Inside a Nashville, Tennessee, ballroom in January 2016, Eddie Smith stood in front of more than 5,000 baseball coaches.
Smith was the head coach at Lower Columbia, a community college on the Washington border about an hour drive from Portland, Oregon. He had won a conference championship the year before, earning 2015 American Baseball Coaches Association/Diamond Pacific Association Division National Coach of the Year.
The honor came with an invitation to speak at the ABCA’s 72nd annual conference. The organization assigned him a presentation on infield play. Smith created a PowerPoint with videos. He discussed drills and his team’s philosophy, sharing as much as he could about the infield. LSU coach Paul Mainieri sat among the crowd.
“I was absolutely mesmerized,” Mainieri said. “It was the most organized, articulate, mature presentation I think I'd ever seen at one of those clinics.”
Three years later, Mainieri hired Smith as LSU’s volunteer hitting coach. Mainieri had let go Sean Ochinko, a former LSU player who held the position for two years. LSU had missed the College World Series for the second straight season, and Mainieri analyzed the program.
“I felt we needed to get a person of experience, of proven record, somebody who really had a game plan on how to develop hitters,” Mainieri said. “We just weren't quite maximizing our potential. I think Eddie's the guy who's going to bring the potential out of these guys.”
Smith grew up in Olympia, Washington. His grandfather had received a master’s degree from Notre Dame after World War II, so Smith loved Notre Dame football. He dreamed of playing quarterback for Notre Dame and shortstop for the Boston Red Sox.
“I had to settle for playing shortstop for Notre Dame,” Smith said.
Notre Dame denied Smith admission out of high school. He went to a junior college, reapplying until Notre Dame accepted him after his sophomore year. He walked-on to the baseball team in 2005 as a utility infielder. Mainieri was the head coach. He compared Smith’s persistence to Rudy Ruettiger, a walk-on football player at Notre Dame who inspired the movie “Rudy.”
After Smith graduated, he wanted to become a baseball coach. Mainieri offered him a position as Notre Dame’s volunteer assistant. But Mainieri soon accepted the job at LSU. He asked his replacement, Dave Schrage, to hire Smith. Schrage said no.
With Smith out of a job, Mainieri called Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor. Virginia wanted a director of baseball operations, so O’Connor hired Smith, beginning Smith’s professional career.
Smith later became Virginia’s volunteer assistant, and he coached at Santa Clara and Notre Dame before he took the job at Lower Columbia. Smith spent four seasons there. He won three straight Northwest Athletic Conference championships.
Smith kept in touch with Mainieri throughout his career, especially when he coached at Lower Columbia. He used what he learned from Mainieri, and sometimes he called his former coach when he needed advice on how to handle a situation within the program.
“He was always so receptive,” Smith said. “He always gave such good guidance.”
Smith accepted a job after the 2017 season as Tulane’s hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. This year, the Green Wave set American Athletic Conference records in eight offensive categories, including home runs (89), batting average (.302), runs per game (7.69), extra-base hits (241) and walks per game (4.88).
As Mainieri looked for a new hitting coach, he scheduled a meeting with Smith. They sat together, and Smith again "mesmerized" Mainieri with his organization, plan and drills — just like he did at the convention three years earlier.
“I felt like we were totally on the same page when it comes to hitting and offensive baseball,” Mainieri said.
While Hurricane Barry moved through Louisiana, Smith spent three days on his computer. He analyzed every returning LSU hitter, the team’s overall statistics, the Southeastern Conference and teams across the country. He looked at ratios, especially extra base hits per plate appearance and walks per plate appearance.
To Smith, those two ratios are some of the most important statistics for offensive production. He wants LSU to focus on extra base hits, walks and hit by pitches because he believes OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) shows the most correlation to runs scored at the collegiate level.
When Smith looked at LSU’s statistics last season, he identified walks as one area that needed to improve. LSU walked 257 times.
“If you look at great teams, the goal should be to have your OPS be about 80 points higher than your batting average,” Smith said. “That's a healthy on-base percentage. A dream would be 100 points higher. That's where I see, statistically, where we need to improve the most.”
Though Smith has statistical goals, his coaching style blends traditional methods. He plans to install an offensive foundation, then individualize each hitter’s approach. He said he will use numbers as a marker, but the players will still spend time on finding the best position to hit a baseball. And though Smith spent a weekend looking at stats, he prioritized relationships once he got the job in early July.
The last three weeks, Smith has called LSU’s hitters and traveled to see them in collegiate summer leagues. As of Tuesday, he had eaten with 14 of the hitters on LSU’s roster next season.
Before he changed their stances or their philosophies, Smith wanted to build relationships with LSU’s players. When fall practice begins in late September or LSU plays a conference game next spring, Smith wants a mutual trust to exist between him and the Tigers.
“If you can get together before you get on the field, it's a huge advantage,” Smith said. “All of a sudden the ice is broken. I know your name. Now, we can talk about your batting approach or your swing.”