Dominic Smith Is Hitting Himself out of a Pinch by Tony Wolfe June 20, 2019 Before Peter Alonso’s otherworldly power sent him soaring through the New York Mets’ farm system and into an everyday starting job with the major league squad in 2019, the team had another well-regarded first base prospect that was expected to anchor the position for years to come. Because of a great hit tool, Dominic Smith was ranked by our Eric Longenhagen as the No. 73 prospect in baseball heading into the 2017 season. He failed to produce much as a rookie that year, posting a 75 wRC+ in 183 PA, and he only marginally improved to a 84 wRC+ in 149 PA last season. When Alonso came out of the gates mashing, the defensively limited Smith was effectively reduced to being a bench bat. With his once-rising star dwarfed and his playing time dwindling, the pressure was on Smith to prove himself quickly. It might be a stretch to say he’s proven anything yet, but Smith has certainly recaptured some attention. In 105 PA, Smith has hit .348/.448/.562, posting a 172 wRC+ that ranks fifth-best among all major league hitters with at least 100 PA. Those numbers ought to become even more impressive when considering the fact that Smith has only started 16 of the 60 games he’s appeared in this season, making 30 appearances as a pinch hitter. His numbers in those situations are outstanding: a .318/.500/.545 slash line, with seven walks and just four strikeouts when coming off the bench. The key to Smith’s improvement has been a cooler, more confident approach after watching his plate discipline stats completely bottom out a year ago. In 2018, Smith struck out 47 times and walked only four times, good for a 31.5% strikeout rate and 2.7% walk rate. This year, he has 20 strikeouts against 15 walks — a 19% strikeout rate and 14% walk rate. The sample size is still a tad small, but his near-9% walk rate in the minors suggests his discipline had never been in question before, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest the changes in his approach are real. Dominic Smith’s Plate Discipline Year O-Swing% Percentile Swing% Percentile 2018 39.8% 9th 52.6% 13th 2019 30.4% 54th 44.8% 50th Smith has trimmed his swing rate by nearly eight points, and most of what’s been cut out has been fat. He remains a far cry from the Alex Bregmans and Mike Trouts of the world in terms of how often he chases, but reaching even the middle of the pack in terms of his swinging tendencies represents a major accomplishment for a hitter who was hacking with such little discretion in 2018. The transformation in Smith’s approach can be seen everywhere. Against fastballs, he’s cut his chase rate by nine points according to Statcast. Against breaking balls, he’s cut his chase rate by 14 points. A glimpse at his heat maps give us a pretty good idea of how he’s done it. Let’s start with the fastball. Here’s 2018 vs. 2019. Last year, Smith didn’t see a fastball he didn’t like. Low and inside? Above the belt? In on the hands? He was all over every one of them. In 2019, you see a lot more blue. He won’t let you beat him inside, and he won’t go chasing above the zone quite as much. He’s zeroed in on one part of the zone, and he’s doing a good job not straying from it. It’s a similar story when you examine how he attacks breaking pitches — the pink and red areas are more centralized, except this time, he wants the ball on the inner half: At the same time that Smith has changed the way he approaches pitchers, pitchers have changed the way they approach him. Last year, he was such a free-swinger, it seems he may have convinced pitchers that they don’t need to throw strikes in order to get him out and don’t need to be particularly aggressive early in the count. At least, that’s my own stab at an explanation for the considerable difference in these numbers: Pitchers’ Approach vs. Dominic Smith Year Zone% Percentile F-Strike% Percentile 2018 42.7% 44th 64.4% 82nd 2019 37.8% 7th 54.3% 7th Just 19 players have seen a smaller percentage of pitches in the strike zone than Smith has this season. The list of players ahead of him includes some of the most-feared hitters of 2019, such as Christian Yelich and Josh Bell, and also includes some of the most free-swinging players in the game, such as Jorge Alfaro and Javier Baez. Smith’s low zone percentage might stem from the fact that he’s hit well enough to instill fear in his opponents, or it could come from the fact that pitchers feel they can get away with fewer strikes against him. It could be the fact that, because he sees so many pinch-hit opportunities, he’s facing an abnormally high percentage of relievers, pitchers who might be less concerned with throwing strikes than starters. Whatever the reason is, the important thing is that Smith is no longer playing along. Smith’s new approach — and thus, his breakout season — presents the Mets with an interesting question: What is the best way to give both Alonso and Smith sufficient playing time? The answer, for the time being, appears to be moving Smith to left field. He played 13 games there in 2018, so it isn’t entirely out of the blue, and he hasn’t been a liability there in nine games this season. Even that solution, however, would mean finding somewhere else for Jeff McNeil to play — no easy task, given the money tied up in second baseman Robinson Cano and third baseman Todd Frazier. Wherever he settles, Smith has re-established himself as a young hitter worth watching closely, and someone who should find himself penciled into more starting lineups as the season rolls along.