Much to the skepticism of many fans and writers, the Mets made the unusual choice to carry both Dom Smith and Pete Alonso to start the season. Despite his limited playing time and even a brief—and unearned—return to the minors, Smith has thrived in this role and has come a long way in rebuilding the value he lost during his tumultuous first two seasons.
Across 332 plate appearances in 2017 and 2018, Smith hit just .210/.259/.406 with a 79 wRC+. He struck out nearly 30% of the time and walked just 5% of the time. He showed neither the exceptional bat-to-ball skills that had defined his success in the minors, nor sure hands at first base. The rise of Alonso in the prospect rankings and Smith’s continuing struggles raised serious doubts that he had a future in the major leagues.
But an unexpectedly dominant showing in spring training gave Smith’s Mets career another shot, albeit an usual one, as it was established early on that the left-hander would not be platooning with his right-handed teammate. Instead, Smith has been primarily a pinch-hitter, at times the only lefty bat on the bench, while also coming in for defense—much improved over prior seasons—with the rare spot start. The Mets have steadfastly refused to play him in the outfield, which seems wise given his blatant shortcomings there in the past, though they have recently stated they might try that again soon.
As a result, his usage has been light, with just 50 plate appearances in 2019, but what he has achieved in that limited time has been exceptional. His season line is up to .317/.440/.463 with a Nimmo-esque walk rate of 16% and an 18% strikeout rate. In short, he looks very much like the player he was in the minors, low on power but with a keen eye and excellent bat control.
So what has changed for Smith, who is still just 23 years old? Some of it is certainly luck, as he will not maintain a .387 batting average on balls in play indefinitely. But we are seeing an undeniable change in approach as he has moved away from trying to become a power hitter and has refocused on making contact. Indeed, he may be one of the few Mets who is thriving under the tutelage of Chili Davis.
But there is also the mental effect for Smith of not being asked to be an offensive pillar for the team, as well as being able to settle in to his natural strengths. Most players thrive on an everyday routine, but there are also some who benefit from the adrenaline of coming in cold and that may be the case for Smith who has become one of the better pinch hitters in the game. His seventh-inning walk on Tuesday night brought him to a 1.189 OPS off the bench, which is best in baseball among players with at least 15 pinch hitting opportunities.
Going forward, it’s reasonable to expect Smith’s batting average in particular to slide a bit, but he will also start seeing a few more balls leave the yard as his home run rate is a little lower than would be expected, even accounting for his less power-forward approach. The best thing the Mets can do for him is keep running him out in situations he is comfortable in and let the young hitter continue to hone the skills that got him here in the first place.
And what of Smith’s future prospects as a Met? He and Alonso have a mutually supportive relationship, but ultimately the team only needs one first baseman and neither is a legitimate candidate for a position change. As Smith’s stock rises, already there are questions as to what a potential trade would look like. But the fact is, he still has a ways to go before other teams will take a bet that he’s ready to be an everyday player and until then, he’s giving the Mets plenty of value right where he is.