Dissecting Dom Smith's Downturn
Shining a stat-based light on a mostly disappointing 2021 campaign for Dom
Image credit: Chris Simon
Dominic Smith has had a tough season. There’s no sugar-coating that. At some point along the way, the former first-round draft pick fell into a rut. Much to the dismay of all invested parties, Smith has had trouble finding his way out of it.
We’re not hitting instructors or professional hitters, so, clearly, we don’t know what the game plan or thought process is in this case. But a quick look at the metrics certainly lends credence to the fact that something’s up.
A late-bloomer of sorts (addressing his lifelong battle with sleep apnea ahead of the 2019 season helped that process along considerably), the Los Angeles product turned a corner that year and didn’t stray from that course for a while.
Over 396 plate appearances between 2019 and 2020, Smith hit .299/.366/.571 with 21 home runs, 31 doubles, an 8.3% walk rate, 150 wRC+, and 2.7 wins above replacement (FanGraphs). That’s upper-echelon production, no matter how you slice it.
Over 199 plate appearances in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, Smith’s 166 wRC+ ranked sixth in baseball; an absolutely huge development and a feather in the cap for the player and those around him who assisted in his development.
Having excelled in a bench role (.318/.434/.568 in 53 PA as a substitute in 2019; .286/.459/.571 in 37 PA as a pinch-hitter) and, for all intents and purposes, blocked at first base by then-rookie sensation Pete Alonso, Smith was about to have his workload summarily decreased.
Naturally, Dom lobbied the Mets for reps in left field, where he worked his rear end off to eventually provide not-perfect but wholly playable defense. Everything you’d want to see from a young ballplayer if we’re being honest.
In 2020, the National League adopted the designated hitter, and Smith’s trajectory continued to climb. His increased versatility led to more opportunities and everything was coming up roses. Needless to say, excitement was the unmistakable vibe around Dom’s future.
Then came 2021, and the story changed abruptly.
One of the more alluring characteristics of Smith’s approach at the plate was his ability to hit breaking stuff at very high levels (.307 BA, seven home runs through 2019 and 2020) and the adjustments he made to combat offspeed stuff over that span (.095 BA in 2019, .288 in 2020).
This season, Dom’s struggled mightily against both (.196/.259/.311 versus breaking pitches; .219/.290/.391 against offspeed) and it’s changed the course of action opposing pitchers are taking against him (5.7% more breaking pitches seen; -5.2% fewer fastballs).
In turn, Smith’s batted ball metrics (17% flyball rate in 2020, 29.3% in 2021; 39.3% line drive in 2020, 27.7% in 2021) and run values in and around the strike zone have taken massive hits. After posting a +10 run value in the heart of the zone and a -8 run value in the shadow zone in 2020, those metrics swan dove in 2021.
What’s absolutely baffling about Smith’s situation is that he’s not necessarily changing his approach. Both his chase and swing rates have remained exactly the same between 2020 and 2021 (33.5% and 51.9%, respectively).
He’s attacking first pitches more (30.1% from 25.1%) and his contact rate when he chases has dropped (60.6% to 54.2%), but that’s not where the issue lies, as we see it.
Smith’s seen a tick more meatballs this season (7.1%) than he had in 2019 (6.3%) and 2020 (6.2%). Last year, Dom was extremely aggressive when pitchers grooved him hittable pitches, swinging at 85.1 percent of those offerings. In 2021, that figure’s dropped to 75.8 percent, leading his barrel rate to dip accordingly (-6.9% to 6.4%).
It should be noted that Smith’s 13.3% barrel rate in 2020 was highly untenable and overwhelmingly out of character (7.2% career rate heading into 2020), but keeping an upward pace would have been welcome.
Allowing pitchers to successfully tease him into going after less-than-ideal pitches this season instead of seeing the ball and hitting the ball when it’s there for him may have set Smith back a few steps.
Again, we’re not experts. We do, however, know what the real Dom Smith looks like and the potential he holds as a ballplayer and this hasn’t been it. Selfishly, we want that guy back ASAP. Realistically, we know it’s not always that easy.
With the Mets very much in a transition phase with regards to reinforcing their roster up to contender levels, one would assume the organization will be taking a long, hard look at what they have in the 26-year-old this winter.
The designated hitter’s expected (and permanent) return to the NL is expected next season, so as long as Smith is still in the fold, you’d imagine there will be plenty of opportunities for him to contribute.
Pete Alonso in the DH spot with an incredibly apt Smith holding down the fort defensively at first base should theoretically increase production on both sides of the chalk.
If the Mets are able to bring Javier Báez back into the fold and add a high-level defensive third baseman this offseason, that’s one heck of an infield. We’ve seen how important solid defense can be to a team’s success: an ultimate building block.
Though, for this plan to work out, the Mets will need Dom to begin resembling the player he was before the calendar turned.
Smith’s two-run, pinch-hit, game-tying double in Sunday’s win over the Phillies was certainly encouraging, as is his .313/.389/.438 slash over his last 18 plate appearances (14 as a PH), but it’s also a bit telling.
As noted above, Dom has thrived as a bench player in the past. It appears he’s doing it again. Just another wrinkle to the story. The excitement level is holding strong. Onward and upward.
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