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What happened to DSJ?

Dwight Smith Jr. doesn’t have the outfield instincts to be a shoe-in as an everyday regular, so he has to hit. Unfortunately, it’s been a struggle in that department too.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

When there are few Oriole stories to grasp onto, there was a time when I held onto Dwight Smith Jr.’s the tightest.

Smith Jr., more conveniently known as “DSJ”, was acquired in the middle of March and essentially hit well enough to earn a role in the Orioles opening day lineup. Over the course of the first two months, that notion mostly remained true.

Between April and May, DSJ posted a slash line of .246/.290/.467, enough for a 95 wRC+ and a surprising .221 isolated power. The wRC+ number isn’t entirely worthy of praise, but by June 4, he’d already surpassed his ZiPS-projected amount of home runs (11) and was on track to outpace much of his mediocre at-the-plate prognosis.

But that stopped, and it stopped pretty quick.

As of today, DSJ has a slash line of .233/.286/.416 which has slumped his wRC+ to 82, and since June 1, the 26-year-old has the 5th worst wRC+ among hitters with at least 80 plate appearances (34 wRC+). His OPS has fallen 55 points since the end of May, and that has much to do with his power numbers dropping so severely.

Funny enough, DSJ (-0.7) has a worse fWAR than Keon Broxton (-0.5) since the start of June because his defense rates so poorly. According to Statcast, DSJ is among the worst in baseball in terms of outs above average, a byproduct of consistently getting bad jumps off the bat. DSJ’s value is squarely placed on his ability to hit, and having seen such a massive drop-off in his offense you can’t help but wonder what the hell happened.

You obviously can’t ignore the nearly two weeks he missed in the middle of June as the result of a concussion he suffered in Texas, but he wasn’t hitting before and he hasn’t been hitting since. Maybe there’s an argument to be made that the concussion has thrown him off at the plate as he’s managed only a .468 OPS since he was activated off of the injured list. But even from...let’s say May 20, he’s still only hit .187 with a 57 wRC+. He’s been bad for quite some time.

The hot start DSJ had has fizzled, but what’s funny is his average exit velocity has actually jumped from 87 mph from April to May up to 90 mph from June to July. But the launch angle! The launch angle ain’t what it was.

Baseball Savant

There’s a reason why guys are trying to lift the baseball, and it’s because balls in the air are better than balls on the ground. The success rate of ground balls is and will never be to frequency at which fly balls and line drives create hits, even more so in an era where a ground ball has essentially become an automatic out. Earlier this year, DSJ had a much more profound lift to his swing which coincided with his home run jolt and above-average production at the plate. From the onset of June, Smith Jr.’s ground ball rate has seen an uptick of more than 10 percent. Probably (definitely) not good for the ole stat line.

We all know that DSJ hunts fastballs. That’s what he wants to hit, and more or less, that’s all he really can he hit. But earlier this season when pitchers did miss with their secondary stuff, he was like a cheetah; an occasionally successful predator.

Fangraphs

The left image signifies DSJ’s slugging prowess against breaking stuff up to May 31, and the right image represents the same against changeups. While the numbers inside the grid aren’t going to have any parents naming their kids “Dwight” anytime soon, there was enough there for at least middle initial consideration.

Fangraphs

Equally, the above images represent DSJ’s slugging numbers since June 1. He’s basically hitting the occasional mistake breaking ball like he was before, but he hasn’t recorded a hit against a changeup in a month and a half. There is literally a non-existent slugging percentage against anything offspeed. Now I can’t help but start humming Halsey’s “Colors”, but I’m sure there’s no reason for that...

I’m a fan of DSJ because I think there’s more in the tank than he’s shown as of late. His willingness to poke line drives to left field and focus his attention towards center field reminds me of Nick Markakis, and seeing as how he’s my favorite Oriole of all time, it’s hard not to fall in love with those same traits. DSJ also has 22 baseballs put in play this year of at least 105 mph. His hardest came at 114.3 mph which ended up as you guessed it, a ground ball.

For a guy who really does have above-average hand-eye coordination and fast hands, he swings and misses a lot (12.1 percent) and doesn’t make nearly enough contact as he should. Is there a fix for that? Probably, but it’s likely one of those things where he and he alone must make a conscience effort to guess a fastball might not be coming. And that’s a tough habit to break.

He’s probably been a bit unlucky considering his BABIP is almost 40 points below league average and he’s shown a propensity for hitting the baseball harder than most. Though, I wouldn’t expect much of this to change unless we see him foul off that one tough breaking ball or see him track a changeup deeper in the zone. His hands are certainly good enough to make the proper adjustments. It’s yet another one of those things that make the Orioles, while unwatchable at times, ever the more interesting.