Dominic Smith’s Slide Sends Him Back to Triple-A

When the National League adopted the designated hitter for good as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Mets figured to be among the Senior Circuit’s top beneficiaries given their stockpile of defensively limited hitters at corner positions. Within that group, Dominic Smith appeared most likely to take advantage of the extra spot in the lineup, whether he was the DH or played the field while someone else did, effectively giving him a do-over after a miserable, injury-marred 2021 season. It hasn’t worked out that way, however, so on Tuesday, the Mets optioned the struggling Smith to Triple-A Syracuse.

The 26-year-old Smith is hitting just .186/.287/.256 (67 wRC+) and has yet to homer through his first 101 plate appearances, a showing that’s a step down even from last year’s limp .244/.304/.363 (86 wRC+) line, which at least featured 10 home runs in 493 PA. That said, where Smith’s dreadful defensive work in left field (-3.8 UZR, -5 DRS, -9 OAA in just 859.2 innings) dragged last year’s WAR down to -1.0, this year he’s been kept out of the outfield, starting 14 games at first base — where he’s more or less an average defender by the metrics — and another eight at DH, leaving him at exactly 0.0 WAR on the year, so there’s that.

In a major league career that’s covered all or part of six seasons, Smith has rarely found middle ground. Chosen as the 11th overall pick out of a Gardena, California high school in 2013, he reached the majors four years later, but in 49 games that year and 56 in ’18, he hit just .210/.259/.406 (78 wRC+) in 332 PA, with 14 home runs but not much else. His conditioning was an issue — the six-foot first baseman reportedly weighed as much as 260 pounds, 21 above his currently-listed weight — and so was sleep apnea. Smith was diagnosed with the condition while at Double-A Binghamton in 2016 but had stopped sleeping with his CPAP mask after a year; he didn’t get enough rest and often struggled with his stamina and concentration.

After taking steps to address both issues, Smith was much improved in 2019, hitting a robust .282/.355/.525 (134 wRC+). However, he had two problems: first, 2016 second-round pick Pete Alonso, the team’s top prospect, won the first base job and hit 53 homers en route to All-Star and Rookie of the Year honors; and second, Smith suffered a stress reaction in his left foot and made just one plate appearance after July 27, a walk-off three-run homer against the Braves on September 29. That impressive line spanned just 197 PA; Alonso’s presence led to Smith starting just eight games at first plus 27 in left field while coming off the bench 54 times, 37 of those as a pinch-hitter.

The pandemic-shortened 2020 season brought the DH to the NL on a full-time basis, which opened up a path to everyday play for Smith. Starting 22 times at first base (17 with Alonso DHing), 21 in left field (eep), and five at DH — Robinson Canó made 13 starts there, J.D. Davis 12 — he thrived, hitting .316/.377/.616 with 10 homers. His slugging percentage and 166 wRC+ both placed fourth in the league. Finally, he was living up to his billing.

Since MLB and the players’ union couldn’t come to an agreement about the DH in the spring of 2021, the Mets were again faced with the challenge of how to squeeze Smith into the lineup. With the full-year PED suspension of Canó clearing the way for Jeff McNeil to spend most of his time at second base instead of left field, Smith made 107 starts in left (where, as noted, the numbers weren’t pretty) but just seven at first base and two at DH.

Despite the bountiful playing time, Smith simply didn’t hit. In late August, hitting coach Hugh Quattlebaum revealed that he had been dealing with a nagging right wrist issue. This spring, Smith told that he was additionally dealing with a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder:

“I was a little bit banged up… The wrist (strain) started in spring training on a check-swing. I didn’t want to miss too much time, so I just wore a little tape on my wrist, and went after it.

“But then because my wrist was hurting, I wound up messing up my labrum due to my one hand follow through on my swing.”

After injuring his shoulder, Smith was forced to start following through with two hands, which had a negative impact on his swing.

