NEW YORK – You have no chance. You’re cold. You’re coming off the bench. You haven’t hit in a couple days. You’re facing a really good bullpen guy.Those negative thoughts used to defeat Dominic Smith before he even stepped into the box as a pinch-hitter. They built up and struck him out before he even swung the bat in the on-deck circle. “Once you put those thoughts in your head,” Smith said, “it’s tough to succeed or go out there and do anything.”Smith’s role is fluid. He may receive a start here or there, but he is heavily relied upon as a pinch-hitter. If he produces, more at-bats come. If he doesn’t, who knows what happens? Bench players often don’t know when the next plate appearance will come.In pinch-hitting, the odds are brutal as hitters aren’t expected to succeed. Pinch-hitters are batting, on average, .221 in the majors this season. So, when your own mind beats you before you even see a pitch, you’re toast.By the third or fourth inning, Smith will begin moving around. He is always monitoring the pitch counts of both starting pitchers. He keeps track of who is in the opposing bullpen and when guys begin to get loose.He can sometimes feel when he’s about to hit. There are times he knows the pitcher’s spot is coming up, or certain situations when Mets manager Mickey Callaway alerts Smith that he’ll bat in the next half inning.Nowadays, the debilitating thoughts no longer swirl. This is a new Dominic Smith, confident in his ability and careless about what he cannot control. Like how Pete Alonso, a budding rookie star, is blocking him from more playing time. “I used to worry too much about all the negatives, the negative numbers in pinch-hitting,” Smith said. “The fact that you’re not supposed to succeed. It took me away from what I was good at. Now, I don’t care when I hit, who I hit off of. I feel like I’m better than that guy on the mound and I can go out there and help the team.”
The 23-year-old has become New York’s most reliable bench bat. His plate appearances are better than they’ve ever been in a career that began in 2017.This season, he’s slashing.310/.431/.452 over 42 at-bats. As a pinch-hitter, he’s batting .375/.516/.583. He has five RBI and six walks as a sub.He hit .198 as a rookie and .224 last season. He said he was frustrated and felt he should be playing more, so he wasn’t focused on taking advantage of every opportunity. He didn’t capitalize like he could have.Story continues below video.
Over the offseason, Smith watched film of other left-handed hitters, like Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich and Cincinnati’s Scooter Gennett. He even studied teammate Michael Conforto.He found that, not only did those guys start on time, but they hardly chased. They waited for their pitches. When Smith reflected on his first two seasons, he felt he did the opposite. He now has a different definition of what a “good pitch” is.According to Statcast, Smith’s strikeout rate dropped from 31.5 percent in 2018 to 19.6 this season. His walk rate increased from 2.7 last year to 15.7 now.“Just because you could hit a pitch or put a ball in play doesn’t mean that it’s a good pitch to it or it’s something that you can do damage with,” he said.
Dominic Smith discusses how he’s handled his role with the Mets. Justin Toscano, Staff Writer
“He genuinely just wants the team to win,” Conforto said. “He pulls for each and every one of us. It’s been really cool to see him have that change in attitude, that change in perspective to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to make the most of the at-bats that I get, the starts that I get, and whatever else happens is out of my control.’ He’s just taking what comes to him and he’s having a lot of success.”When Mets manager Mickey Callaway is asked about Smith, he almost always leads with this: “He’s embracing his role.”“He’s not pouting that he’s not playing every day,” Callaway says. “He’s coming to the field and taking this opportunity to show us what he can do in the role that he’s assigned in this moment and getting unbelievable results. You commend a guy for that.”Smith now pinch-hits with a different outlook. He used to believe he only had value if he cranked a home run, but he’s realized there are other ways to help his team. He’s also not feeling as much pressure because, even when he can’t get on base, his teammates are there to encourage him when he returns to the dugout.
He also learned to be appreciative of the constant positive. “I’m 23 and in the big leagues,” he says. Truth is, there are minor leaguers older than him that may never receive a big-league at-bat. Smith feels like everything will work out if he keeps capitalizing on each at-bat.After he says that, he slips off his LeBrons, puts on different shoes and heads out of the clubhouse. The Mets play the Tigers in about three hours and Smith’s preparation is in full swing.“When I go out there now, I don’t care who’s on the mound,” Smith said. “I feel like I’m going to get the job done. I don’t care if I didn’t play in three days, two days. I don’t care if it’s my first at-bat.”