Las Vegas, Nevada —— In a baseball world currently obsessed with measuring the exact distance, exit velocity, and trajectory of every ball that comes off the bat, Dominic Smith just did something he’ll probably never do again: he hit a ball one inch.
Playing at Cashman Field with the Triple-A Pacific Coast League‘s Las Vegas 51s late last week, the New York Mets’ prospect topped the smallest sliver of a pitch and hit it straight into the ground. The ball bounced forward—slightly!—and Colorado Rockies catcher Ryan Hanigan pounced, picking it up in fair territory an inch in front of home plate.
Called out by the umpire after Hanigan’s tag, Smith could’ve argued the ball was foul — maybe he could have made a case — or been visibly angry with the outcome, or frustrated with himself for losing an at-bat on such a let-down, or exasperated at the strange turn of events.
He paused, turned, and walked calmly back to the dugout. No emotion, no problem. He’s going to get a few hundred more chances to hit the ball further than that.
“I think sometimes people forget this is a kid’s game, and they play too intense,” Smith told Baseball Census the day after that weird at-bat, laughing about how he’ll probably never hit a ball exactly one inch again in his life. “When you play too tense, and you really don’t want to mess up, that’s when you make mistakes. I try to just treat this like it’s all a backyard baseball game, and we might not get them today, but we’ll probably get them tomorrow, you know?”
He smiled again, shaking his head about that strange at-bat.
“This sport is so funny sometimes,” he said. “But we play 140 games, I know I’ll have my chances to do well. There’s no point in stressing on stuff. I’m trying to stay relaxed. I’ve got to make it look as smooth as I can, you know?”
There are a lot of ways to approach Dominic Smith’s young career: along with teammate and friend Amed Rosario, he’s one of the New York Mets’ best young prospects. His meteoric rise through the minors has him knocking on the door of the big leagues at just 21 years old. Now, through his first 31 games with the Las Vegas 51s, he’s hitting a robust .309/.361/.447/.808 with a 15.8% strikeout rate—an encouraging rate for a power hitter at his age and this level. And he’s remarkably mature beyond his years, playing with the same slow heartbeat of his one-inch at-bat no matter what may happen on the field.
If you didn’t know any different, it’d be hard to guess he’s just a 21-year-old kid on the doorstep of his dream, because he carries himself like a 30-something veteran who’s been around the block a few times.
“If I follow the formula and the process, and do things the right way, I know I’ll get there,” he said, acknowledging the focus on this level at reaching The Show. “I might not get there on my time, but if I follow the process, be a good teammate, and just have fun, there’s a good chance I’ll get there. Besides, it’s not like we can call them and say ‘hey, I want to come up now.’ All that stuff, that’s all out of our control. We just try to keep this locker room loose and go out there and have fun.”
Smith—a Los Angeles native who spent his childhood playing with other soon-to-be notable prospects like Jason Martin (Houston Astros) and Josh Morgan (Texas Rangers)—comes by this advanced maturity honestly. Drafted right out of high school and spending his teenage years across the country with the New York Mets’ affiliates in the Gulf Coast League and the South Atlantic League, Smith was forced to grow up quickly.
“I was in rookie ball when I was only 17, and that was rough for me, my first time being away from home and my first time playing every day,” he said. “But from the start of my career, I’ve always been around older guys, and I realized pretty quickly the best way to improve was to lean on them. They all pay attention and ask a lot of questions, so that must be the right way to do it. And now in Triple-A, there are a lot of guys with a ton of big league time, so I’m really trying to be a sponge to soak all that stuff in.”
As relaxed as he is, and as mature as he may be, Dominic Smith is also meticulous in his understanding of player development. In a bid for better defensive flexibility and easier production, he lost a considerable amount of weight by cleaning up his diet over the offseason. He’s taken to relying on the knowledge Desmond Jennings and other Las Vegas 51s veterans have about the game—nuggets of wisdom Smith relishes while he waits in the Pacific Coast League for his own turn. And he’s made a point to add something to his skill set every single summer, too, always opting to play the long game rather than just blindly stabbing at short-term success.
“The first year, it was learning how not to chase and really to control my strike zone,” he said. “The second and third year, I learned how to use the whole field and how to be a hitter. And now, I’m learning to take a few pitches and wait. Instead of swinging at that pitch away for a base hit, I’m trying to take a few pitches and wait for a pitch I can drive.”
True to form, after Dominic Smith slugged just ten home runs in his first three pro seasons, he exploded for 14 bombs—with 29 doubles and a .457 slugging percentage—at the New York Mets’ Double-A affiliate in 2016 once he focused on adding power to his game. And now, he’s hit three long balls and six doubles in his first month with the Las Vegas 51s to go along with a .447 slugging percentage. It’s all coming together.
“Power takes time,” he offered. “You could live in the weight room, but it’s not going to make much difference. It’s all about mechanics and knowing how to pick your spots. I think this is helping my game a lot, to really work the count until I get a pitch I can do some damage with.”
It’s a good thing Dominic Smith is so mature, then, because his long-term outlook figures to come into play the rest of the season. The New York Mets have some problems, to say the least, but with T.J. Rivera doing well and Lucas Duda coming back quickly from an injury, first base isn’t necessarily one of them. To that end, Smith may just spend 2017 with the 51s, perfecting his power in the Pacific Coast League and leaning on another veteran teammate or two along the way.
Barring something unforeseen, perhaps a September call-up from the Las Vegas 51s is in the cards, or a shot at a larger role in 2018. It doesn’t matter, though—Dominic Smith will be the same guy either way.
“I’m trying to be a student of the game every year, and I think the best way to get better is by watching the game, and asking questions, and talking to my teammates,” he said. “This is a process, and I already feel a million times better than I did when I was 17. As a player, it’s fun to see that improvement. I want to just keep getting better every year.”
If the last few years are any indication, the future is bright for Dominic Smith, and his poise will soon be the New York Mets’ gain. Regardless, there’s at least one area where Smith is virtually guaranteed to get better in every at-bat from here: don’t bet on him ever again hitting a ball exactly one inch.
To read our scouting report on New York Mets first base prospect Dominic Smith, please click here.
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