The regular season is almost here. With one week left in Spring Training, the 2021 New York Mets are putting the finishing touches on their roster. Each Wednesday leading up to Opening Day, a new position will get its own preview. Check out the previous breakdowns in the links below. Today, it’s time to finish up the position players by taking a look at the left fielders.
Unless MLB wants to spring a last minute surprise and announce that the DH is coming back to the National League, Dominic Smith will be manning left field in 2021. The breakout star of the 2020 season, Smith is looking to prove that his MVP-caliber play is here to stay. But while there is a lot of hope that he can do that with the bat, his defense in left still leaves a lot to be desired.
As a natural first basemen, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that Smith has struggled as an outfielder. In only 470.1 innings in left, he has put up horrific numbers. This includes -6 DRS, -7.3 UZR and -10 OAA, as well as a .951% fielding percentage and just two assists. Needless to say he doesn’t really have any qualities one would want out of a left fielder. Most of his issues come from his inability to get good jumps on balls, having below average numbers in reaction time, bursts and route taking. If Smith had qualified, he would have finished dead last in the league in jumps with -4.8 feet covered vs. average in 2019, and seventh to last with -2.6 feet in 2020.
Thankfully, Smith’s offensive output more than makes up for his lackluster defense. While he put up subpar numbers in his first two seasons, Smith figured things out in 2019 after receiving aid from one of the most unlikely sources; a sleep apnea mask. Yes, it turns out a good night’s sleep really can make a difference. While his production saw a huge jump in 2019, it wasn’t until 2020 that Smith truly started consistently hitting like an MVP.
In 50 games last year, Smith slashed .316/.377/.616 with a 169 OPS+, 32 extra base hits and 42 RBIs. These weren’t just career highs, they were among the best in the entire league. Most notable were his 21 doubles which put him just two behind NL MVP Freddie Freeman. His 10 home runs also put him on pace for around 30 in a full season as well. It wasn’t good luck that carried Smith here either, as his .301 xBA, .563 xSLG and .390 xwOBA were all near the top of the leaderboards.
Much of this success can be traced back to Smith’s huge increase in power. His hard hit rate jumped nearly 12 points to 46.7% in 2020, while his barrel rate doubled to 13.3%. On top of further refining his swing, Smith’s newfound ability to hit offspeed pitches played an important role in his power spike. In 2019, he had a paltry .100 average and slugging percentage against offspeed pitches. One year later these numbers exploded to a .351 average and .622 slugging percentage. Smith also improved on his already solid numbers against breaking balls by hitting .388 and slugging .653 on them last year.
While his .368 BABIP in 2020 suggests that some of these numbers may come down a bit, even a modest drop shouldn’t be enough to remove Smith from the MVP conversation. At the very least, he stands good odds to make his first All-Star Game in 2021.
Once again, Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr. will be the primary backups. As mentioned in the center field and right field previews, the two don’t bring much value at the plate, but their status as righties is of some benefit to an all left-handed outfield. Likewise, both bring elite defense to each outfield position despite primarily being center fielders. In just over 500 innings in left, Pillar owns 12 DRS and 3.1 UZR. However, 2020 was the first time since 2015 that he played there, and only for 14 mediocre innings. Almora, meanwhile, only has 30 career innings in left field, with 26 of those coming in 2016. It remains to be seen how much the Mets try to use him there.
Just as Pillar and Almora return as the primary backups, Mallex Smith and Khalil Lee again feature as extra depth. As mentioned previously, both come with great speed and provide a lot of value as base stealers. Offensively, Smith’s bat is as unspectacular as Pillar’s and Almora’s, while Lee has shown potential in the minors, but still strikes out too much.
Defensively, both guys have played the majority of their innings in center, with left field being their least familiar position. Smith looked sharp in 200 innings from 2016-17, producing 3 DRS and 2.1 UZR, but he faltered in 220 innings in 2018 with -3 DRS and -0.6 UZR. Likewise, Lee only has 179 innings in left and, while he’s looked decent, simply hasn’t seen enough time there to give a proper look at his skills. The hope is that, like Almora, his talent in center can translate over to at least one of the corners.
That wraps things up for the left fielders and the rest of the position players. Entering the home stretch, things will be a little different next week as two positions will be previewed. The relievers are up first on Monday, while the starting pitchers will wrap things up on Wednesday.
Featured Image Courtesy of Mike Stobe/Getty Images
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