Moving down the batting order to his familiar No. 2 hole was all it took to get Caleb Smith going.
After struggling at the beginning of the season as Houston’s clean-up hitter, Smith had a historic season hitting second in the Tigers’ lineup. He hit a robust .537 to etch his place in the team’s history books and earn a spot on the second team of the 2008 Missouri Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association all-state team.
Houston coach Brent Hall said Smith, who batted second last season as a sophomore and played a pivotal role in the Tigers’ second-place state finish, gets credit for the move that led to his breakthrough season.
“You don’t want to let kids make the decisions, but he wasn’t hitting and I asked him, ‘What do we have to do to get you comfortable?’ Hall said. “He said, ‘I really feel comfortable hitting in the 2 hole.’ He was more comfortable there, so I put him there and it worked out.”
Did it ever.
Smith was a hitting machine his junior season at Houston, getting base hits in 29 of hits 54 at-bats. His eye-popping average led the conference and was the highest by .27 points in Hall’s 10-year tenure with the program.
Smith’s average was legit, too. Hall said the team’s statistician, Kent Swearengin, only remembers one hit the entire season that he was unsure about. Take it away and Smith still would have hit .519.
Smith is the definition of a contact hitter, striking out just five times the entire season.
“He’s that good of a hitter,” Hall said. “He got to where he could hit the ball the other way and spray the ball to all fields. When he could do that, he became a tougher out.”
One of Smith’s biggest assets is his aggressiveness. Most of his at-bats didn’t last long. He was often whacking at the first good pitch that came his way.
“I go up there to hit the ball. I’m not going to take a lot of pitches,” said Smith, who batted .297 last season. “The first fastball I see, that’s what I want to hit.”
Smith led Houston in almost every offensive category across the board. He had team highs in batting average, on-base percentage (.643), hits (29), runs (27), stolen bases (14) and hit by pitches (14). He was also second on the team with five doubles and three triples and third with 16 runs batted in.
Smith’s batting average and on-base percentage are just outside the single-season leaders in the MSHSAA records book, but his 14 hit by pitches is tied for 10th-most in state history. The all-time leader is Plato’s Jacob Talbot with 20.
“It seems like he got hit about once a game,” Hall said. “He crowds the plate a little bit and he tends to dive into the ball, so he’s going to need to be OK getting hit by a pitch with his approach to hitting.”
Smith’s willingness to be plunked to get on base is one of the many reasons Hall compared his style of play to Pete Rose. The former major leaguer was nicknamed “Charlie Hustle.”
“He lays his body on the line,” Hall said of Smith. “He’ll get in front of pitches to get on base, he slides head first and he’ll dive for anything. He just hustles everywhere he goes, no matter what he’s doing.”
He’ll also do anything for the team. Smith, who caught last season, struggled at times defensively at shortstop this year for a young team short of middle infielders.
“I didn’t feel very good at shortstop,” Smith said. “I’m not very comfortable on the infield.”
He never complained to Hall, though.
“He never said a word, but it was killing him that he couldn’t catch,” Hall said. “Usually when a kid is playing a new spot it effects their hitting a little bit, but it didn’t for him.”
Hall, who said he’s worked with Smith on his swing but also credited Smith’s grandfather and American Legion coaches in West Plains, said he will move back behind the plate next season. He also said that Smith will likely have to get used to a new spot in the lineup.
“I don’t think he’s going to hit second, unless he just falls flat on his face,” Hall said with a laugh. “We’ll see.”