Smith did not require surgery, and he spent the offseason strengthening his body and overhauling his swing mechanics to use his legs more. The return of the DH to the NL again offered him a path to playing time, but with Canó back from suspension and new third baseman Eduardo Escobar crowding out the defensively shaky Davis, everyday work wasn’t a given. A potential trade that would have sent Smith to the Padres as part of a package that returned Eric Hosmer and Chris Paddack fell through, after which Smith said, “Who wouldn’t want to play every day? That’s common sense. I can’t trade myself, and I can’t put myself in the lineup. All I can do is show what I can out on the field.”

Thus far, manager Buck Showalter had generally platooned the righty-swinging Davis with the lefty-swinging Smith, though using the latter more at first than at DH. Left field has mercifully been off the menu with the arrival of free agent Mark Canha and the versatility of McNeil, whose ability to play the outfield has opened up second for hot-hitting lefty Luis Guillorme (.365/.443/.459). Smith appeared to be in danger of losing his spot earlier this month when the Mets had to trim their roster from 28 to 26, but they ultimately chose to cut ties with Canó despite owing him $44.7 million through next season. Coincidentally, he’s now a Padre.

So what’s gone wrong for Smith? Based only on his exit velocity and his hard-hit rate, he’s hitting the ball as hard as he did in 2020 (and harder than last year), but his barrel rate is less than a quarter of what it was in the pandemic-shortened season, and his groundball rate is way up:

Dominic Smith Batted Ball Profile
Year BBE GB% EV Barrel% Hard-Hit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2019 133 40.2% 88.3 7.5% 34.8% .282 .239 .525 .433 .368 .322
2020 135 40.7% 89.8 13.3% 46.7% .316 .303 .616 .566 .412 .392
2021 340 38.2% 89.0 6.5% 40.7% .244 .262 .363 .420 .291 .325
2022 64 45.3% 89.7 3.1% 46.9% .186 .213 .256 .350 .254 .293

Overall, Smith’s xwOBA is down nearly 100 points relative to 2020, and his wOBA is down nearly 160 points.

Digging deeper, he pulls the ball with enough frequency to be shifted against with regularity. Even though he’s pulling less often than he did in 2020 — by far the highest rate of his career — he’s seeing more shifts and losing more hits:

Dominic Smith Versus Infield Shifts
Year Pull% Shift% PA H BB AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2019 37.6% 42.9% 94 26 10 .310 .233 .560 .434 .393 .324
2020 42.2% 47.8% 100 31 5 .333 .306 .710 .599 .442 .394
2021 37.1% 57.6% 295 59 15 .216 .243 .337 .405 .265 .303
2022 37.5% 68.8% 67 7 7 .125 .207 .179 .355 .204 .292
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Shift% = percentage of total pitches (not balls in play) with infield shifted.

That’s absolutely brutal. So is this: Shift or no, when Smith hits the ball hard (95 mph or higher), he’s got less and less to show for it:

Dominic Smith on Hard-Hit Balls
2019 Total 46 .609 .520 1.457 1.174 .830 .692
GB 14 .357 .417 .357 .475 .311 .399
FB 16 .750 .533 2.750 1.958 1.364 .979
2020 Total 63 .574 .557 1.344 1.253 .760 .724
GB 18 .167 .332 .167 .370 .147 .313
FB 18 .750 .592 2.375 2.208 1.112 .992
2021 Total 138 .504 .495 .874 .940 .568 .606
GB 43 .442 .464 .488 .521 .405 .431
FB 45 .381 .378 1.262 1.341 .620 .699
2022 Total 30 .310 .365 .448 .701 .317 .430
GB 13 .231 .377 .308 .414 .235 .348
FB 11 .200 .292 .500 1.072 .263 .494
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Hard-Hit Balls = 95 mph or greater.

There’s a lot going on in that table, but I think you can track the story by focusing on the yellow cells. Where Smith slugged above 2.000 on hard-hit balls in 2019 and ’20, he’s now down to .500. That’s an extreme example of the league-wide trend that appears to be driven by the less-bouncy ball; where all of MLB slugged 2.014 on hard-hit balls in 2019, that’s down to 1.528 this year. Elsewhere, as you can see from the table, Smith is getting poorer-than-expected results on hard-hit grounders as well. He just can’t buy a break.

