If there is one position group where pastures are a bit greener for the Orioles, it’s in the outfield.
Though the Orioles rightfully sent down their higher tier of outfield talent to start the 2019 season, it’s not as if all the fun is being stashed in Bowie or Norfolk. Cedric Mullins bounced back from a 2-22 start to hit two triples last night, showcasing elite speed atypical of recent Orioles history. While Trey Mancini can barely be considered an “outfielder” in the traditional sense, the Trey Train has been choo-chooing to the tune of a 249 wRC+ through 10 games. At that pace, defense is optional.
Despite being given a day-off last night, Dwight Smith Jr. has become the default left fielder for a team he wasn’t a member of until March 8. Smith, acquired from Toronto for $500,000 of international slot money, was pushed out of a crowded outfield group and into another. At the time of his acquisition, Austin Hays and Yusniel Diaz were still raking in Florida, leaving Smith as nothing more than organizational depth. But Smith can hit.
His 1.082 OPS during Spring Training catapulted him to make the Orioles’ opening day roster, with his ability to barrel baseballs certainly being the bulk of the reason. A first-round pick in 2011 and once viewed as one of the more favorable prospects in the Blue Jays system, DSJ was brought to Baltimore because his ability to hit would have a chance to flourish at the big league level. As Mike Elias noted at the time of the trade, Smith’s one specific tool was enough to bring him into a saturated situation:
“Dwight Smith is a young outfielder with a strong track record of performance and a plus-hit tool from the left side.”
In 39 plate appearances thus far, DSJ is only slashing .263/.282/.316, but the process has been much more impressive than the results. Other than Trey Mancini (who is currently hitting at an 80 home run pace), Smith Jr. has had the most competitive and professional plate appearances amongst a group where such things were expected to be at a premium.
During the MASN broadcast just before the Orioles’ April 2 game versus Toronto, Smith Jr. discussed his approach to hitting. While all baseball players speak in cliches, DSJ has done well to walk the talk.
“I’m just trying to get a good pitch over the plate to hit, try to stay through the big part of the field. That’s my main goal, and it varies situation to situation. That’s the main thing I’m thinking, just trying to backspin the ball to center field.”
Considering today’s game is largely consumed by trying to hit the baseball as far as possible, DSJ’s more traditionalist approach still has a place in the modern game. Thinking up the middle has its benefits, as it allows a hitter to adjust pitch to pitch. As was said before, Smith Jr. doesn’t just think up the middle, he actually does hit baseballs to center field. At least so far.
Smith Jr. has naturally been pitched low and away, but he’s managed. Swinging through pitches at a league average rate, striking out well below the current median, and continuing on a narrow spray chart, DSJ is doing exactly what he wants at the plate. This approach should pay more dividends than it has, but it isn’t like Smith Jr. is making soft contact. Only 18.8 percent of his contact has been determined to be “soft,” while Baseball Savant has considered a little more than a third of his batted balls thus far as “hard.”
There are a lot of baseball adages that are totally overblown, but “hit the ball where it’s pitched” is not. In nine games, DSJ has hit the ball where he’s been pitched, and it’s aided the Orioles in their five wins. Leading off in the sixth inning of the same April 2 game, Smith Jr. had previously poked two ground balls to shortstop on two effective Marcus Stroman sliders. In a 0-0 game, he sees a 93 mph fastball away and finds a barrel.
Then, Jonathan Villar tripled, and Trey Mancini plated him with a single. In a well-pitched 2-1 game, every base runner mattered. DSJ’s approach amounted to a leadoff base runner in a scoreless ballgame, starting a game-winning rally. This mindset, one of not trying to do more than necessary, will eventually create more walks, create more hits, and give him a chance to outperform his current three-year ZiPS projections as a replacement-level player.
You can’t shift against someone like DSJ, and for a lineup that has Chris Davis, any tough out is a welcomed addition. In the event Diaz, Hays, D.J. Stewart, or any other outfielder makes their way to Baltimore, it’s unlikely that Smith Jr. will rank higher on the pecking order, but he has options and provides a safety net within the organization. When Mike Elias talked about increasing the Orioles depth of talent, the acquisition of Smith Jr. was a move that reinforced that philosophy.
Now in his age 26 season, DSJ isn’t a prospect anymore and we’re likely not far off from seeing what he is as a final product. Without more power, it’s going to be tough for him to be anything more than a fourth outfielder. But O’s fan Dan Szymborski made an interesting point about Hanser Alberto last night, giving me more thoughts about Dwight Smith Jr.
Looking at players like Alberto is *exactly* what rebuilding teams should look for. Not every player on the 25-man roster is going to be even a fringe prospect. So fill-in with mediocre-but-interesting players and ride the scratch 'n' wins rather than the retreads.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) April 9, 2019
At first, Hanser Alberto seemed like more depth to plug into the everyday Norfolk lineup. The thing is, it didn’t take long to discover that Alberto is a 25-year-old that has figured out how to be a productive hitter at every level of professional baseball. That kind of bat needs playing time, and he’s going to get it.
Dan suggests that the Orioles are in a position to roll some dice, and see if certain bats can make a jump. DSJ is a career .268 minor league hitter with good bat control and a crisp swing. DSJ seems like a game of Yahtzee worth playing.