Healthy and happy, Dominic Smith looks to prove himself again
JUPITER, Fla. — Dominic Smith’s first stop through the clubhouse door Tuesday was the lineup card for that night’s road game against the Marlins.
Most Mets have an idea where they’ll wind up for any given game. But in Smith’s case, he wasn’t even certain he’d be wearing this uniform again for the coming season. And now that Smith is, he should be a valuable piece, based on both his positional flexibility and current health.
Smith began as a 2018 experiment in leftfield, mostly through his own urging. Three years later, he graduated to the starter last season and figures to be the Mets’ primary lefty bat option for the spot. Still, there are new eyes to impress, with turnover bringing GM Billy Eppler and manager Buck Showalter on board, so Smith is back to proving what he can do a considerable distance away from his natural position at first base.
“I know he’s worked hard at it,” Showalter said. “He’s been a steady pupil with [Wayne] Kirby and Mookie [Wilson], so we’ll see where it goes. But he’s certainly put in the time and effort out there. I can’t sit here and tell you that I know exactly [how he is]. You can’t make them hit tough balls out there to him. But all the work he’s put in bodes for him to be as good as he’s capable of being.”
Smith, 26, has progressed from 10 starts in leftfield in 2018 all the way up to 107 last season (as compared with six at first base). Ironically, his glove wasn’t the biggest concern, as Smith batted .244 with 11 home runs and a career-low .667 OPS (down from .993 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season).
What appeared as regression, however, had a simpler explanation: Smith didn’t reveal until this month that he battled through a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder, and compensating for the injury badly messed with his swing mechanics. In retrospect, that was obviously a mistake, but Smith doesn’t want to dwell on his judgment call. He’s eager to move past the health issue and has spent this spring making sure the shoulder is sound with exercises to fortify that area.
“I just feel like I’m in a good spot — physically, mentally, and as well as my swing,” Smith said. “Just having a better understanding of how [my swing] works is huge. I dove in last offseason a lot trying to learn my swing. Obviously worked on my body strengthening. Some of my injuries I don’t want to be public because it’s not an excuse. That’s not who I am.”
If Smith looked different smashing a pair of home runs off Max Scherzer during an intrasquad game, it’s because he was — to a degree. Same Dom, just a fully functional one now. After going 2-for-4 in Tuesday’s 10-0 win over the Marlins, Smith was hitting .389 (7-for-18) with a homer and three RBIs in eight games.
“Everybody was wondering, wow, what’s happening, what’s changed so much,” Smith said. “But now I’m healthy. It’s just fun being able to go and play and perform like I know I can. It’s refreshing.”
This isn’t the first time Smith has fought to overturn a narrative. His Mets career was briefly derailed early on when he was scratched by manager Mickey Callaway for being late for the Grapefruit League opener, putting his character in question. But further examination revealed that Smith had suffered from sleep apnea, a condition that sapped his energy and often left him fatigued in the field.
Once that was remedied, the Mets got a truer understanding of what they had in Smith, who went from spare part to starter. He’s gone from badgering the Mets about playing the outfield to them handing him the job a year ago. It’s a credit to Smith that each setback has resulted in a greater leap forward, and that’s the expectation this season as well, however he’s used.
“I think Buck just wants us to be ready,” Smith said. “He just wants to see what I can do, what the team can do. Just make sure you’re ready because anything can happen over the course of a year, and the more versatility we have, the more chances we can be in the lineup.”
Smith, still a Met after an uncertain winter, appears ticketed for plenty of those chances.