Dominic Smith Secures a Position With the Nationals

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Nationals have found the left-handed bat that they were looking for. Yesterday, Bob Nightengale reported that Dominic Smith has signed a one-year deal that will send him down I-95 to Washington. Robert Murray of FanSided reported that the deal was for $2 million, with performance bonuses worth up to another $2 million. According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, those bonuses relate to the number of plate appearances Smith makes. The Nationals 40-man roster is full, so they will need to make a move in order to clear space for Smith.

After snagging Jeimer Candelario on a one-year deal in November, the Nationals have now filled both corner infield spots with free agent bounce-back candidates. In Washington, Smith might finally get the one thing he’s always needed: time. After six big league seasons, the 27-year-old Smith has never had a regular position, and has topped 200 plate appearances just once.

Nightengale also reported what might be the most important part of this story: that Smith will be playing first base for the Nationals. Although the team non-tendered Luke Voit earlier in the offseason, that was not necessarily seen as a certainty. Manager Dave Martinez said during the Winter Meetings that he hoped first base would be the primary position of 2022 rookie sensation Joey Meneses. Over the course of his career, Smith has spent more innings in the outfield than he has at first. It’s at least reasonable to imagine that playing every day at his preferred position could make a real difference to a player who’s never had the luxury of stability.

Mets fans have always had a soft spot for Smith. If you search for his name on social media right now, you’ll mostly find people wishing him all the best. Somehow you’ll find people wishing him all the best even if you check the comments section of the New York Post. That’s not where one normally searches for benedictions. The Mets selected Smith out of high school as the 11th overall pick in the 2013 draft, and he ranked on top 100 prospect lists through much of his tenure in the minors. However, there were concerns along the way: Smith was a six-foot-tall first baseman who didn’t display that much power, who sometimes seemed too passive at the plate, and who could look lost against left-handed pitching. An elite hit tool and quality defense at first base were supposed to carry him.

Smith made it to the big leagues in 2017, but he struggled against big league pitching, splitting both ’17 and ’18 between Flushing and Triple-A Las Vegas. He broke out with a 134 wRC+ in 2019, but a stress reaction to his right foot limited him to 89 games. 2019 was also the year of the Polar Bear. Pete Alonso’s 53 home run rookie campaign meant Smith spent less time playing first base than he did attempting to play left field. Despite bouncing between first, left, and DH, Smith played 50 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, exploding for a 166 wRC+, seventh-best in the league. He finished 13th in the NL MVP voting.

And then it was gone. Although he didn’t quite qualify for the batting title, 2021 was the closest Smith has come to a full season. Unfortunately, it was not a healthy one. Smith put up an 86 wRC+ in 145 games, playing through a groin injury, a wrist injury, and a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder. His barrel rate dropped by more than half, and his ISO fell 180 points from 2021. After starting 2022 platooning with J.D. Davis and performing even worse than he did in ’21, Smith was optioned to Triple-A in May. He was recalled three weeks later, but got sent down again after spraining an ankle. The team traded for Daniel Vogelbach to fill the role of lefty slugger, and Smith didn’t play for the big league club again despite being recalled in October. He made $3.95 million in 2022, and the Mets non-tendered him rather than enter arbitration.

When Smith revealed the extent of the injuries he’d played through in 2021, he said that he expected his pitch selection to improve in ’22: “I was cheating on pitches to catch up because I didn’t have my legs,” he said. “Now I feel like I’m able to recognize certain pitches. I’m not just out on my front foot flailing, or guessing.” His plate discipline certainly changed:

Dominic Smith Plate Discipline – 2021-22
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
2021 33.1% 70.8% 51.8% 55.8% 83.3% 74.5%
2022 25.9% 64.1% 45.4% 49.3% 86.8% 76.3%
Career 31.4% 68.8% 50.3% 56.4% 82.8% 74.6%

Smith posted career-low swing rates both in and out of the zone. Unfortunately, the drop in his swinging strike rate was matched by an increase in his called strike rate. His overall strike rate was 27.7%, just above his career average, and his highest since 2018. The increase in his strikeout rate was higher than the increase in his walk rate. Patience at the plate does not seem to be the answer.

