The New York Mets need to provide Dominic Smith with an opportunity to prove he’s more than just a reserve player.
Everyone loves Dominic Smith. That’s hardly controversial. From his emerging dependable left-handed bat in 2019, to his dramatic three-run homer against the Atlanta Braves on the final day of the season, to the joy and comedic sensibility with which he plays the game, Smith sitting among the most endearing players New York Mets fans have ever watched isn’t an issue.
What is an issue, though, is Smith’s playing time. Simply put, the Mets need to find some for him. While he may not be a full-time starter, he’s too useful to make only occasional pinch-hitting appearances.
Smith broke out in 2019, batting .282/.355/.525 with an OPS of .881. Unfortunately, he missed two months with a stress fracture in his foot, so his 2019 stats paint an incomplete picture. Smith probably benefitted from some good luck last season, as his BABIP was .320. It’s not a completely unsustainable statistic, but definitely higher than average.
Indeed, fracturing his foot may have allowed Smith to avoid a second-half slump. In the first three months of the campaign, Smith posted OPS totals of .944, 1.057, and 1.007, respectively. But he faltered in July. By the time he landed on the injured list — July 27 — his OPS that month was .497.
So, the question is this: what should the Mets make of Smith’s 2019? Will he continue to produce at roughly the same level? Will he regress? Or will he continue to break out and get even better?
On one hand, Smith probably doesn’t have much more room to improve. It’s hard to after a .320 BABIP — although not impossible — and Smith doesn’t profile as a player who’ll routinely post BABIPs high above league average. He doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, as his hard-hit rate in 2019 was 36.8%, right around the league average of 36.6%.
Smith isn’t fast enough to turn many outs into hits either. His sprint speed ranks in the 36th percentile of MLB players. That’s not bad for a first baseman, but it’s not spectacular.
On the other hand, there are signs that Smith isn’t necessarily going to get worse either.
For one, his July slump might not have been entirely driven by regression. According to Anthony DiComo of MLB.com, Smith played for a week on what turned out to be a fractured foot. While he minimized the impact that the injury had on his play, he later stated that it was “definitely affecting” him.
There’s also the fact that while Smith was largely a singles hitter through the first two months of 2019, his type of production changed dramatically in June. By the end of May, Smith had recorded two home runs and four doubles in 70 plate appearances. Then in June, he hit six home runs with four doubles in 71 plate appearances.
Why does that matter? Well, because home runs are a lot more sustainable than singles. A grounder that’s a single one day could be an out on another day. A 425-foot line drive is probably going to do some damage no matter who the fielders are.
In other words, batting .350 on plenty of singles might just be lucky. But putting up a 1.007 OPS with six home runs and four doubles in only fifteen starts — as Smith did last June — is a sign of legitimate offensive ability.
In fact, from April/May to June, Smith made the same sort of transition that Jeff McNeil made from the first half of 2019 to the second. McNeil went from a high-average hitter to a power threat, while his OPS stayed the same. Smith did almost the same thing.
Unfortunately, Smith only took one at-bat the rest of the season after his July injury — that memorable home run on the final day of the year. So it’s not clear whether June was a mirage or a new normal. But either way, the Mets would be foolish not to at least give Smith a chance to prove himself.
With Michael Conforto’s oblique injury, Smith has probably gained some playing time over the first few weeks of the season. Smith, McNeil, and J.D. Davis will probably all see time in left field until Conforto returns.
But after that, it’s hard to say. The Mets have their first baseman in Pete Alonso. They employ two fantastic hitters who can perform in the outfield in McNeil and Davis. They additionally possess two starting outfielders in Conforto and Brandon Nimmo along with a defensive replacement in Jake Marisnick.
With all the players ahead of him, Smith may end up on the bench. But before that occurs, the Mets should at least give him a shot to prove himself. Because if Smith can continue to hit like he did last season, every day he sits on the bench will be a day of talent wasted.