Dominic Smith is about as polarizing a prospect as you will found in the Mets system. The former first-round pick out of high school in Compton comes with the dreaded label of first-base-only . The term “first base prospect” is a bit oxymoronic by nature. For any minor league first baseman to be considered a prospect, he needs to hit a lot and hit for power. For example, Carlos Santana in 2015 had a .267 TAv (and a .357 OBP) in 666 PAs. That TAv placed him 14th among the 17 first basemen who qualified for the batting title last year. And 2015 Carlos Santana would be a greater than 50th percentile outcome for Smith.
Dominic Smith is a hefty first baseman who, despite being on the shorter and heavier side, is a plus defender due to his great hands and instincts. He has an aesthetically-pleasing left-handed swing that is easy and fun to dream on. However, with the plus first base glove and the pretty swing, come concerns that cloud Smith’s future. The first issue is the body. Smith is only 21 years old and is already listed on the Binghamton Mets website as being six-foot and 250 lbs. (Let’s not forget how these team listings tend to grossly undersell the weight and oversell the height of basically all players.)
And with the bad body comes bad body language and bottom-of-the-scale speed. On one play, he hit into a run-of-the-mill 4-6-3 double play and made it roughly two-thirds of the way down the baseline by the time the play was completed. The speed is not much of an impediment for him defensively since he’s a first baseman, and it’s something that a slugging first baseman or designated hitter can overcome (see: David Ortiz, Prince Fielder, Mo Vaughn, etc.). The problem with that theory as it comes to Dom is that he isn’t really the type that is going to post Fielder-esque home run numbers.
Smith, as the result of pulling the ball more, actually did see a bump in power this year. He hit 14 homers in 542 PAs this year after hitting 10 over 1,224 career PAs prior to 2016. For a prospect at seven other positions, this would be seen as an exciting power breakout to go along with an already plus hit tool. However, for a first baseman with no future frame/strength to grow into and more pressure on the game power development in order to provide significant major league value, this surge was more of a requirement than a bonus. Given the 2016 power output and merely above average raw power, a reasonable high end (read: 75th percentile or better) major league output for Dom would be 18-22 homers a year. Of the 20 first basemen to qualify for the batting title in 2015, only one–Brandon Belt–has never hit more than 22 homers in a year.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Belt reportedly weighs 30 less pounds than Smith while being five inches taller than him. Belt has plus range at first base and is arguably the best defensive first baseman in baseball, when he’s not moonlighting in left field. Smith is a plus defender at first base for now, despite not having nearly the range Belt does, but it would still be a bit foolhardy to expect his defensive value, especially as he enters his prime to match Belt’s. And while Belt has never hit more than 18 homers in a season, he has never hit less than 33 doubles in a full season In fact, given Dom’s ability to use all fields, he might not end up all that far off Belt’s double pace.
Perhaps the two ways in which Dominic Smith most significantly lags behind Brandon Belt is in patience and avoiding double plays. Belt is one of the best hitters in all of baseball at staying out of the twin killing. In 2016, Belt has grounded into six double plays and that is a career high. In 698 career major league games (2640 PAs), Belt has hit into a total of 23 double plays. This comes to 5.23 double plays for every 600 PAs. Meanwhile, Dominic Smith grounded into 13 double plays this year after hitting into 19 twin killers last year and 18 the year prior to that. Those 50 double plays he has hit into over the past three years is the equivalent of 19.27 double plays for every 600 PAs. That difference between Belt and Smith is significant and a serious strike against Smith’s true offensive value to a team. Belt boasts a low ground ball rate (26.6 percent this season) and moves very well for a first baseman. Smith severely lags behind Belt in speed and has not shown the same ability to consistently lift the ball.
Now, patience: In 2016, Brandon Belt ranked fifth in the major leagues with a 15.9 percent walk rate, trailing only Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, Jose Bautista , and Mike Trout. To expect Dominic Smith, who has never posted a double digit walk rate in full season ball to come close to this figure would be quite a reach. That alone makes it quite unreasonable to compare Dominic Smith to a guy with a .390 OBP, aside from their similarities as first basemen who do not hit for typical first base power but may be able to do other things well.
While it goes without saying that Dominic Smith doesn’t need to be Brandon Belt—a perennial a 4-WARP player— to be considered a useful MLB asset, this shows the tightrope he’s going to have to walk in order to be a successful major league player. Unless he unexpectedly becomes a 30+ home run hitter, he’s going to need his hit tool to be plus-plus or better in order to carry him as even an average starting first baseman. If it’s merely just plus, he’d be treading dangerously close or towards the territory of first basemen like James Loney and Casey Kotchman, both of whom were both former first round picks and top prospects that were expected to be all-around threats and ended up as replacement level starters. Dominic Smith still has the upside to outperform the likes of Loney and Kotchman, but he needs to hit at an incredibly high level to be able to do so and that is no guarantee for any prospect, especially one with as many risks as Smith.