PHOENIX – When center fielder Tim Locastro was forced to leave a game against the Washington Nationals after dislocating his pinky trying to steal second base, the Diamondbacks were in a bind.
After losing star center fielder/second baseman Ketel Marte in the sixth game of the season, Locastro was the lone center fielder left on the roster. In a forward-thinking move mere hours earlier, the Diamondbacks acquired center fielder Nick Heath from the Kansas City Royals. There was only one problem: He wasn’t available for that game in D.C.
Instead, manager Torey Lovullo turned to Pavin Smith, the college first baseman turned corner outfielder, to man center field the rest of the game. The decision seemed odd considering the Diamondbacks have two veteran outfielders in David Peralta and Kole Calhoun with experience, albeit limited, in center field.
It was a move that, in an emergency, Lovullo was prepared to make.
“We knew that he was capable of playing on the corners and he had been getting a lot of time on the corners last spring training, especially the original spring training in 2020, he was getting a ton of reps in left field,” Lovullo said. “Then we migrated through spring training … and we thought that he could, in an emergency or in a pinch, play center field. So, on that particular day, we needed somebody, and we’ve liked what we’ve seen ever since.”
Since joining the Diamondbacks organization as a first-round draft choice in 2017, Smith has learned how to play both corner outfield spots to go along with first base.
Smith recalls going out to center field out of curiosity during a batting practice session simply to see a couple baseballs off the bat. Before stepping in for Locastro, however, Smith had no recollection of playing center field in a game, not at the Diamondbacks alternate training site at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale last year, or even back to his Little League days.
To step out there in a Major League Baseball game required some adjusting.
“It was definitely different,” Smith said. “I knew that I’d taken balls off the bat in (batting practice) in center field, so I knew I could do it. It was just a matter of the unknown of how the ball is going to play in the game but once you get that first one under your belt, that first fly ball, it’s not as hard as I psyched myself up for it to be.”
Smith, the Diamondbacks’ 15th-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, has now made an appearance in center field in all but two of the Diamondbacks’ last eight games since filling in for Locastro on that cloudy Saturday afternoon in the nation’s capital. In that time, Smith has looked the part by not making an error or any egregious mistakes that have cost his team.
After a few games and with a few plays under his belt, Smith says that playing center field is actually very similar to playing a corner outfield spot, but there are still a couple details that differentiate center field from the corners.
For one, there’s more ground to cover. Smith isn’t the fastest person on the field, but in his limited sample of appearances in center field, he’s been able to get to his spots and catch the balls he’s supposed to catch.
Also, fly balls and line drives to left or right field tend to slice toward the foul pole. This is not the case in center field, outside of a ball flying toward the gaps. In adjusting to that, as well as to playing the position as a whole, Smith had plenty of guidance.
“It was all the guys saying ‘hey it’s just another fly ball you’ve got to go get,’” Smith said. “Kole played it a little bit and having guys that play the outfield in general, it’s good to be around. Coach (Chris) Cron, who’s here now, has been helping us in the outfield a lot with positioning and stuff like that. I did feel a little nervous at first but the nerves went away pretty quickly once I realized it feels a lot like playing right field or left field.”
Smith’s smooth transition to center field has impressed his manager, who says he showcases abilities that will only allow him to improve at the position with time.
“He has made incredible strides and incredible adjustments in that part of his game to the point where he’e the starting center fielder for us on a couple of occasions and a trusted center fielder for us,” Lovullo said. “He gets good reads. He’s got good instincts. He takes good angles to the baseball. I think as he gets more time out there, he’s going to continue to get better and better.”
Another adjustment Smith has had to make this season is hitting in the leadoff spot. Smith has led off the Diamondbacks’ last six games and done nothing but hit, collecting 10 hits in total, four for extra bases, including launching his first career leadoff home run in the second game of a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves and is batting .357.
Maybe most significant: The Diamondbacks have gone 5-1 since inserting Smith into the leadoff spot.
Hitting leadoff, Smith knows he will get the most plate appearances every night. Therefore, he doesn’t feel the need to get down on himself should the first couple at-bats end poorly because he knows he will likely end up getting three or even four more chances to do damage at the plate.
As for how Smith approaches hitting out of the leadoff spot, he says nothing is different.
“My approach doesn’t change,” Smith said. “(I’m) swinging at my pitches, trying not to expand the zone. That doesn’t change when I’m up in the leadoff spot or down in the order.”
Major League Baseball dropped the designated hitter in the National League after it was used in last year’s pandemic-shortened season. As a result, Smith had to learn one important nuance of being the leadoff hitter with the pitcher’s spot back in the lineup in 2021.
“The first time I hit leadoff, I didn’t take my time getting to the plate and Luke (Weaver) didn’t have a big enough breath,” Smith said. “Now, I’ve realized you’ve got to go slow, try to delay it a little bit, things you don’t realize people do when you’re not in that position yourself.”
By adding center field and leadoff hitter to the resume, Smith has made himself even more valuable to an organization that preaches positional flexibility.
And it gives Lovullo more options when filling out the lineup card.
“It’s a great luxury that I have as a manager to be able to play him in any outfield position and first base,” he said. “Great job by him.”