On September 17th, the Mets were in a dire position. The game with the Phillies had been a back and forth affair. The Mets had jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning, but had not only lost the lead, but were down 6-3 after the Phillies finished batting in the bottom of the second. The Mets had battled back to tie the game 6-6 in the top of the sixth and the bullpen had kept things tied through the next two innings. Then came the bottom of the eighth. With the game still tied and two out, Luis Rojas put Justin Wilson into the game to pitch to Bryce Harper. Wilson was erratic immediately and became visibly frustrated on the mound. He walked Harper and then walked the batter after Harper to load the bases. With Didi Gregorius at the plate, Wilson immediately fell behind two balls to no strikes. It was a moment where someone needed to step up, to talk to Wilson, to do something to stem the tide. That person was Dominic Smith. The young first baseman walked over to Wilson, said a few words and walked back. On the next pitch, Wilson threw a ball that had just enough plate to get the aggressive Gregorius to swing, resulting in an easy fly ball to center field. The Mets got out of the inning and took the lead 10-6 in the bottom of the frame. Smith also went three for five in the game with two runs scored and two RBI, falling a home run short of the cycle.
Smith came into his own in 2020. His bat and place amongst his teammates are part of that emergence, as is a social conscience that lead to a personal protest of social injustice on August 26th followed by a team supported protest on August 27th. At 25, Mets fans can’t ask much more from this young man.
Smith was supposed to be a star. That’s what the draft pundits said when the Mets selected him 11th overall in the 2013 draft. Great glove, smooth stroke, best pure hitter in the high school ranks, were all statements thrown around by the likes of Keith Law, Jonathan Mayo, and other top draft evaluators of Major League Baseball talent. His minor league career showed promise immediately, with an .837 OPS in his first 206 plate appearances after signing his contract in 2013. His progress seemed to stall a bit over the next two years though. He showed very little power, only hitting seven home runs in over 1,000 plate appearances combined in 2014 and 2015. It was a case in which evaluators began to wonder if he would hit enough and for enough power to become a major league first baseman or whether he was on his way towards first round bust status. There were also questions about his motivation and physical fitness. In 2016 and 2017 though, he seemed to finally build on his promising debut with an .824 OPS in 2016 and .905 OPS in 2017 before being called up to the major leagues.
His major league debut was mixed. He showed more power than he had in the minors, hitting nine home runs in his first 180 plate appearances but also struck out more than expected. He was 22 years old though and the hope was that Smith would continue to show progress in 2018.
He had competition though. In 2016 the Mets had drafted another first baseman, Pete Alonso, in the 2nd round. Alonso came on with a bang, posting a .969 OPS after being drafted, followed up by an .889 OPS and 18 homeruns in 393 plate appearances in 2017. It was clear that these two players were closing in on each other. They were the same age (Smith is six months older) and would most likely play at the same level in 2018. How would that work? What would both players do?
That year seemed to answer that question and not to the benefit of Smith. Alonso played at both Double-A and Triple-A and posted a .975 OPS with 36 home runs while Smith floundered at both the major and minor league level. Due to Alonso’s emergence, the Mets had Smith play games at both the major league and minor league level in left field, a position he had played in high school but didn’t appear to have the body type to play successfully. Smith’s strike out rate at the major league level in 2018 went up alarmingly as his walk rate decreased significantly, creating questions about his plate discipline. Five years into his professional baseball career, Smith was now being labelled a bust.
When spring training commenced prior to the 2019 season, the Mets first-round pick from 2013 didn’t appear to have a place on the team. Alonso was the rising star now and Smith was just viewed as one more failure of the Mets minor league system. It appeared that Smith had faltered with the competition from Alonso and the lingering questions about his motivation appeared to have been proven correct.
