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40 in 40: Mallex Smith

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The Seattle Mariners began their offseason of change by grabbing a new center fielder. So what exactly is Mallex Smith? 

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Amid the flurry shower blizzard of offseason moves the Seattle Mariners made this year, the first of the winter has the potential to most impact the 2019 team. On November 7, an eternity on the Jerry Dipoto trade-fueled timeline, the Mariners sent polarizing catcher Mike Zunino and glove-first outfielder Guillermo Heredia to Tampa Bay. Dipoto, somewhat puzzlingly, also included pitcher Michael Plassmeyer, a 2018 fourth-round draft pick who was one of the few well-regarded lefties (by outside scouts) in the minor leagues.

The return for those three netted Mallex Smith, who stands to be the team’s everyday center fielder, and Jake Fraley, a mechanically exciting hitter likely headed for Double-A. While Fraley enters the stew of youngsters percolating in Everett, West Virginia, Modesto, Arkansas, and Tacoma, the 25-year-old Smith is ready for 500+ plate appearances and a season of defense at the outfield’s toughest position.

So, what exactly is Mallex Smith?

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the bushel of minor leaguers added this offseason, Smith is a proven MLB player. His acquisition brings about that schoolyard excitement of a new friend who’s finally coming over to your house. Smith will both contribute this year and (hopefully) during the 2021-22 window of success the organization is targeting. While his ceiling is probably lower than those of tantalizing prospects Jarred Kelenic, Justus Sheffield, or Justin Dunn, Smith’s breakout 2018 season shows that he’s also got a decently high floor.

Mallex Smith MLB Stats

Year PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP K% BB% SB wRC+ fWAR
Year PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP K% BB% SB wRC+ fWAR
2016 215 .238 .316 .365 .302 22.3 9.3 16 84 0.6
2017 282 .270 .329 .355 .347 22.0 8.2 16 88 0.9
2018 544 .296 .367 .406 .366 18.0 8.6 40 117 3.4

Of course, regression is always possible for any player. A quick peek at his 2018 peripheral numbers, though, paint Smith as an alarmingly-likely regression candidate. Playing his home games on Tropicana Field’s turf—and a handful more on Toronto’s similar surface, in addition to the hitter-friendly confines in Boston, Baltimore, and the Bronx—led to a .366 BABIP. That sky-high figure was good for fourth-highest in all of Major League Baseball last season and was 70 points higher than his batting average.

That enormous gulf between Smith’s .366 BABIP and .296 average is partly due to a grip of infield hits. Smith is famously one of baseball’s fastest runners, and that speed combined with a 49.7% ground ball rate produced 26 infield hits, tied with Jean Segura and Dee Gordon for third-most in 2018. However, Smith was the American League leader in infield hit percentage, meaning no AL hitter turned a higher percentage of ground balls into infield hits as the Mariners’ new speedster.

Photo courtesy of FanGraphs

Smith’s .367 on-base percentage is encouraging on paper, but it comes largely from skipping the ball across carpet and past the infielders or burning down the line and beating throws to first. According to FanGraphs, the left-handed hitter created hard contact just 27.1% of the time, the seventh-lowest clip of all qualified hitters. He walked on just 8.6% of his 2018 plate appearances, and struck out in 18.0% of them. The only other player to log 500 plate appearances last season with an OBP above .360, less than 50 walks, and more than 95 strikeouts was José Martínez.* The St. Louis 1B/OF also benefitted greatly from fluky BABIP luck, as his .351 batting average on balls in play ranked 15th-highest in the league.

* Smith and Martínez are two of just 45 players ever to accomplish this wonky stat line. Smith, Starling Marte, and Alex Rodriguez are the only to ever do it with 40 stolen bases.

Of course, getting on base is never a bad thing. It’s the entire ethos of the post-Moneyball era, and reaching first also unlocks Mallex’s stolen base vault. This just seems like an unsustainable method of success, especially as he moves away from the artificial grass in Tampa. While a change of scenery may affect his hitting prowess, we can presumably take solace in the cross-country move not hampering his speed.

