Dominic Smith and Brandon Nimmo don’t want you to worry about their defense
As is typically the case with any tortured fan base, despite all the improvements the Mets made to their roster this offseason, all eyes will still be on the outfield — arguably the team’s weakest defensive area.
Dominic Smith, who is a natural first baseman, is expected to be the Mets’ starting leftfielder. Brandon Nimmo, who had the worst advanced metrics among the team’s qualified outfielders last year, will be the centerfielder. Both players, though, have high confidence in their abilities and don’t want fans to worry about them in the outfield in 2021.
Their thinking derives from the labor they put in this winter, with a specific focus on outfield work. Nimmo deployed an offseason program that emphasized agility, quickness on his first step, a fast-twitch explosion and overall strength in centerfield. He was playing too shallow last year, which he thinks is part of the reason why some metrics portray his defense in a bad light. (His Ultimate Zone Rating of -3.9 was seventh worst in MLB.)
Nimmo and manager Luis Rojas believe his small sample size of 55 games in 2020 do not accurately display his capabilities in center. The shortened pandemic season didn’t give Nimmo enough time to correct himself. Now that he’s made adjustments, Nimmo has noticed a big difference in his play.
“If there is one person that can make adjustments, I think it’s me,” Nimmo said. “I’ve never tried to tell everyone that I have it all figured out. There’s always something to learn. I take it as a challenge to try to be a better defender and be a better leader out there.”
Smith, on the other hand, believes he’s a terrific athlete who just hasn’t had enough reps in left field to be a dominant fielder yet. He’s hoping that will significantly change in 2021 as he continues chasing down fly balls at game speed and works on his jumps during live batting practice. Smith thinks the skepticism around his outfield defense will dissolve once fans see him perform this season.
It shouldn’t be hard to convince Mets fans that Smith, who is something of a celebrity these days, can overcome challenges.“He’s definitely had things that have tried to get in his way, and he hasn’t let that happen,” Rojas said. “So he’s done it the right way and he’s gone about it the best way you can go about those adversities in this game, in life. The man on and off the field is something to be proud of right now.”
Smith’s parents instilled a never-say-die attitude in him from a young age. He made his major-league debut in 2017 and lost a ton of weight in 2018 to be more athletic at first base. He battled sleep apnea until 2019, when he realized that the problem behind his groggy days could be fixed by wearing a mask when he sleeps at night. He was forced to switch from his natural position at first to left field during Pete Alonso’s breakout 2019 season. And throughout it all, he became a fan-favorite with a charming personality and a killer bat at the plate.
“I put in a ton of work out there,” Smith said of his outfield progress. “I don’t think I’m going to be a poor leftfielder. I don’t. I know that I have good-enough hands. It’s just about getting in-game reps. I feel comfortable out there, so I’m excited to see how I do out there.”
Though the Mets put in a bid for centerfielder George Springer and were involved in talks for Jackie Bradley Jr., they ended up acquiring outfield depth options in Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr. to provide support for Smith and Nimmo. Part of that pivot was due to the DH staying out of the National League this year. But the other part involved the club’s confidence in Smith and Nimmo improving in the outfield because really, their bats are too important to take out of the lineup.
It’s obvious Smith and Nimmo care too much about the team to let it down. In just over a month, the hard work they put in this offseason and at camp will be put to the test in regular-season games.