Dominic Smith Could Get Hot at Any Second - Here's Why
Dominic Smith opened the season going 2 for 3 with a walk, scoring one of the Nationals' two runs in a loss against the Braves. It was an auspicious opener for Smith, the shining March sun granting him its favor by blinding Orlando Arcia and turning an infield popup into the first base hit of Smith's season. Dominic's slash line of .667/.750/.667 doesn't look half bad as a result. That might not tell us much, unfortunately, so let's look into how the next 161 games might go for him.
Smith is pictured in the offseason's encyclopedia next to the entry for "bounce-back candidate". After an apparent breakout in 2020, he struggled severely in the past two years for the Mets, falling off of their roster last year and being exiled to AAA. We looked into the reasons for his decline during the offseason, most importantly noting a fall-off in his hard hit rate and exit velocity stats.
To mitigate the stench of his ugly 2021 and 2022 seasons, let's do what fans of a tanking team do best: make some excuses. The fact is that Smith slashed .233/.298/.345 over the past two years which is far from good enough for a first baseman on any team, much less the Mets. In '21 the Mets decided to start him more than 100 times in left field, a test that he wasn't close to passing, and that difficulty may have hampered the performance of the natural first baseman. In '22, Smith slumped even harder, sprained his ankle in July, and watched the Mets lose in the playoffs from home. It's likely that the pressure of competing with Pete Alonso for playing time and of struggling in front of a the Mets fanbase didn't help.
Last year was a low point for Smith, he failed to hit even a single homer. He can probably relate to his new teammates in DC in that regard. It's a new year, though, and the pressure is off, as much as that can be true for any MLB player. His slumps led him to an ice-cold free agent market, dropping from the top of the NL East to the bottom on a 1-year, dirt-cheap covenant. Surely the Nationals were optimistic about snagging Smith's services, a player who looked quite good quite recently. The same can't be said for other parts of their roster.
Dominic Smith was the Joey Meneses of 2020. Seriously, just look at their respective seasons. Meneses gave Nats fans something to cheer about with a stunning debut last year. He played 56 games, hit 13 home runs, and slashed .324/.367/.563. In 2020, Dominic Smith slashed .316/.377/.616 over 50 games with 10 home runs. In other words, he Joey Meneses'd before Joey Meneses Joey Meneses'd. There are some differences, notably that Smith was 5 years younger, but the results were pretty much identical, and both seasons were a ton of fun.
What's more is that Smith was the third-best Mets hitter by WAR in 2020, and ranked 7th in all first basemen during the pandemic-shortened season. Smith ranked above Matt Olson, above Pete Alonso, and above Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He even received down-ballot MVP votes. It was a weird year, and was surrounded by much less impressive performances for Smith, but it's a strong pedigree nonetheless. It's hard for the Nationals at present to find anyone who's sniffed those credentials with where they're shopping.
Both Meneses and Smith ran an unsustainable Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) in their respective monster seasons, but there were arguably more positive signs for Smith in his year. His age, his 86th percentile barrel rate in 2020, his return to health for 2023, and getting him out of New York are the biggest positive indicators, to me. If you're on the Meneses hype train, as I'm sure you are if you're reading this, I can tell you that the Smith bandwagon is almost just as comfortable. In another sense, Smith's poor two seasons after 2020 are a bad precedent for Meneses staving off regression, but it's still March at the time of writing this. It's a time for positivity.
In our site predictions, I selected Smith to be an All-Star and get traded at midseason as my bold prediction. Unfortunately if Smith really explodes like he did in 2023 he might be at the top of the trade market for rental bats, and the Nationals would have little choice but to discuss trades. Smith will turn 28 this year, and could potentially earn himself a multi-year deal in free agency heading into 2024. The best scenario for the Nationals would be to either sell high on Smith if he's streaking for a solid prospect or two, or to even sign Smith to an extension and keep him around, the latter being far less likely.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though. There's a considerable chance that Smith is fine, but not amazing, overperforming his modest $2 million salary but not by enough to be significant. There's also a real chance he slumps again, or gets injured, or that Nationals decide that he's an outfielder again and tank his value. Anything could happen. The same can be said for Joey Meneses, of course, who gets more benefit of the doubt because of the relative proximity of his breakout.
There's one very simple thing I will be looking for from Smith as the season settles into our living rooms.
Pulled Fly Balls.
The most productive type of ball in play. Smith needs to pull the ball in the air. Is there some underlying indication he can break out? Is there a swing change he needs to make? Will he do it? I could do more digging, but I don't really know. Sometimes it's more fun if we don't What I do know is that Smith did it in 2020, and he is capable of doing it again.
The Nationals might not get a ton of attention from the baseball world as a whole, and I think Smith is the #1 player who can sneak up on people this year. If Joey Meneses continues terrorizing baseballs, people will notice. If Dominic Smith puts together a rebound season, it will be a quieter type of excellence. It's pretty exciting to have both of them on the team. It's definitely an unorthodox pair of Here's to hoping he sends some bombs into right field this summer, in a ballpark near you.
All Stats via FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.