COLLEGE PARK — Kevin Smith is dedicated to mastering a game with no master, so in the Maryland baseball shortstop's worst days, when the hits just don't keep coming, his struggles can seem to raise questions of art and science.
Is he like the talented author suffering from writer's block, waiting and working and waiting some more for a breakthrough after a run of inspired production? Or is he more mad scientist, his success tied to experimentation and reinvention, each day another chance to research the game's most pressing question: What makes a good swing?
The answer is likely somewhere in between, because pegging Smith as one thing or the opposite has almost never gone well. Even now, in his junior year in College Park, after the summer all college ballplayers dream of, the preseason All-American is trying to move past a nightmarish beginning to the season.
For obsessives such as Smith, who talks about a bat's barrel angle the way a sommelier might Cabernet vintages, that's baseball: Strive for McGwire, and on some days you might end up closer to Mendoza.
"Not that he's always going to make every single play or be 100 percent successful, but he probably is," coach John Szefc, whose Terps (6-5), the Big Ten Conference preseason favorites, open their first home series of the season Friday against Bryant, said last month. "And if he's not, he will be sooner or later."
Most thought it would be sooner than later this season. Despite a disappointing-for-him sophomore year — .259 batting average, .308 on-base percentage, eight home runs, 34 RBIs, no NCAA tournament — Smith was invited to the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League last summer. He knew well the challenges ahead of him, and hoped the worst was behind him.
Fourteen of the first 34 picks in baseball's draft last June played in the CCBL the year before. One of his teammates on the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, Florida catcher JJ Schwarz, was a two-time All-American. And Smith? All he'd earned were some lousy Freshman All-America honors.
"I wanted to make some changes in the summer," he said, and so Smith set out to devise what Szefc called "a working lab" for himself.
He read a lot of books. He watched a lot of video. He studied clips of the greats at the plate — Ted Williams and Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez — and put them next to his own swing, side by side. He asked his coaches what the legends were doing that he was not, and what they said began to make sense.
In other words, associate Terps coach Rob Vaughn said, he did not treat his summer like a vacation. Vaughn remembers getting a text from Smith during the CCBL season. It was a video. Smith's at a batting cage, by himself, working a batting tee. He wanted to know what Vaughn thought of his swing.
At least that was a question Vaughn could answer. Smith, he said, learns differently than almost anyone on the team. He's "a very intelligent guy," a student in the Robert H. Smith School of Business. He has called to talk to Vaughn to talk about "biomechanical stuff," only to have to explain just what he means. Stuff like the kinetic chain, for instance.
"It's just the sequence of movements — not letting your hands go too early, letting the hips drive the swing," he explained. "There's a lot of little pieces that kind of go into it, but I think the big factor was learning it almost down to what muscles are being used, and then kind of going back to the big picture."
It is a lot to process. So were his final games on the Cape. Over Yarmouth-Dennis' three-game championship series, he went 6-for-12 with a home run and three RBIs, earning Most Valuable Player honors and a league title. For the playoffs, Smith batted .370 with two doubles, three home runs and seven RBIs.
Smith was named D1Baseball.com's Breakout Summer Prospect and a preseason first-team All-American by Baseball America. His future rose with Maryland's: Now he was a first-round draft prospect, and the Terps a preseason top-25 team. He said before the season that his dad wishes Smith thought more highly of the honors, or at least of his own development. (A string bean who didn't make varsity until his junior year at Columbia High School in East Greenbush, N.Y., Smith now stands 6 feet, 188 pounds.)
But a focus on process makes the results easier to understand, even when they're no good. Smith had one hit and struck out seven times in Maryland's first three games. The Terps lost five of their first six overall, including a three-game sweep at No. 5 LSU. Entering last weekend, he was batting .130, lowest among the team's regular starters.
His offense has started to come around since, more like his freshman year and the summer after his sophomore year, not the season in between. He has at least two hits in three of his past four games, and the Terps have won five straight.
Smith will continue to tinker anyway. It's a hobby, he said, like video games. On his computer, he has a folder containing about a half-dozen swing videos he studies "constantly." He visits the analytics website FanGraphs.com daily. He's active on baseball forums, because a stranger's insight into rear forearm placement might help him hit a curveball better, and that might help Smith win another championship this summer.
"You have to take what you can," Smith said of his research, knowing that what he does with it all is still up to him.
"Guys that think they've figured this thing out, whether you're a coach or a player, if you think you've figured it out, you're in big trouble," Vaughn said. "Guys that aren't afraid to learn, guys that are forever learners, are the ones who continue getting really, really good."