The Mariners re-acquired outfielder Mallex Smith in an early offseason trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, taking the first step toward the proposed “re-imagining” of the roster. He is obviously highly thought of in Seattle, but what is there to praise?
I, for one, am greatly anticipating the weaving of what could be a rich tapestry of a career for Mallex Smith. A whirlwind of trades — from San Diego to Atlanta, from Atlanta to Seattle for 77 minutes then on to Tampa Bay, and now back to Seattle — are only fascinating footnotes along a narrative that hardly strays from the impact of this 25-year-old both on and off the field.
After a solid start to his professional career, Smith started ripping through the minors in 2014.
From then, in A-ball, he hit .295/.393/.394 (131 wRC+).
In High-A, he hit .327/.414/.475 (148 wRC+).
Then in AA, he hit .340/.418/.413 (140 wRC+) before settling in at a bit above league average in his first taste of AAA.
He showed promising skills on both sides of the ball while debuting with the Braves in 2016 and while making first impressions with the Rays in 2017; however, it took until 2018 — his first full year — to put it all together.
Smith’s .296/.367/.406 batting line was good for a 117 wRC+. He smacked 27 doubles, 10 triples, and stole 40 bases along the way while rating positively as a center fielder. He cut down on his strikeouts, maintained his walk rate, and even managed to best his career ISO by a smidge. All told, he was worth 3.4 fWAR/3.5 rWAR/1.9 WARP in 141 games.
That is the kind of production the Mariners need out of a premium position like center field, but a repeat performance from Mallex Smith is not guaranteed.
Much of the concern over Smith’s bat stems from his contact issues. While his rate of contact (76.5% per Pitch Info) did improve to about league average, it was just that — league average.
Plenty of players succeed with similar or even worse contact rates, but what often sets them apart is power and Smith has nearly none of that. His 37 extra base hits say he more than made up for it in 2018, but if he finds a couple fewer gaps or can’t leg out the same total bases, the bottom line has nowhere to go but down.
And although he has always run a high BABIP, his recent .366 mark appears difficult to upkeep.
Had Smith’s 2018 BABIP been .324 (as it is projected by Steamer), he would have been “just” a league-average bat (100 wRC+).
Given that his career wRC+ now sits at 102, without digging any further, it would seem reasonable to expect something along those lines moving forward. Despite being a clear step back from 2018, that would still make a fine pairing with a solid glove in center field, but even that is not a guarantee for Smith.
Natural ability and elite speed (14th highest sprint speed in 2018) have helped Smith accrue 11 DRS and 2.2 UZR in 1253 IP as a center fielder in his young career; however, he is still visibly rough at times. His 6 fielding errors in center field and a 0% Catch Probability Added in each of 2017 and 2018 suggest he still has room to improve.
Nevertheless, Smith did improve in 2018 in some notable ways and the studious nature of his work ethic promises that complacency is not part of his game.
Smith built his 2018 performance primarily on an improvement against fastballs. His average exit velocity against all fastballs was up to 85.4 mph, helping boost his overall average exit velocity to 84.0 mph from 77.2 mph and 79.5 mph the previous two years. And while still below average, his .315 expected wOBA against fastballs represented a marked improvement.
High velocity continued to beat him, but your run-of-the-mill 4-seamers, in particular, did not pose as much of a challenge.
Meanwhile, Smith coupled a substantial increase in O-Contact% with better results on pitches on the edges of the zone and outside of it.
Against such pitches, he saw his expected wOBA jump from .236 over 2016-17 to .281 in 2018. He did so without too wild of a BABIP either, as his .379 mark on these pitches landed relatively close to his .356 mark in 2017 and also raised his career average to .346.
Although it is possible that coincidentally these factors optimally came together to produce the best season of Smith’s career, there may be very few players working as proactively as Smith to improve.
As much as he was lauded for his raw talent, Smith was a point of fixation early on with the Rays for his extensive personal notebook.
"He’s now on his fourth notebook, all packed with scouting reports individually tailored to what he saw and felt during his at-bats against specific pitchers. The personalized journals are used in combination with the video provided by the Rays in their scouting, and Smith leans on the notebooks when coming into a new series or facing a pitcher he’s seen before…“Mallex goes up there his first at-bat, strikes out, it doesn’t even faze him,” manager Kevin Cash said after Wednesday’s 8-3 win over the Reds. “He goes in his little notepad, remembers what the guy’s trying to do to him, he puts it to use the rest of the game. He’s had a very impressive approach here getting on base for us.”"
And he hasn’t abandoned the practice. Smith is a player who is dedicated to his craft — one who works tirelessly and intelligently. He is eminently coachable. Whatever you think his upside is, he’s going to try to top it.
Whether you buy the sustainability of a decrease in strikeouts, an increase in production on pitches around the edges, or an improvement against fastballs, Smith demonstrated that his hard work could pay off and he surely is working just as hard to maintain that pace with the Mariners if not take another step forward.
On top of his on-field potential though, Smith brings with him an incredible clubhouse and community presence.
There is no shortage of praise for the exuberance of Mallex Smith.
He is undoubtedly a fun and energetic guy and that played a big part in him quickly becoming a fan favorite in Tampa Bay.
In Seattle, that should be no different.
Worth considering as much as his personable demeanor is the fact that Smith was the Rays’ 2018 nominee for the Roberto Clemente award — an award given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
From DRaysBay, we get a quick snapshot of the kind man Smith is:
"On Jackie Robinson Day, Mallex met and talked with 30 students from the Poynter Institute’s Write Field program during a pregame event at Tropicana Field…The students participated in a Q&A session with Mallex, interviewing him on his childhood, family and friends and experience playing professional baseball…In addition, Mallex not only aims to impact local youth, but takes his inspiration to the offseason when he works with high school and college players in Gainesville, Florida to develop baseball skills and self-confidence…Mallex participated in the first Reading with the Rays event…took part in the local Big Brothers Big Sisters Bowl for Kids’ Sake fundraiser…participated in the Rays on the Runway fashion show…"
This is a standup individual and a player anyone would hope to introduce to their organization. Although this trade saw the loss of a leader in Mike Zunino, the Mariners may well have found another clubhouse pillar in Mallex Smith.
After a strong 2018 season, Smith looks like he has solidified his floor of being at least a dynamite fourth outfielder. While he may not consistently be more than a league average bat and a solid defender in center field, the Mariners will have four years to figure out if he can be exactly that — an average regular — or closer to the impact player he was this past year.
Statistically, the former reality seems more likely. However, a player with Smith’s tools, tenacity, and dedication to improving should be considered to wield control over his upside until he shows otherwise because it is that unwavering passion for the game that drives the Mallex Effect and can bring it to Seattle.