A scouting report is a snapshot in time. It is a picture of a player’s abilities, both of what the present shows us and what we can expect him to look like in the future. Because of that, a scouting report can change on a player over time. In fact, it should, as a player whose report stays the same over the course of his developmental years is likely not improving as a player.
While painting a picture with a scouting report, we use what we see on the field as data points to formulate a projection. These are our future grades. At our best, we still have only limited looks at a player. Enough looks to feel comfortable writing a report on a player still may only consist of 20 in-game at-bats or so and a few rounds of batting practice. Even affiliated scouts often base their reports on a three-game series.
Because of the natural limitations of one person’s ability to see a player, we often use background information to help us paint a picture. How old is this player? Where was he drafted? I’ve talked about the role of expectations and draft status on player evaluation before. We try not to let these factors affect our evaluations, but this is a human endeavor and is thus subject to human flaws.
In the case of some players, like the case study of Dominic Smith towards which I am building, we can’t help but know that there is a strong pedigree behind a player before ever having seen him play. The question then is: How much we should consider that background in an evaluation, and to what extent? And more importantly in this case, for how long?
This is rarely been a more prevalent question in a player evaluation for me than it has been with Smith.
In forming my evaluation of Smith, I can’t unlearn the things I already know about him. I can’t forget the fact that he was drafted 11th overall less than two years ago. I can’t unread the glowing amateur reports on him, ones like this from our friends at Perfect Game:
“The fact that Smith came off the board at 11th overall despite being a 6-foot-0 high-school first baseman who had questions about his power speaks volumes to how highly regarded his other tools were. He was widely considered as having the best hit tool in the high-school class and is frequently discussed by veteran scouts as being one of the best defensive high-school first basemen they've ever evaluated. He was limited to first base because he throws with his left hand, not because of a lack of aptitude for other positions. He was a low-90s, left-handed pitcher and also played a significant amount of right field for his high school team.”
I can’t un-see the strong batting practice sessions I saw him take multiple times last spring. I can’t un-hear the sound of the ball jumping off his bat when he connects in practice.
All of these pieces of information serve as data points that I already have before seeing him this year, and all paint a positive background for Smith. Even his low home-run total from last season (one) carries with it the (extremely overused) caveat of having played half of his games at the death-on-lefties Grayson Stadium, home of the Savannah Sand Gnats (though there’s still no explanation of what happened in the other half of his games on the road).
What I’ve seen this season, however, doesn’t match the rosy picture that his pedigree and background would suggest.
The combination of consistently poor play from Smith and the high expectations that came with his draft status have made Smith the most underwhelming prospect I’ve seen in years. It’s not just the lack of results that leaves you feeling deflated—after all, we scout skills not results. Rather, it’s the complete lack of translation from raw skills to in-game utility that has been most disappointing.
The swing that Smith uses to put on a solid, fundamental batting practice session is not the swing that he puts on pitches in games. In fact, it’s not even close. Rather than driving the ball with any authority, Smith feels for the ball, swinging like he’s afraid to miss rather than trying to hit a baseball hard somewhere. As you can see below, a large weight transfer early in the swing commits him to a particular pitch before he’s had a chance to identify it.
You can see him commit early to the pitch, allowing his hips to fly open and causing his hands to cast. The hands drifting through the zone rather than attacking the baseball is what causes the frequent weak contact that plagues Smith.
Additionally, his overall passive nature as a player carries over to his approach in the batter’s box, bordering on the lackadaisical and rendering him currently ineffective. As anyone who reads this site or my work with any kind of regularity knows, I favor a more patient, organized plan of attack at the plate more than most. But Smith’s approach is far too passive to be effective, to an extent that is matched only by his energy level on the field.
The plate appearance below is one of many like it that I’ve seen from Smith, both in spring games against his own teammates, exhibition games against other teams’ minor leaguers, and now in regular season minor-league games.
Even up 2-0 in the count, there is no inclination to even consider swinging. Two more pitches even the count, then in a full count, a poor, defensive swing leads to a weak ground ball. It’s a long at-bat, sure, and those will eventually lead to walks, but without any kind of desire to attack a fastball in a hitter’s count, there will be no power. In a microcosm, every hitter has at-bats like this. Smith, unfortunately, has lots of them.