There’s certainly more to be said about Smith’s woes. For one thing, he’s struggling against fastballs 95 mph or greater, with successive wOBAs of .348, .300, .181, and .154 from 2019 to ’22, but the sample sizes are smaller (a high of 71 PA last year, down to 15 this year), and the trend for other pitch classifications isn’t pretty, either. He just doesn’t have much that’s working for him right now.

Hence the demotion, which also owes something to Smith having minor league options and the team needing a pitcher while reliever Drew Smith (no relation) recovers from a dislocated pinkie finger that’s apparently not serious enough to send him to the IL. The first baseman was replaced on the roster by righty reliever Adonis Medina. Said Showalter: “We’re not going to put our bullpen in harm’s way… We had some short starts and we need a pitcher. We’re just going to try and keep everyone healthy down there. Dom was the option we ended up with.”

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“[Smith] is probably feeling like every at-bat, he has to hit four home runs in one at-bat.

“[We want him to] settle in a comfort zone, just remind himself how good [he is]. He is a confident guy. I see the work he keeps doing, trying to be perfect in every at-bat. It’s hard to do in this game. The pitchers are really good. Just try to settle into some consistent at-bats and know that he is going to be out there every day. Just get into a groove where he can be who he is capable of being.”

With Smith at Syracuse, Canha and Escobar could serve as backups to Alonso; the former has 119 games of major league experience at first base (including one inning in Tuesday night’s 10–0 win over the Nationals), the latter 18, all with the Brewers last season. Davis has 15 games there as well, but none since 2018. Meanwhile, some share of Smith’s plate appearances will go to outfielder Nick Plummer, a 2015 first-round pick by the Cardinals whose prospect luster has long dimmed but who has gone 4-for-9 with a double and two homers in his first 10 major league PA.

Showalter’s words and the circumstances regarding the roster crunch do not suggest that Smith has run out of chances yet in Queens. There’s no denying he’s had a rough go with the Mets, who among other things have gone through numerous hitting coaches and managers during his tenure and asked him to change roles frequently. He would probably benefit with a change of scenery and a fresh start in a new organization, so it would not be the least bit surprising if improved play at Syracuse and in the majors leads to his being traded later this summer. That said, the most consistent thing about Smith’s time with the Mets is that it’s nearly impossible to predict what’s around the corner for him.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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5 months ago

Have to agree that it’s probably time for him to go to a new place and see if he can stick.

Perhaps this is a fan’s bias, but I’m so tired of the Mets pretending that defense doesn’t matter. This year has been a wonderful breath of fresh air with how well they have played in the field and I don’t want that philosophy to go away.

I suspect Smith may never hit enough to be a full time DH and he’s a butcher anywhere but 1B where the team has a guy who – fingers crossed – is good enough to man the spot for years and years to come.

5 months ago
Reply to  SirCharlesK

The A’s are starting Seth Brown at first base, while the Cubs are starting Alfonso Rivas and Frank Schwindel. Considering that Dom Smith probably has close to zero trade value, you’d think there is some guy who is vaguely useful on one of those teams on an expiring deal who could be swapped for him. Drew Smyly, perhaps. Or if he hits, Jonathan Villar (which may not happen). Or Mychal Givens, if he pitches even slightly better.

5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Would you want to pay Smith’s Super 2 arb costs to be a *slightly* better 1B fielder than Seth Brown, who’s already knocked 5 HR this year?

5 months ago
Reply to  ccctl

…yes? I certainly would be more interested in taking a flier on a post-prospect than running Seth Brown out there. Heck, if the Mets like Seth Brown I’m confident the A’s would do a one for one trade.

5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Smith wouldn’t fit the rebuild window and it’d have to be a salary dump trade. Regardless of whether he could rebuild value or not, there’s no way they’re taking that payroll hit without getting someone to make it worth the cost.

Brown is cheap, hits for power but not average achieving (wRC+ 103), fields cromulently at 1B and in the outfield.

Smith is expensive, bats below the Mendoza line and hasn’t hit a home run in a year (wRC+ 67), and is *marginally* better a fielder at 1B (no good in the outfield).

Right now I’m pretty sure I know who both teams would rather have.