For minor league baseball players chasing the bright lights and big paydays of the big leagues, baseball season usually means moving away from family and friends. Or, you can just bring your family and friends with you, just as Dominic Smith, the Mets first-round pick in the 2013 amateur draft has done.
Smith, who turned 19 in June, entertains either his mother or his father, or friends from home, nearly every time the Savannah Sand Gnats play at home. After he signed with the Mets, Smith’s mother and brother moved from California to Florida, and make the roughly four-hour drive up I-95 when the Gnats are home for the “majority” of his games, Smith says. His buddies fly from California around their own work and school schedules.
“Just coming home to a family is a lot easier when you have a bad game to roommates, or nobody,” Smith said to MMiLB.com. “We normally have a full house.”
Come game time, Smith takes comfort in friendly faces.
“I normally have a section at all of our games, it’s neat looking up into the stands and seeing familiar faces.” Smith said.
This type of support is not new this year, nor is it likely to stop anytime soon. Last year, in the Gulf Coast League, Smith said that “high school coaches, aunties, uncles and grandmas, and close family,” all came to watch him play.
“No matter where I was at — whether I was in Brooklyn, St. Lucie, or Binghamton, or wherever — they would still make it a point to come watch me play, support me, and be there for me. They know its a good part of my development.
“I have a really good support system,” he said.
Smith’s best friend, Jamiel Robinson, who has been to Savannah, said Smith “just likes having company.”
The two have been friends since elementary school, played together in Little League and bonded playing catch during and after school. By high school, Smith was batting third and Robinson fourth. Now, he travels across the country to play video games with his friend after games. Their digital thumb war of choice varies by the and whatever’s on TV: Madden during football season, NBA2K during the winter, MLB the Show in the summer, but their number one recently, in honor of the recently completed World Cup, has been FIFA soccer, where Dom’s favorite team to play with is the star-studded Barcelona side.
Despite the visits, Smith got off to slow start this year. In his first 19 games in the South Atlantic League, his first full season, he hit .167/.222/.167 (11-for-66) with nary an extra-base hit in 19 games. However, since April 25, he has hit .330/.388/.405 with 21 doubles in his last 74 games with a solid 8.7 percent walk rate and a strong 15.2 percent strikeout rate. Since that arbitrary date, he is ninth in Single-A in batting average and tied for seventh in doubles. Smith is the youngest player with 21 or more doubles in Single-A since April 25, although he’s only four months younger than White Sox third baseman and top prospect Trey Michalczewski.
Smith confessed that the season’s first few weeks were tough on him.
“Early in the year, when you start off slow, and you’re young, you kind of doubt yourself, and wonder if ‘Do I belong in this league?’ or ‘Am I good enough to play?’ If you stay positive and stay confident, things could turn around quickly,” Smith said, but he credited his relationships, with his family, friends, hitting coach Valentino Pascucci and older teammates, including L.J. Mazzilli, for getting him going.
“Scooch [Pascucci] has taken a lot of time with me individually, and just talked with me about the mental side. It really wasn’t nothing about physical play. It was more mental play,” Smith said. “Hitting is mainly about confidence. You gotta up to the plate positive and you gotta go up to the plate confident, and you gotta stay mentally strong.”
Early in the year, Smith, who hits out of an open stance, struggled in part because he was too quick to his front foot when he came back to center, and ended up out in front.
“Now, I’m starting to sit back on my back leg a little more,” Smith said.
This emphasis — coupled with an attention to pitch selection and using the whole field — has served Smith well in the last three months. Pascucci explains, “As a hitter, we all tend to be a little pull-happy sometimes. When he’s going good, he’s hitting those nice, easy line drives to left-center field.”
Mets Farm Director Dick Scott had nothing but praise for the way Smith has learned in 2014.
“I think the thing that Dom should be the most proud of, is how quickly he made adjustments,” Scott said. “He sized up the league the first time around, and then he started hitting. He’s done a tremendous job. Hits the ball to all fields now.”
While Smith has been hitting singles and doubles, the young first baseman is still looking for his first home run of the year. He’s played his home games in the toughest park to hit a home run among all full-season yards — Grayson Stadium — and one that is especially big to right field.
First basemen, though, as one scout put it, “are paid to hit the ball over the wall.”
Pascucci wanted Smith to focus on becoming an all-around hitter rather than on selling out for power.
“He’s got to learn to be a good hitter before he gets to the other stuff,” Pascucci said, and by stuff, he meant home runs. “He’s going to grow into his power and all of that stuff is going to come as he ages, matures and gets stronger.”
In conversation, Smith now sounds like a copy of his hitting coach. Asked to describe what he’s learned from Pascucci this year, Smith said “the big thing is pitch selection.”
“He wants me to learn to be a pure hitter first. And not worry about power, because power will come,” he said.
In his first 93 games with Savannah, Smith has hit a healthy .299/.357/.359. The average is there. The plate discipline is improving. To be a big league first baseman, at some point, he’ll have to put the ball over the wall. And when he does hit his first home run of 2014, and 2015, and 2016, he’ll probably have family and friends in the stands, cheering him on.