It’s these kinds of at-bats—not ones where a pitcher just makes a good pitch or when a good swing is put on the ball and contact is just missed—but the completely un-competitive at-bats that make me begin to second guess the present relevance of past reports.
A player typically receives a negative report for one of two reasons: Either he has reached a level of competition at which his skills are no longer good enough to compete, or something is keeping those skills from translating into on-field success.
This is where the background information comes in handy. It would be nearly impossible for Smith’s raw skills to diminish this quickly, just two years removed from being such a high pick and having personally seen them effectively on display as recently as March. In Smith’s case, a poor report like the one below must be a product of the latter reasoning rather than the former.
So the question then becomes: What is keeping those natural skills from manifesting themselves on the field and can something be done to change it?
To answer this, I return to the approach at the plate. For a player whose value is largely tied to his bat (he’s a good defender at first base but let’s face it, at first base you have to hit), he doesn’t have the hitting mentality of an impact hitter. He’s not the only hitter like this, and a more balanced approach can be a good thing in terms of being a complete, all-around hitter. But for a player at a run-producing position who is expected to hit in the middle of the order, a balanced approach can’t come completely at the expense of hitting for power.
Last season, the approach zapped his in-game power at least as much, and probably more so, than did his home ballpark. This year, against better pitching that is more equipped at throwing strikes and taking advantage of passive hitters, the approach is now affecting his entire ability to be a productive hitter in any form.
The fix seems simple then, right? Change the approach, be more aggressive, sacrifice some hitting skill in order to generate more power. Problem solved. And that’s certainly a possibility. As he approaches his 20th birthday, that possible adjustment is still well within reach.
But habits and mentality are difficult to change, and a closer look begins to show a trend. Even in the glowing amateur report from earlier, his power was questioned. In its raw form, the power is above average on the overall major-league scale. That makes it slightly below average for first baseman. That’s at its best, assuming the hit tool reaches its ceiling and thus lets the raw power play to its full in-game capacity. But if the hit tool falls short of its ceiling, the game power could fall to well below average for first baseman, even with today’s diminished power standards.
His passive mentality is well ingrained, and has been a known commodity since his amateur days. Baseball America said this in their draft report on him in 2013:
“He still wastes at-bats and chases at times, and he can get caught on his front foot, but he has the bat speed and hand-eye coordination to get away with it at this level, and he has the aptitude to make adjustments. As he spends more time in the weight room and learns to stay back and use his lower half better, he figures to hit for plus power.”
Two years later, we’re still saying the same thing. That’s concerning.
Smith still wastes at-bats. He still flies open with his hips, limiting his plate coverage and power potential, and since he’s no longer at “this level” (high school), he can no longer get away with it. Additionally, he does not appear to have spent the prerequisite time in the weight room, as his already maxed out frame has gotten worse since turning pro, adding predominantly bad weight to an already thick frame. That’s a major concern for a teenager.
There are also issues that concern me about Smith’s ability to handle same-side pitching. He looks completely uncomfortable against left-handed pitchers, pulling off on fastballs and flinching hard on breaking balls. That’s a transition that is difficult for high school hitters, especially left-handed hitters, who have rarely seen breaking balls at the amateur level as good as even their below-average minor-league counterparts. Still, after over 800 professional plate appearances, I’d like to see a higher level of comfort against them.
The good news is that time is still on Smith’s side. At just 20, Smith could still spend three or four more years in the minors figuring these things out and get to the big leagues at a young age. We’ve also seen positive signs in the past, and while we haven’t seen it in games as a professional, we know the talent is there, which is more than we can say about many prospects. We certainly can’t write him off completely, and a bad report today is hardly a death sentence.
But based on the information at hand and the snapshot we have to work with today based on the data Smith has given me, it’s difficult to be optimistic. Two years into his professional career, he’s hit for no power and failed to make any adjustments as his competition level has risen. He’s been challenged by the Mets for sure, but his lack of adjustment to that challenge is extremely concerning. And given that his struggles can be outlined by exactly the same flaws that were mentioned in his extremely positive amateur reports, it makes it even less likely that he’s going to correct them any time soon.
