In a season that has already featured its share of frustrations for the New York Mets, one of the most positive developments has been the play of Dominic Smith. More than any player on the roster, Smith has benefited from Yoenis Cespedes’ opt-out and the addition of the DH to the National League.

Even though we are dealing with a super small sample size of only 60 plate appearances entering play on Sunday, the 25-year-old first baseman and outfielder is on pace to smash his career highs in every statistic. By rWAR (0.8), this has already been the best year of Smith’s young career, which comprised of 194 games before this season.

Heading into Sunday, Smith led all of Major League Baseball in slugging percentage (.780) and OPS+ (218). One shouldn’t expect him to continue hitting like prime Barry Bonds for the remainder of the season, but the underlying numbers are quite promising that this is a legit breakout for the 2013 first round pick.

Hitting it hard

One of the biggest differences for Smith this year has been a significant jump in the quality of the contact he makes with the ball. According to Statcast, his average exit velocity this year has been 90.3 mph, up from 88.3 in 2019. Players who also have a 90.3 average exit velo in 2020: Rafael Devers, Mookie Betts and Luis Robert.

That extra two mph improvement makes a big difference: batters generally hit around .216 at 88 mph exit velocity and .246 at 90 mph. Of course, launch angle and spray angle make a difference, too, but more on those later.

Smith’s hard hit percentage is a career high 44.7, which puts him in the same tier as Shohei Ohtani, Franmil Reyes, Trevor Story and Carlos Correa. Pretty good company. Last season, only 34.8% of Smith’s batted balls were categorized as hard hit by Statcast.

Statcast has categorized 18.4% of his batted balls as “barrels” in 2020, which is among the elite in baseball. Part of a larger definition of a barrel is a batted ball that has an expected batting average over .500 and expected slugging of over 1.500. Smith ranks 16th in MLB in barrel% — ahead of Aaron Judge, Juan Soto and Bryce Harper in that category.

Better pitch selection

Another key to Smith’s success this season comes down to what he has and has not been swinging at. While his overall swing rate is right around his career average, the makeup of those swings has been very different.

Smith has swung at more pitches in the strike zone and fewer outside the strike zone than in any other year of his career. He is also making contact on pitches in the zone more often than at any point in his career. The added selectivity has helped to boost his walk rate to 11.7%, another career-high.

Interestingly, pitchers have been throwing Smith more fastballs and fewer breaking balls this year than at any point in his career. That might make it easier to lay off pitches out of the zone, but it is also curious given how that is the opposite trend of the broader MLB shift toward more breaking balls and fewer fastballs.

Swing zone data at Brooks Baseball suggests that Smith has improved greatly at not chasing at balls horizontally out of the strike zone, that is to say off the plate away or inside. He has made a dramatic improvement on pitches that are high and tight. Most of his chases in 2020 have come on pitches which are over the plate but are vertically out of the strike zone.

His biggest strides in swinging at balls in the zone have come on pitches middle-in. Smith has swung at 83% of all pitches in the six middle-in zones of home plate in 2020, and the results have been outstanding. It also might explain how and why his spray angle has radically changed this year.

Fig. 1 – Dominic Smith Swing Rate, 2019 Season

Fig. 2 – Dominic Smith Swing Rate, 2020 Season

Dead pull Dom

From 2017-19, Smith was a spray hitter. While he pulled the ball frequently, he still hit the ball to the opposite field nearly a quarter of the time. That is not the Smith of 2020, where he is pulling the ball a whopping 47.4% of the time (up from 37.6% in 2019), and going up the middle another 42.1% (up from 34.6%). That leaves a paltry 10.5% of batted balls going to the opposite field. A warning, as the spray charts in Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 will illustrate, we are dealing with a super small sample size in these numbers.

Fig. 3 – Dominic Smith Spray Chart 2019

Fig. 4 – Dominic Smith Spray Chart, 2020

This is not necessarily a surprising thing to find based off of Smith’s raw numbers: when players pull the ball more they generally hit for more power. What is notable is the dramatic rise in balls hit both up the middle and to his pull side in the span of one offseason.

Not only has he been pulling the ball more frequently, but has been hitting it in the air more often as well. Smith’s ground ball rate (34.4%) is the lowest of his career, which has helped him counter the shift. While teams have shifted against him in 60.0% of his plate appearances, Smith has posted a phenomenal .530 wOBA against shifts.

Finally given a chance to get consistent, every day at-bats Smith has taken off in the early part of 2020, and the underlying numbers suggest his success might be more than small sample size luck. At 25, he is blossoming into the offensive threat that was his potential when the Mets picked him 11th overall seven years ago.

Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make. Smith was bandied about in trade rumors during the offseason but Brodie Van Wagenen kept him in New York. That’s a non-move that is paying off handsomely.

Joe Vasile is a play-by-play broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University, and the host of Secondary Lead, a baseball history podcast.

6 comments on “Inside Dominic Smith’s 2020 breakout

  • Brian Joura

    Terrific piece, Joe!

    I feel like Smith has to play. It’s been easy with the opt out and the injuries but Cano’s back now and what happens when McNeil returns?

    Rojas will have his hands full and I don’t envy the choices he’ll have to make.

    • Joe Vasile

      Yeah, I feel like a lot of his struggles in the past few seasons were the result of inconsistent playing time. Hopefully steady at-bats will help him be the player he always could be.

  • Peter Hyatt

    Interesting article.

    Cespedes bailing out may prove of value to Smith.

  • Mike W

    Smith is following up a decent year last year with a good start. Who cares about Cespedes. Even if he didnt opt out, do you want a 34 year old guy who is leaving at the end of the year, or Smith ?

  • Jim OMalley

    Céspedes gave Smith an opening and he has been superb. Add that to a super terrific attitude and it is just fun to watch him play.

  • Metsense

    This was a good informative article.
    On 2019 Smith an OPS of .881 and would rank him #6 among NL first basemen and #5 left fielders. Defensively in left field he has held his own with a -2 in 2019.
    He is arbitration eligible in 2022. He is inexpensive. Smith is having a great start and the opposing teams will adjust pitching to him. Smith will have to adjust accordingly. I think he will. His versatility playing LF and the DH rule allows the Mets to have Smith, Alsonso, Cano, Davis and McNeil in the lineup everyday. He is a joy to watch.

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