m just trying to get back on track and find my swing again,” Smith said. “I’ve been hitting the ball hard, for the most part.
“I still have some kinks to work out, but I’m getting closer.”
Dietz agreed that Smith is hitting the ball hard, saying that his outfielder is finding a groove at the plate again and just having hard luck.
“That’s the swing I saw him have in high school,” Dietz said.
Smith would love for this summer to propel him to success in his senior year at Missouri Western, allowing him to continue his baseball career after college. While Smith said his chances aren’t great, Dietz, a member of the American Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame, begged to differ and said he could see Smith playing after next season.
When Smith is done with baseball, right now his hope is to get into wildland firefighting.
It’s that same love for the outdoors that has made him grateful to spend a second summer in Kenai, where he is hosted by Nicole and Kyle Witt.
“I’m from Oregon so I like the outdoors and being outside,” Smith said. “Last summer, I didn’t get much in, but I hoping to do much more this summer.”