It’s not hard to find negative things to talk about in regard to the 2019 Baltimore Orioles. The pitching staff is giving up home runs at a record-setting pace. The team has very few pieces that could be considered “trade bait” as a way to bring more talent into the organization later this summer. Dylan Bundy continues to head in the wrong direction. The defense is making the pitching even worse.
As far as positives, they’re obviously fewer and further between. In general, those of us who choose to watch/listen to most every game do so for the “moments” as Jake put it on this week’s Bird’s Eye View – a player showing a flash of some potential future competence; triples, which happen around here now!; an unexpected win or two (aren’t they all?); or any of the other goofy things that can happen in a baseball game…like this, perhaps:
let's check in on the Orioles pic.twitter.com/R4Zm0fsYcQ
— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) May 2, 2019
Yes, that was Austin Wynns throwing what should have been strike three to end the inning into centerfield for some reason known to only him.
We appear to have gotten off track here, and veered back into the negative. That wasn’t on purpose. These Orioles just kind of have that effect on the conversation.
So, let’s try to steer back into the good news, shall we? That fork in the road is certainly foggy and grown over, but perhaps we can navigate it for at least a short distance.
On this week’s episode of The Payoff Pitch, Paul Valle identified Smith Jr. as his biggest surprise early in the season, and it’s hard to disagree.
Smith ranks among the O’s (qualified – Pedro Severino doesn’t quite make the minimum PA) leaders in batting average (3rd), OBP (2nd), SLG (2nd), OPS (2nd), HR (2nd), and RBI (1st).
Diving even further into the SUPER nerd stats over at Statcast, unfortunately, throws a bit of a damper on our party.
Smith comes in right about average in MLB in xwOBA (.329 vs. actual .360), xSLG (.434 vs. actual .496), and sprint speed, but below average in hard hit %, and well below average in exit velocity. His xBA (.266 vs. actual .292) is the only area where he’s above average. All of this points to some expected regression, I’m sorry to report.
This was truly meant to be a sunny blog post though, so I refuse to let these dorks and their computers completely rain on the Smith parade. Let’s spin it positively (while keeping in mind our SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT – when we talk about career bests, we are comparing to just 29 and 75 plate appearances in 2017 and 2018, respectively): he is moving in the right direction in his career, and he’s still just 26 and in his third season.
Those numbers for xBA, xSLG, xwOBA, and hard hit % are all career-bests for Dwight. His K% is also the lowest of his career at 16.9%. His ground ball percentage has dropped every season, from 58.8 in 2017 to 48.1 last year to 37.0 this year. His line-drive percentage of 23.9% would be a career-best, as would his HR/FB% of 13.9 (FB% is slightly down at 39.1 from 40.4 last year).
Something else I like about Smith Jr. is that he sprays the ball around. He has pulled his batted balls just 37.6% of the time, while going to center 30.1% of the time, and to left field 32.3% of the time.
You can’t shift against that!
He has also shown an ability to hit southpaws. In 38 plate appearances against lefties, Smith has a wRC+ of 141 (.333/.368/.528), compared to a wRC+ of 118 in 86 PA vs. righties (.273/.337/.481).
Not a platoon player!
So, you can plug Smith Jr. into the lineup every day, and he isn’t going to hurt you. Listen: are there some signs that he might regress a bit? Yes, there are. As pitchers start to identify him as one of the very few dangers in the Birds’ lineup, they will approach him differently. Dwight will need to adjust, as all major-league hitters need to in this constant chess battle.
But there looks to be something there. In a season like this, that’s worth highlighting.