A funny thing happened on the way to Dominic Smith supposedly becoming another cautionary tale in leftfield, like Daniel Murphy or Todd Hundley before him.
Smith defied the skeptics and made himself solid at the position.
Not merely adequate, or a calculated risk, or the fish-out-of-water, infielder-turned-outfielder that causes managers to choke on their Dubble Bubble when a high fly ball is hit in his direction. Sure, Smith has bumpy moments on the learning curve. That’s to be expected for anyone.
But after having to beg the Mets years ago to even try him in left, Smith is now one of the more surprising members of the team’s vastly improved defense, a group that entered Tuesday night’s game ranked second in defensive runs saved (DRS) with 36, trailing only the Rays (49).
As for Smith, he actually sits near the top among qualified leftfielders in a number of defensive metrics. According to one used by FanGraphs to measure overall individual performance, with zero as league average, Smith rated 0.3 behind the Rockies’ Raimel Tapia (1.7) — the rest of the crew were in the negatives.
Defensive stats can be notoriously inaccurate in forming a total picture of a player’s ability. Even something that seems as straightforward as fielding percentage may not take into account a player’s range, and errors can fall to the judgment of the official scorer.
In Smith’s case, he’s also been passing the eye test, and apparently has built up enough faith that manager Luis Rojas is growing comfortable letting him finish games there rather than automatically going to a defensive replacement in the late innings, depending on who’s available. That’s a significant bar to hurdle for a relative newbie at the position, and a first baseman by trade.
"I’m excited for him," Rojas said before Tuesday night’s series opener against the Orioles. "He’s worked really hard, not only this year, but in past years as well. He’s had a few outfield coaches — I’ve been one of them — but I think with Tony [Tarasco] and the performance staff this year, he’s definitely grown a lot more.
"You put the experience with the great coaching from Tony and the performance staff, and Dom’s body condition right now, which is really good, and I think they’ve gotten good results."
With the Mets’ outfield ransacked by injuries during the first two months of the season, Smith has been a mainstay, making 41 starts in leftfield through 52 games. The leaders in the other two spots? Michael Conforto had 33 starts in rightfield before landing on the IL with a hamstring strain, Kevin Pillar has 18 in center.
"He’s earned it," Rojas said. "He’s shown us that he’s not a liability. He’s going to make plays, he knows how to adjust and he’s smart."
Rojas talked about the strategical advantage Smith’s option now provides, as he can go to the bench for pinch hitters earlier without having to worry about subbing for Smith toward the end of games. Tuesday night at Camden Yards was another example, as the Mets deployed James McCann — their $40 million catcher — at first base again rather than use either of their first basemen in Smith or Pete Alonso, who was the DH in the AL park.
Using McCann at first allowed Rojas to keep his hot bat in the lineup — McCann entered Tuesday on a .367 surge (11-for-30) with three doubles, four homers and 11 RBIs over his previous eight games (with a 1.254 OPS). And, if something happened to Tomas Nido later on, McCann could simply move behind the plate without the Mets losing the DH. Ironically, Smith is the team’s best defensive first baseman, but even in these situations, he remains most valuable in leftfield for the team’s flexibility.
Plus, as Smith has heated up at the plate, it’s crucial to keep him playing, wherever that may be. Heading into Tuesday, he was hitting .379 (11-for-29) with two doubles, two homers and a 1.155 OPS over his last 10 games. As for facing the O’s Bruce Zimmermann, Smith was slashing .316/.364/.421 against lefthanders this season, so the split isn’t putting him on the bench, either.
It took longer than Smith would have preferred, but he finally persuaded the Mets to make him an everyday player — if not in the most obvious place — and it’s not out of desperation, either. They’re better with him in leftfield, thanks to his efforts to improve out there, and the education still continues, despite already earning the passing grades that eluded some of his most notable predecessors.