Near the end of May in 2017, fans were clamoring for Dominic Smith to come up and replace Lucas Duda for the Mets. This may be one of the least bright things for which fans have ever advocated. At the time, Duda had a .963 OPS for the Mets while Smith had a shiny batting average but a rather empty .874 OPS at Las Vegas.
But Smith started to hit for power later in the year for the 51s and eventually did make it to the majors. However, hit just .198 in 183 PA with the Mets. Now, some of those same fans who were stumping for Smith to get a shot in May of 2017 want him to go back and repeat Triple-A this year. And they say this without a trace of irony.
Hey, nobody bats 1.000 in their predictions and it’s certainly better to admit that you were wrong than to continue to defend a losing proposition. In an ideal world, your favorite team would not gift wrap a starting position to a 22 year old who posted a .658 OPS in his first exposure to the majors. But anyone who roots for the Mets knows that it’s far from an ideal world in which we live.
So, the pertinent question is: Does it make sense for the 2018 Mets to hitch their wagon to Smith on Opening Day or should they be looking for an upgrade at the position?
The main case against looking for an upgrade from Smith is that the Mets have limited dollars available for an upgrade and multiple positions in line already competing for that money. Why should they add another position if they don’t absolutely have to do so? This is a case where the financial reality may dictate a sub-optimal decision.
However, we should acknowledge that a certain section of the fanbase would argue that the Mets have an internal option available that wouldn’t increase payroll and that would be to start Wilmer Flores at first, the position where he would do the least amount of defensive harm. Flores had a career-best .795 OPS last year in 362 PA.
If Flores were to be given the full-time job, he wouldn’t have the luxury of facing mostly LHP, against whom he posted an OPS nearly 100 points higher last year. His fans would point out that 72 percent of his PA came against righties in 2017 and he did significantly better against RHP last season when he got consistent playing time against them. From June 1 until his season ended early with a broken nose, Flores posted an .815 OPS against RHP in 172 PA.
But you would have to argue that those 172 PA against righties trump the 985 PA that came before them. Prior to his strong finish in 2017, Flores had a lifetime .661 OPS against righties. Recall that Smith had a .658 OPS last year, which most find unacceptable.
It’s certainly possible that things have finally clicked for Flores and that he should no longer be considered a liability against RHP. It’s also possible that he was the beneficiary of a HR/FB rate against righties in that stretch that he’s never come close to previously and never will again. Regardless of which side you come down on, he had a .795 OPS last year and the average NL 1B had an .861 mark. So, which is more likely – that Flores will continue to establish new and better career-bests against RHP and come closer to being league average or that Smith will adjust to the majors in his second go-round and come closer to that same goal?
Smith came up on Aug. 11 and in the rest of his initial month he posted a .174/.197/.313 line for a .511 OPS in his first 71 PA in the majors. For the remainder of the year, he notched a .754 OPS in 112 PA. You can get in trouble dicing already small samples. But one can certainly make the argument that Smith has already begun his improvement at the major league level.
We all know that Smith established the pattern in his minor league career of starting out slow and then heating up once he got his feet wet. Recall that he had an .874 OPS his first two months last year in Las Vegas. Shortly afterwards Smith put up a 212-PA stretch with a 1.051 OPS, thanks to both a high average and 27 XBH.
The knock on Smith coming into last year was that he did not have the power that you would prefer from your first baseman, that he was more of a Doug Mientkiewicz type than a Paul Goldschmidt one. But then we saw him establish career highs in both doubles (34) and homers (16) in Triple-A and then he added 15 more extra-base hits once he was promoted to the majors.
It’s easy to dismiss his power production in Las Vegas as nothing more than PCL inflation. But how do you explain Smith’s .197 ISO in Queens? Mientkiewicz had a lifetime .134 ISO in the majors.
Smith had two giant problems last year in his MLB debut. He had an ugly 26.8 K% and a disappointing .218 BABIP. This from the guy who posted a 13.7 K% in Double-A and the guy whose worst BABIP in the minors was the .321 he put up in the Lo-A South Atlantic League back in 2014. Of course, we would expect a player’s BABIP in the majors to be lower than it was in the minors. But there’s no reason to expect Smith to be 84 points below league average.
Even if he made no improvement in his strikeout rate whatsoever, Smith would be in line for a big jump in production just in regression with his BABIP. Let’s give Smith 600 PA and hold his K rate, BB rate, HR and ISO rates steady from his debut season. That would give him 161 Ks and 30 HRs. Sure, you’d bet the under on both of these totals but play along for the example.
Holding his walk rate steady (and HBP and sacs, too) would give him 548 ABs and 357 balls in play. If his average on those balls in play was the 2017 league average rate of .302, he would end up with a .252 AVG (108 hits on balls in play + 30 HR)/548 ABs. Keeping his isolated OBP and SLG numbers the same as his major league production last year – you get a .252/.316/.450 for a .766 OPS.
That’s a 108-point increase in OPS just from regression to a league average BABIP. It still doesn’t bring us up to what Flores provided last year. But it gets the two in the same ballpark. Then you have to ask: How much of Flores’ production last year, especially against RHP, is sustainable? You also need to ask if it’s reasonable to expect Smith to continue his power production and if it’s reasonable to expect his strikeout and walk rates at what they were last year, too.
Perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to run a straight platoon. Smith’s OPS was 271 points higher versus RHP, with 13 of his 15 XBH coming against righties. Also, his BABIP was just .220 versus right handers, meaning we would still expect to see significant positive regression.
Pulling numbers out of the air, let’s say the Smith/Flores platoon could put up an .825 OPS. That would still be noticeably behind the NL average 1B mark of .861 from last year. But would it be enough to go to battle with, especially considering the payroll limitations?
The Mets go into the Hot Stove season expecting average or better production at catcher, Asdrubal Cabrera’s position, LF and Michael Conforto’s position. If they can upgrade one OF and one INF position to average or better, they’re looking at six out of the eight spots being solid, with only 1B and SS being behind the curve. My opinion is that they can win with that, providing good health (Ha!)
Of course, whatever plan you enter the offseason with should be able to be adjusted on the fly depending on things shaking out differently than expected. Last year the Mets entered the offseason thinking they would trade an OF, only to find out the market was clearly undervaluing what they were selling. The front office did not do a good job of adjusting on the fly.
It’s possible the Mets go into this offseason thinking they’ll live with the Smith/Flores platoon only to find a free agent upgrade at 1B to be significantly cheaper than either the 2B/3B or LF/CF they anticipated spending money on. If that’s the case, they need to be able to change course and free up the savings to go to pitching upgrades, regardless if that comes from a starter or reliever.