Two years ago, some dummy wrote a season preview for a certain former first-round draft pick with the title “Dominic Smith may struggle to find another opportunity with the Mets.” And while it may be tempting to look at that headline and scream “OLD TAKES EXPOSED!” at the top of one’s lungs, that position really wasn’t that unreasonable at the time. Smith had not only failed to establish himself in his first couple of cups of coffee in the big leagues, but the presence of Pete Alonso did in fact present an obstacle for finding a spot for him to play. While hopes had once upon a time been high for the lefty first baseman, it seemed likely that his future in the big leagues—if he had one at all—would be with another club.
The fact that we now sit here today with Dominic Smith being both an established major league hitter and one of the most important voices in the game of baseball—and the fact that he did indeed accomplish all of those things with the organization that drafted him—thus speaks so incredibly highly of the work he put into improving himself and making the most of the opportunities that were provided to him.
That work first began to pay dividends in 2019, when Smith was limited to a bench role for the majority of the season and yet still found a way to be an asset to the team in that limited role. The 132 wRC+ and 11 home runs—including an incredibly memorable walk-off homer in the last game of the season—in 197 plate appearances over 89 games represented by far the most impressive offensive display he had shown up to that point in either the majors or minors. Of course, Alonso was also impressing at this time to the tune of a Rookie of the Year award, so Smith’s path at first base was still blocked. And there were still a fair number of questions as to whether Smith would be able to produce at these levels over the course of a full season. Still, he gave his skeptics every reason to re-evaluate their position on him heading into 2020.
Unbeknownst to us all, the combination of the unexpected designated hitter addition and the Yoenis Cespedes opt-out due to the COVID-19 pandemic opened up an opportunity for Smith to play every day last year. As he played every day alternating between DH, left field, and first base, he finally lived up to the potential that the Mets saw in him when they drafted him in the first round all those years ago. He hit for average and got on base (.316 BA/.377 OBP), as previous scouting reports have always said he would, while also maintaining and expanding upon the improvement in power that he showed in 2019 (10 homers, .616 slugging percentage, .299 ISO). He hit against both righties (173 wRC+) and lefties (146 wRC+). His BABIP ran a little high (.368), so maybe we have to realistically expect that overall 164 wRC+ to go down a bit over the course of a full season. Nevertheless, the overall offensive prowess that he demonstrated proved once and for all that Smith has become a very different player from the one who struggled in his initial exposures to the major leagues years ago.
And yet, despite how impressive Smith’s performance was with the bat, it was still the second most admirable part of his 2020 season. The most admirable part was how he became a prominent and thoughtful voice in the fight for racial equality and the need for Major League Baseball to improve its efforts to do its part in bringing about change. When the country reeled over the killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, Smith was brave enough to share his perspective and experiences on being Black in America, despite other Black athletes having paid a price in the past for being outspoken about such subjects. Smith matched his words with action, as his Baseball Generations organization continued to receive acclaim for its efforts to provide children in disadvantaged communities with resources to help them succeed in both academics and athletics.
Some may roll their eyes at the continued attention towards Smith’s race, but it’s no small matter. After all, the league has famously struggled to attract Black athletes to the sport, and that no doubt plays some role in the overall interest in baseball being fairly low amongst Black populations. The Mets, meanwhile, play in one of the most racially diverse cities in the country, and yet the last time they had a young Black homegrown player of Smith’s quality was probably back when Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden were making names for themselves in the eighties.
Representation is important. Having a diverse range of voices and experiences in baseball is important. And Smith has added his voice to the small but meaningful group of Black voices in the game today. Mets fans can and should be proud to see that kind of player representing their favorite team.
He will no doubt continue to be an important presence in the game moving forward. And it will certainly help that his status as an everyday major leaguer has been cemented. The Mets decided against bringing in another everyday outfielder this offseason to ensure that Smith would have a spot in the lineup. He should expect to play everyday this year—save for perhaps getting some days off against lefty starters, with righties Albert Almora Jr. and Kevin Pillar able to sub in for him on those days. And the Mets should continue to expect him to be a dangerous presence in the middle of their batting order while also continuing to be a fun and jovial presence in the clubhouse.
Alas, now we come to the elephant in the room: for all of the work Smith as done in improving himself and as admirable as his commitment to playing a position outside of his natural home at first base is, he has still not given us a reason to be confident in his ability to provide passable defense in left field. Mind you, he’s only played 470.1 total innings out there over the course of his career—not nearly enough to provide a particularly reliable measurement of his defensive prowess, though a lot of the preliminary numbers (a -25 UZR/150, for instance) don’t paint a pretty picture. Those numbers are unfortunately matched by what we’ve seen via the eye test, as Smith’s poor instincts and awkward routes have led to some adventures in his limited time in the outfield. The kind of defense that he has demonstrated up to this point will continue to limit his overall value regardless of how proficient he proves himself to be with the bat.
For his part, Smith has expressed confidence in his ability to demonstrate the same kind of improvements in his outfield defense that he’s shown in all the other aspects of his game. And in fairness, he is correct when he points out that he still doesn’t have a huge amount of experience as an outfielder, so maybe he is also correct in saying that he will improve as he gets more and more comfortable out there. As is, however, there is every reason to believe that Rojas will be quick to sub in Almora Jr. in center and shift Brandon Nimmo over to left anytime the team has a lead late in the game to limit the chances that Smith’s defense could bite the team in the butt.
Defensive concerns aside, it is understandable why the Mets would be confident enough in Smith’s bat to be willing to roll with some cringe-worthy routes in left. And with the designated hitter, for better or worse, very likely to become a permanent presence in the National League after the 2021 season when the CBA expires, the team should soon have other options for getting him into the lineup. So putting up with some bad defense for one season seems like a small price to pay to make sure that he continues to have a role with the team moving forward.
And indeed, he should have a role with the team moving forward. Smith is the exact kind of personality you can build a team around: a good human being who loves the game while pushing it in a positive direction. After years of wandering in the baseball wilderness, Dominic Smith is finally here to stay. And both the Mets and Major League Baseball as a whole are so much better off for that.