Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AnalysisMLBNational LeagueNew York MetsNL East

Is It Time To Be Concerned About Dominic Smith?

In 2020, Dominic Smith broke out, placing 13th in NL MVP voting and posting a 1.8 fWAR with a 1.9 bWAR in just 50 games and 199 plate appearances. He slashed .316/.377/.616 and his 164 wRC+ was sixth out of 142 qualified players. However this year his production has dipped, slashing just .248/.305/.342 with an 81 wRC+ in 128 plate appearances. Smith’s struggles come at a time of need for the Mets as they suffer from injuries to most of their original starters and rank last in the league in runs scored. 

At first glance, it seems like Smith is just getting unlucky and that there is no need to be concerned. His walk rate of 7%, just like he did last year, and his strikeout rate has gone from 22.6% to 23.4% which is worse but not all too concerning. However, that K% increase seems like it is here to stay as Smith’s whiff rate (league average is 24.4%) has gone from 26% in 2020 to 31.9% in 2021. Smith’s K% is a minor problem compared to his lack of production on balls in play. Part of this comes from the natural regression of his BABIP which was a very unsustainable .368 in 2020, but has regressed to a more average .314. We should have never expected Smith to have a .368 BABIP throughout his career but even if we acknowledge he is going to continue to run a lower BABIP that doesn’t mean he is a bad hitter and it doesn’t explain all of his decline in performance. 

He has a .356 xwOBA in 2021, so we could chalk it up to bad luck in small sample size, but that isn’t what is actually going on. The most concerning change is Smith’s drop in home runs per flyball which you can see below.

As you can see from the graph, Smith has had a higher HR/FB rate than the rest of the league for his entire major league career before 2021. We can say with some confidence that Smith had a certain skill for maximizing his HR/FB rate and while we could assume this is just a temporary phenomenon, partly caused by cold weather, I don’t think that would be accurate. There are two factors that I think explain Smith’s struggles. One is specific to him and the other is out of control and has to do with the ball.

As you may have heard the MLB “deadened” the ball this year, so far we have seen an increase in exit velocity but there seems to be more drag meaning that balls that used to be home runs are staying in the ballpark. However, the new ball should actually help a line drive hitter like Smith and it doesn’t explain most of his HR/FB decrease. One of the most important factors in HR/FB and ultimately underperforming xwOBA and wOBA is how many of your fly balls are pulled. 

 PERCENTAGEAVGOPSwRC+HR/FB
FB100%.229.92314212.8%
PULL FB23.3%.4181.87539931.5%
CENT FB37.7%.197.76989.6%
OPPO FB39.1%.147.511334.9%
Data from Fangraphs
 wOBAxwOBAwOBA-xwOBA
FB.458.473-0.015
PULL FB.917.697.220
CENT FB.344.517-0.170
OPPO FB.217.278-0.010
Data from Baseball Savant

As you can see from the two tables, pulled flyballs are better than flyballs hit to center and the opposite field and they also outperform their xwOBA while balls hit to center field tend to underperform it. One of the problems in 2020 has been a worrying decline in Smith’s pull rate on flyballs. 

Data from Fangraphs

As you can see Smith has pulled more than 20% of his fly balls every season of his career until this year, when he is only pulling 11.5%. 

Smith’s decline in pulled fly balls isn’t the only concerning factor. Ironically, Smith is starting to hit fewer of his ground balls to the opposite field, something that actually helps. Due to the prevalence of the shift, it is very hard to get hits on ground balls that aren’t hit the other way. In 2021 players are batting .170 on pulled grounders and .240 on ground balls hit up the middle while they hit .432 on ground balls hit the other way. After hitting 9.4% of his ground balls the other way in 2019 and 9.1% in 2020, he is only hitting 5.4% of his ground balls the other way this year. 

In addition to his worrying spray chart, he isn’t hitting the ball as hard this year. Last year he had a 13.3% barrel rate which ranked 24th among 142 qualified hitters. This year his barrel rate has dropped to 8%, below his career rate of 8.8%. However, even that might be an optimistic estimate for his barrel rate. The new ball which came with increased exit velocity and drag led to inflated barrel numbers using the same criteria as last year. By changing the exit velocity requirements for a barrel, Alex Chamberlain was able to create a more accurate barrel reading that he displays on his leaderboard. According to that criteria, Smith has a 5.7% barrel rate which would be below the league average of around 7.8% and the lowest of his career. 

He has also seen his average exit velocity decrease from 89.8 mph in 2020 to 87.9 mph in 2021, which is even more concerning since the new ball has increased exit velocity overall. Since exit velocity has little effect on grounders compared to line drives and fly balls, it is also important to look at exit velocity on fly balls and line drives. Last year, Smith made harder contact on fly balls and line drives with a 90.4 exit velocity but this year he has an 86.8 exit velocity on fly balls and line drives. 

One of the important skills Smith has maintained this year has been his launch angle tightness which is important to maintaining a high BABIP. As Alex Chamberlain explains here , the standard deviation of a player’s launch angle or sd(LA) is a good indicator of what a player’s BABIP will be. In 2021 Smith has a 21.7 sd(LA) which is even better than his very good 25.5 sd(LA) in 2020. However, I don’t think that is a sustainable sd(LA) because in 2019 the best sd(LA) of players with at least 500 plate appearances was J.D. Martinez at 24.0 and only 5 players had one below 25.0 with at least 500 plate appearances. While a 21.7 sd(LA) isn’t sustainable it still means that Smith’s .314 BABIP is sustainable despite his poor pull tendencies. 

While I am concerned about Smith, I don’t think he is going to remain an 81 wRC+ hitter for the season. The problem with Smith is that, unlike Francisco Lindor, he doesn’t provide good defense at a weak offensive position. Smith plays left field, a strong offensive position, and plays poor defense there. In his outfield career, he has 716.2 innings,  -5 DRS, -6.7 UZR, and -9 OAA. While DRS seems to think he has improved, awarding him 2 DRS so far in 2021, OAA remains unconvinced giving him -2 OAA. OAA also admits Smith has improved, saying he only decreased his catch probability by 4% in 2021, the lowest of his career.

Despite these improvements, I think our judgment of Smith, defensively, should be that he is still a below-average left fielder. Smith also hurts the Mets defense by pushing Brandon Nimmo into center field where he has a -12 DRS in 712 innings. Smith is currently the only healthy outfielder from the Mets opening day roster so he will get time to turn it around, but if he doesn’t I wouldn’t shy away from an outfield where Smith doesn’t play every day.

 

Patrick Bowe

I am a Mets fan who takes an analytical approach to baseball and evaluating players. I prefer to focus on small details instead of broad generalizations.

2 thoughts on “Is It Time To Be Concerned About Dominic Smith?

  • Christopher

    Yo, this author deserves a raise

    • Ivan Figueredo

      True dat

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