Photo credit Bryan Green
If all of the buzz around Mets first baseman Dominic Smith could be contextualized into one number, it would be 7.3. Baseball Reference produces one of the most meaningful spring training stats and it has nothing to do with production. Opponent quality—OppQual on BaseballReference.com—is quite literally the quality of the opponents Smith has faced through two weekends of play in Port St. Lucie.
Double-A quality pitching is represented by a 7.0 score, while Triple-A quality opponents are an integer higher at 8.0. For Smith, this means his spring training opposition has been slightly worse than the level of pitching he posted only an 84 wRC+ against last season in over 350 plate appearances. For one, Smith is producing against competition he hasn’t played well against since 2016. But this is also an extremely small sample—essentially one good game—and for the most part, consensus dictates tossing spring training stats out the window. With Smith, there is room to learn.
Baseball is full of adjustments. Last season during spring training, Dansby Swanson eliminated his power-sapping toe tap and posted a BABIP-inflated 103 wRC+ before the league stopped throwing him fastballs and he struggled to recover. Shohei Ohtani came into spring training with a leg kick that he reduced into a toe tap less than a month later. When a tangible adjustment is present, it’s easier to convince yourself there might be considerable improvement with a player. That’s what spring is for—seeing what players have changed and gauging the season-long effect. We as a baseball-loving community just happen to notice changes more often when a hitter produces. It’s one thing to predict Smith will breakout because he’s hitting well in spring. It’s another thing to predict he will breakout because of an adjustment.
If you watched Smith at the end of 2018 and now in spring, it’s obvious he’s starting his hands in a completely different spot— they rested on shoulder; they’re now vertical. The result of this is a substantially reduced time to get his hands and bat head in a position to swing. While he still has some natural pre-pitch movement, his hands merely drift back from their starting point as opposed to starting on his shoulder and moving up and back while he builds energy on his back leg.
What would have a greater effect than hand placement on his batted balls is a change in the resulting attack angle. A constant issue for spring training footage, however, is the camera angle relative to regular season cameras for video comparison. Spring cameras are usually lower to the field of play and more offset to the third-base side. This throws off perspective, but not enough to scrap the idea that Smith is approaching the ball differently.
Below is a picture showing a comparison of the angles of his bat just prior to front-foot strike. You’ll notice the camera effect makes the balls appear nowhere near each other initially, yet just at the point of contact in the video below, both pitches are on the outer third with the video on the right showing a slightly more elevated fastball.
Here’s the video form my tweet yesterday with some fancy lines for comparison…
In Smith’s time in the majors (332 PAs), he has gone from a ground-ball heavy rookie to a line-drive heavy sophomore. With that line-drive bump came a nice uptick in fly balls, suggesting he added loft between 2017 and 2018. We can confirm this with the increase in his launch angle from 9.7 to 17.2 degrees (11.7 degrees was average in 2018). Early in spring with his altered stance, his ground out to fly out ratio has fallen even more, from .87 last season to an unsustainable .25 in spring (Rhys Hoskins had the lowest among qualified hitters last season at .56). More fly balls aren’t necessarily better, but an adjustment coinciding with even more loft is enough of a flag to consider some voluntary tinkering, potentially on the angle he is attacking the ball. A flatter bat at front-foot strike is going to create a more level plane through the zone. With Smith’s barrel head further north, there’s a chance he’s coming up and under the ball more, resulting in a more positive—or vertical—attack angle.
The evolution of Smith’s stance is even more curious. On June 26, 2018, video evidence shows Smith had his standard flat-bat stance (similar to the left video above). His next start came in Toronto exactly one week later after battling wrist soreness. His hands appeared in front of his chest with his bat perpendicular to the ground (similar to the right video above). The Mets demoted Smith to Triple-A on July 20 and recalled him roughly one month later. At that time, he reverted back to his flat-bat stance and finished the season with an admirable 119 wRC+ buoyed heavily by a .512 slugging percentage.
This spring, he’s back to the stance he tried for an abbreviated amount of time in July. He seemingly disregarded his reversion back to his flat-bat stance that brought some of the only success he has had. His second attempt at the relaxed approach has resulted in some spring loft and great results. The sample is small, but evidence exists to keep Smith on radars as Opening Day approaches.