First basemen are expected to hit the ball over the wall. So far, in the 2014 season, Mets prospect Dominic Smith has only done so once.
Smith, the Mets’ first-round draft pick in the 2013 draft, has one home run for Savannah, hit last weekend in Augusta. How big a deal for this in the 19-year-old?
Smith has played 115 games for the Savannah Sand Gnats and hit .276/.349/.341 with 24 doubles and that one home run. He has run a very healthy walk rate of 9.8 percent and a strikeout rate of 15.6 percent. He’s shown plate discipline and strike zone control while displaying an ability to shoot singles back up the middle and into left field as illustrated in his hit chart below (courtesy MLBFarm.com). Note that in the spray chart below, right field is less “busy” than center and left field.
Smith plays his home games in Historic Grayson Stadium, which is the most hostile stadium for home runs in full-season baseball. At .63 HR/game, it is dead last among all of Triple-, Double-, advanced Single- and Single-A parks in home runs per game.
How did other, successful MLB first basemen hit in their first year of professional baseball, at a similar age? I looked at how the Top 20 Major League first basemen, with at least 100 PA in 2014, as sorted by Fangraphs’ WAR played at the same age, in the season after they were drafted, or for international players, their second season of professional baseball in the US. Of this group of 20, 10 were playing professional, affiliated baseball in the US in their age 19 season. This list is a who’s who of the game’s most productive offensive first basemen: Miguel Cabrera, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, Edwin Encarnacion, Carlos Santana, Brandon Moss, Mike Napoli, Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Morneau and Joey Votto. (Yes, Santana has played some catcher and third base this year. He’s played more first, and he can hit.) If Dominic Smith is going to be an above average MLB first baseman, he will need to join this group, or its equivalent minyan when, or if, he’s in the big leagues.
This group played in wildly different leagues and stadiums across the two Single-A leagues and short-season circuits, including the Pioneer League, the Appalachian League, the New York-Penn League and the Gulf Coast League. Some of these players (Cabrera, Rizzo, Freeman, Napoli, Gonzalez) were playing in full-season leagues. Encarnacion and Votto split their years between short-season Single-A, the South Atlantic League and the Mid-West League respectively.
As a group, in their Dom Smith-aged campaign, they averaged a .293/.370/.454 line with 19 doubles, 2.5 triples and a little over eight home runs in 82 games. Note that Smith has already played more games than the average of this group. Durability matters.
Walk rate – Smith is nearly in line with the group average.
Strikeout rate – Smith is a tick better than the group average.
Home run rate – Smith’s home run rate is an order of magnitude smaller than the group average. It should not really be surprising, but the list of above average MLB first basemen hit homeruns at age 19.
Extra-base hit rate – It wasn’t just home runs. Accounting for all extra-base hits including doubles and triples, Smith gives up about three extra-base hits per 100 plate appearances, or three per month.
Singles Rate – Smith hits singles more often than the average of baseball’s above average first basemen did when they were his age.
BABIP – Smith is below the group. BABIP can be about luck. But a higher BABIP can be a proxy, albeit a noisy one, for hard contact. It can also be a proxy for speed. This is not a group of speedsters, but they did average 2.5 triples in their average 82 games. Smith has none, despite playing in a ballpark with a huge right-center field conducive to three-base knocks. Some of his “missing” home runs should be triples. Yet they aren’t.
What’s missing? For Smith’s extra-base hit rate to meet the average of this group of boppers, he’d need about 12 more extra-base hits. For his home run rate to be average, he’d need nine more home runs. Perhaps Historic Grayson Stadium has taken a few home runs away from Smith. Perhaps some of those became doubles and some became outs. Perhaps it has also turned a few flyball doubles into outs. Maybe that’s the full story.
However, Smith only plays half of his games in Grayson Stadium. How does his road performance stack up?
Even using only Smith’s road performance, his isolated slugging percentage is half of this group of above-average MLB first basemen.
Smith and Gnats hitting coach Valentino Pascucci have repeatedly emphasized that he must become a good hitter or a complete hitter before he can become a power hitter. Smith can hit. He’s shown a strong barrel to ball ability in Savannah, where he is young for the league. At any other position, he would be an elite prospect, for his contact ability and strikezone control. First basemen hit more home runs than any other position and above-average MLB first basemen were showing off more in-game power than Smith has displayed so far.
There are certainly players who bloom late. Paul Goldschmidt hit one home run in 37 games as a freshman at Texas State at roughly the same age as Smith now. Joey Votto, at Smith’s age, pummeled Pioneer League pitching and then hit .231/.348/.287 with eight doubles and one home run in 60 games in the Mid-West League at age 19 in 2003. Both Votto (6′ 2″) and Goldshmidt (6′ 3″) are bigger than Smith’s listed size of 6′ 0″.
Beyond in-game power, does Smith show raw power in batting practice? Optimistic evaluators see 20 home run raw power. Other days, Smith is more interested in keeping the ball in the middle of the field and hardly drives the ball at all.
Smith’s power output has likely been surpressed in part by Historic Grayson Stadium. However, he has barely been more prolific on the road this year. For Smith to stay among baseball’s elite prospects, and project as an above-average MLB first baseman, he will need to learn to put the ball over the wall with much more regularity.