Jay Jaffe wrote about Smith’s struggles back when the Mets demoted him to Triple-A in June. Smith made it back to Flushing for another 51 plate appearances, but most of what Jay noted stayed the same. Smith’s 2022 batted ball profile included a drastically increased groundball rate and a disastrous 10% drop in his line drive rate. On hard-hit fly balls, his slugging percentage was .563, down from 1.262 in 2021 and 2.375 in ’20. Some of that was likely due to a de-juiced baseball and some was likely just bad luck, but some of it has also got to be about Smith. For what it’s worth, Smith hit well in Triple-A Syracuse in 2022. His major league slash line was .194/.276/.384, but his minor league line was .284/.367/.472, good for a 122 wRC+.

Quite simply, Smith needs to hit. His defense at first has never graded out all that well, and the less said about his time in the outfield the better. Smith has a career wRC+ of 100, but he’s never been particularly close to league-average in any single season. He’s had four seasons at 86 or worse, and two at 134 or better. It would be easy to group Smith’s career in two-year segments: two bad ones, two good ones, then two more bad ones. However, the underlying metrics have never stayed all that consistent in any of those two-year windows. Smith’s 2022 line looks oddly similar to his 2020 line:

Dominic Smith Statcast Metrics – 2019-22
Season EV maxEV LA Barrel% HardHit% wOBA xwOBA
2019 88.3 108.5 15.1 6.8% 34.6% .368 .322
2020 89.8 110.7 10.8 13.3% 46.7% .412 .392
2021 89 109.5 14.9 6.5% 40.3% .291 .325
2022 89.6 107.2 10.9 7.1% 46.5% .254 .293

His exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and launch angle are nearly identical, so why is his barrel rate so much worse? It’s because when Smith hit the ball hard in 2020, he hit it in the air, and when he hit the ball hard in 2022, he hit it on the ground:

Dominic Smith Exit Velocity – 2019-22
Season GB LD FB
2019 88.9 89.1 93.1
2020 87.6 88 95.1
2021 88.1 87.8 92.5
2022 90 87.5 93.4

Smith has pulled the ball less in each of the last two years, but he is still shifted regularly. As such, he’s widely considered a possible beneficiary of the shift ban, but if he keeps trading hard contact in the air for hard contact on the ground, infield alignment can only help him so much.

After 1,373 plate appearances, it wouldn’t be completely unreasonable to say that we’re still not certain about Smith’s true talent level. The short 2020 season is the only time he’s played enough to qualify for the batting title, and his only full(ish) season was his injury-plagued ’21. As you might expect when dealing with such small samples and a player who doesn’t hit the ball out of the ballpark, Smith’s performance has been highly subject to batted ball variance:

Dominic Smith Batted Ball Stats – 2017-22
Season PA wOBA – xwOBA BABIP HR/FB% wRC+
2017 183 -.044 .218 22.5 74
2018 149 .042 .297 13.2 83
2019 197 .046 .320 22.4 134
2020 199 .020 .368 22.2 166
2021 493 -.034 .298 9.1 86
2022 152 -.039 .263 0 67

In 2022, 91% of qualified players had a wOBA within 33 points of their xwOBA. Smith’s wOBA and xwOBA have only been that close once in his six major league seasons.

The Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty noted that Smith is the fourth former-first rounder the Nationals have picked up this this offseason, after the team signed Jeter Downs, Michael Chavis, and Derek Hill to minor league contracts. For the Nationals, signing Smith is yet another way to buy low. If he thrives in an everyday role, the team could flip him to a contender or decide to keep him for 2024. For Smith, however, playing in Washington could finally be a real chance to figure things out.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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Mike NMN
1 year ago

A lot of rummaging around the bargain bin for the Nats this year.

1 year ago
Reply to  Mike NMN

Which is exactly what they should be doing.
See what these ex-prospects might do.
If they find even one keeper they’re ahead.
Also: no sense burning service time on players thst aren’t really ready.

1 year ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Pair him with Sano and you might get a pretty decent cheap platoon 1B/DH?

1 year ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

I will not be surprised if Sano fails to get a major league deal. Even if someone is specifically looking for a right-handed 1B/DH, Mancini is still unsigned and probably ahead of him, and Voit and Gurriel may be ahead of him too. And that’s before we get to a bunch of other guys like Profar, Duvall, Grossman, Pham, Solano, Anderson.

I suspect Sano and Aguilar are going to be the odd men out, plus maybe two or three of the other guys.