However, that was just the perception of the fans and media following the team. What we all didn’t know was that Smith didn’t feel intimidated by Alonso’s rise. He instead focused on his physical fitness and spent time in the offseason working on playing left field. Instead of feeling slighted by a second-round pick who had been with the Mets for three fewer years than he had been, Smith supported Alonso and they became friends. Smith became well liked in the clubhouse for his fun personality and intelligence. He engaged in appropriate after hours bonding with his teammates, like dinners and playing video games in hotel rooms. He worked hard and made the team out of spring training as mostly a bench bat with Alonso penciled in as the starter at first base. Smith played sparingly as the season commenced, but he didn’t gripe. He continued to be a good clubhouse presence and the same fun and energetic person that he had been during the spring. He focused on maximizing his time when in the lineup. Smith became an adept pinch hitter, posting a 1.031 OPS and hitting two home runs in 37 such plate appearances and hit when given time to start, whether that was at first base or in left field. Despite Alonso having an historic rookie season, Smith forced his way into the lineup, posting a .939 OPS prior to the all-star break before injuries effected his play in the second half of the year.
In 2020, Smith walked into this Covid-19 shortened season with the same issue. He had to play his way into the lineup and did so in spectacular fashion. By season’s end, Smith lead the team in Doubles, OPS, SLG and RBI. He finished the season tied for sixth in the National League in RBI, second in Doubles, seventh in Batting Average, third in SLG, and third in OPS. In fact, if you look at his statistics, his season compares very favorably with Freddie Freeman, the star first baseman of the Atlanta Braves for the past decade and a significant MVP candidate for 2020. That’s a pretty high comparison.
His stats and locker room presence are just part of it though. In 2016, Smith founded Baseball Generations, a nonprofit organization that helps inner city children. It’s a program that offers free daily practices for kids, as well as assistance with youth who want to join a travel team yet can’t afford the cost. It also runs large camps during the offseason where Smith and other major leaguers come to run drills and spend time with the children. Yes, it’s all focused on baseball, but Smith see’s it as more than that. As he said once when discussing his foundation, Smith said, referencing the kids he works with, “They’re not worth anything less than any other kid.”
These feelings and his observations of what was going on in the world around him lead to his own form of personal protest. On August 26th, Smith took a knee during the national anthem. He explained in his post-game press conference that it was related to both the Jacob Blake situation in Wisconsin and his own experiences as a black man in the United States, including being refused service at a dining establishment in March after he and J.D. Davis left spring training to get some food. Smith cried during these statements and expressed how difficult the day leading up to the game on 8/26 had been for him. His feelings can be summarized in two quotes he made during the presser, “the most difficult part is to see people still don’t care” and “kneeling just isn’t enough.”
On August 27th, his teammates backed him up. With the support of the Marlins, the team they were playing, Smith, his teammates and the Marlins entered the field. They stood quietly for 42 seconds with Lewis Brinson, the only black player on the Marlins, standing in the batter’s box. The two teams then walked off the field, with Smith laying a Black Lives Matter tee-shirt over home plate. Smith and three of his teammates, Michael Conforto, Robinson Cano and Dellin Betances then did a video conference together, showing solidarity in the situation. Considering the political and social climate at the time, the fact that this happened just showed how much Smith mattered in the eyes of his teammates.
Smith might get traded this offseason. His fit on the team is awkward, especially if the designated hitter is not a part of that National League moving forward as it was in 2020. Smith has worked hard at becoming a left fielder, but as the season progressed in 2020, he inevitably ended up at his natural position of first base while Alonso became the teams primary designated hitter. If Smith were to play left field for the Mets in the future, an upgrade in center field would be necessary. He’s also young, has shown that he wants to be a part of the organization in any way possible and is under team control until 2025. His trade value is exceptionally high right now and the Mets do need to make a lot of tough choices regarding roster construction this offseason if the organization is finally to get back to being a consistently successful franchise.
A winning organization is built on talent, character and leadership and Smith has all three of those attributes. Whatever people feel about Black Lives Matter, Covid-19, the divisions in this country and the politics of the moment, having a young man on this team who is confident enough to lead both on the field with his play and off the field with his charisma and character is of vital importance. Smith has arrived, and Mets fans should hope he is a part of the future.