Dominic Smith Is Hitting Himself out of a Pinch

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.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Backdoor Slider
3 years ago

Interesting timing of the article, as the Mets have sat Dom 3 days in a row. The Mets should be getting creative to keep his bat in the lineup. But they’re the Mets.

3 years ago

How creative are we talking? I hear the CF job in Queens is up for grabs.

3 years ago

Speaking of creative, congrats for coming up with “But they’re the Mets”! It’s easy to say they should get creative, without considering all of the factors in play. Last night a lefty was starting, so it wouldn’t have made sense to start Dom in place of Alonso. The two nights before that, Cano had just come back and was hitting well- so it would be odd to bench him. So, do you bench Frazier who is hitting well lately, or McNeil, or Conforto? If Conforto or McNeil can move to CF, that changes the equation, but as it stands now, it’s not as simple as you suggest.

Smiling Politely
3 years ago

Maybe. But if the Dodgers figured out how to make Muncy a 2B and now Pederson a 1B, the Mets should be able to make it work–or should flip him while his value is high (hard to imagine them trading with PHI, but maybe TB?). But then they wouldn’t be the Mets.

3 years ago

“But then they wouldn’t be the Mets.”- how refreshingly smug and condescending! Are you suggesting that they convert him, midseason, into a middle infielder? Or a catcher? What is your realistic suggestion for “making it work”? This is an article about a guy who has drastically improved after having been basically written off after a couple of failed auditions- why does it have to devolve into tired LolMets noise?

3 years ago

Muncy throws RH. Smith throws LH.

I would also note that Muncy may look slow, but he’s not. His sprint speed is above average at 27.7 f/s.

3 years ago

So teach Smith to throw right handed so he can play 2B like Muncy? A left handed throwing/below average runner like Smith can’t really get shoehorned anywhere in the defense outside of three places that are currently being held down by three guys with OPS+ over 140 (Alonso, Conforto and McNeil)….

3 years ago

Nimmo and Cano shouldn’t be starting at all. That doesn’t really help with Smith, but if it means trading Smith or Frazier for anything better than Lagares in CF, that would be a good start. Or a reliever. Or anything, really.

The problem is that the Mets don’t understand the idea of sunk cost, and are going to roll Cano out there every day for the rest of his contract because they don’t want to look stupid for that trade.

3 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Nimmo has been injured for most of the season, and while he’s been ineffective this year when healthy, he put up a 140 wRC+ last year a full season of plate appearances. Are you suggesting that a young player with that kind of performance and elite underlying plate discipline skills should sit on the bench?

As for Cano, he has been the most valuable player in the game behind Trout over the last decade. He was an elite bat even with his advanced age last season. Are you really suggesting the Mets should be aggressively benching him to make room for Dominic Smith, who has all of 100 PA of success after 3 seasons in the majors?

Let’s also consider that on the whole the offense hasn’t been the problem for the Mets. We can score runs just fine. The problem is that we can’t seem to give up less than 4 or 5 runs per game. Even the best offenses can’t keep up with that.

There’s a lot you can criticize the Mets for. But their decisions regarding Nimmo, Cano, and Smith are no different than a well run, competent organization would make.