Of course, Smith could flip the switch tomorrow and start putting his natural talent to work. Or it could click in three years. There’s also the chance it doesn’t click at all. This won’t be the last report on Smith, by myself or anyone else, but for now, it paints a present picture of a player who has shown no signs of adjusting to the challenges of pro ball, and thus leaves me very concerned about his chances for future development.
|Born: 06/15/1995 (Age: 19)|
|Bats: Left||Throws: Left|
|Height: 6' 0"||Weight: 185|
|Primary Position: 1B|
|Maxed out physically, already filled out; has gone from muscular and trim last year to softer and more full throughout his body this season; no room for growth, only progress physically would be to trim down; body isn't a concern now, but it could be an issue considering it's taken a step back and he's not yet 20.|
|Dates Seen||Spring training|
|Affiliate||St. Lucie Mets (High-A, Mets)|
|MLB ETA||Risk Factor||OFP||Realistic Role||Video|
|2018||High||40||30, platoon/bench player||No|
Extremely difficult to gauge; received extremely positive reviews on makeup as an amateur, but projects a completely different image as a professional; low-energy player, poor body language, doesn't move with any urgency; in practice, looks disinterested, more interested in interacting with friends, agents, etc. outside the fence than teammates on the field; in games he's frequently questioning umpire calls, rolling eyes, etc.
None of this will be an issue if he produces.
|Hit||50||Plus bat speed evident in practice; game swing much more tentative; early weight transfer causes hips to fly open, altering bat bath and hindering plate coverage; swing is very handsy, often casts hands away from body to reach for outside pitch, does not stay on the ball to drive it the other way; opposite-field contact is often softly hit rather than driven to the gaps; feel for barrel is excellent and makes up for flaws in swing, but also leads to lots of weak contact, lack of speed turns weak contact into outs more often than not; approach is passive, often letting the best pitch of the at-bat go by, does have a strong understanding of the strike zone; will not chase early, will expand when down in the count; struggles badly against same-side pitching, fails to recognize spin, flies open to cheat hands, significant possibility of platoon necessary.|
|Power||40||Raw power is above average (55), in-game utility falls far short thanks to contact-oriented approach; home-run power is to pull side only, but does not attack pitches on the inner half, limiting his in-game over-the-fence power; does not generate backspin, more line-drive oriented approach will lead to power manifesting more in form of doubles than home runs.
A change in in-game approach could lead to average in-game power, but player has shown little change in approach over two separate looks over a year apart.
|Baserunning/Speed||35||Slow foot speed, short, choppy steps, not a strong runner. 4.4-4.5 home to first base.|
|Glove||60||Strong defender at first base, footwork around the bag is improving; very good hands on throws in dirt, will save infielders errors throughout the season; enough lateral range to get the job done, charges aggressively on bunt plays.|
|Arm||60||Strong arm strength, left-handed thrower with quick release can be an asset on bunt plays, low-sling type motion can lead to errant throws but also allows for creative throwing angles while moving; overall a plus arm at first base.|
Smith has a huge gap between raw skills and in-game utility. He has the raw tools to be a plus hitter with average power, but his extremely passive approach and desire for contact over power lead to a significant step back in how those tools present themselves in a game. He does not look to drive the ball, nor does he embrace the role of being a run producer, something which he will need to adjust as he is destined for a first base position where his bat will have to carry him. He's a strong defender at first base, but that won't be enough to make up for a lack of power, if it never comes to fruition.
In his first real taste of failure, Smith seems to be continually trying the same thing, only to find the same unsuccessful results. His issues identifying breaking balls from left-handed pitchers has been magnified this season, as he faces pitchers who can command breaking pitches consistently for the first time in his career. If he makes the necessary adjustments, he could turn into an slightly average major-league hitter in the Yonder Alonso mold, though that would still lead to him being no better than average on the first base spectrum. Even with the proper adjustments, he may still struggle against left-handed pitching.
He is still extremely young, having not yet turned 20 and facing High-A competition, so some struggles are to be expected and there is plenty of time to correct them. The lack of adjustment over the course of a year's worth of looks, however, is very concerning.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now