Smith was one of just three MLB players last year to swipe 40 bases, out-stealing Dee Gordon, Mookie Betts, and Billy Hamilton. Opposing catchers did catch Smith stealing 12 times, though, also placing in the top three of that dubious category. With singles making up 73 percent of his career hits, reaching scoring position with his legs constitutes a large part of Smith’s offensive strategy. 27 doubles and 10 triples were pleasing signs from a guy playing his first full season in The Show, but Mariner fans should still expect a lot of singles through the hole preceding a high-speed sprint to second on the next pitch.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, Smith’s profile is extremely reminiscent of Dee Gordon’s, the man Seattle signed last winter to man center field. But Smith’s 25-year-old birth certificate and limited playing time point to a more hopeful future, while Gordon has likely reached his peak and may even be crashing back to Earth.

As stated before, 2018 brought Smith’s first full-time job as a Major League Baseball player. The Padres drafted him in the fifth round of the 2012 draft out of a community college in Gainesville. After three seasons in San Diego’s system—where he reached High-A ball—the Friars traded him, Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, and Jace Peterson to Atlanta in exchange for Justin Upton. Smith debuted for the Braves on April 11, 2016 and was promptly struck out by Max Scherzer on three pitches in his first at-bat. During his rookie year Smith hit ninth in the order (behind the pitcher) more than any other spot and remained with the Braves through the duration of their tank-a-riffic season. Despite a .238/.316/.364 slash line and 84 wRC+, Smith still managed to be slightly above replacement-level in 215 rookie plate appearances.

That was all a precursor for Smith’s legendary first stint with the Mariners. All 77 minutes of it.

Smith originally landed in Seattle via trade, giving Atlanta the young and promising duo of Luiz Gohara and Thomas Burrows. The Florida native was then hilariously part of the Drew Smyly deal, which came barely an hour after news broke that he was a Mariner. Fitting for his trademark speed, Smith was here one minute and gone the next, while Drew Smyly has not pitched in two years. In flipping Smith (along with Ryan Yarbrough) to Tampa, the Mariners gave up two useful MLB players for a man cursed with a soggy arm.

As the M’s desperately tried to rescue Smyly’s career, Smith was the 2017 Opening Day left fielder for the Rays. A hamstring injury suffered early in the year sent Smith back to the minors until June, when he returned to the Rays and posted a 0.9 fWAR season in just 81 games. The following year’s 3.4 fWAR outburst happened in concurrence with Kevin Kiermaier’s injury-plagued campaign and Denard Span’s shipment out of Tampa, opening an acre of playing time for Smith in center and left field. Finally having a full slate of games allowed Smith to showcase his value on the base paths and with the glove.

Racing from base to base with lightning quickness made Smith one of the most valuable base runners in the game. Per FanGraphs’ BsR, Smith’s baserunning led to approximately six runs more than the average Joe. This mix of know-how and good ol’ fashioned speed made Smith a top-ten baserunner in terms of value, and almost twice as valuable as Gordon, who ranked as the Mariners’ top BsR dude in 2018.

By FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved metric, Smith was the 11th-best outfielder in the AL, slotting right behind Mitch Haniger. Nobody will argue that Smith has an above-average throwing arm, given both the eye test and his ho-hum total of three outfield assists in 2018. His speed, mentioned several times already as his best and least slump-prone attribute, should mask other deficiencies he may have as a fielder. Last year’s six errors are near the top of the list for American League outfielders, but Smith surely has the wheels to reach more balls than, say, Justin Upton or Nicholas Castellanos, who committed less errors and recorded more assists than Seattle’s outfield acquisition.

If using the recent and familiar Dee Gordon pickup as a way to contextualize Smith, just remember that Smith is probably equally fast, and a lifetime outfielder, meaning he should be comfortable with the intricacies of route-running and ball judgement that Gordon often struggled with. Of his 245 career starts, 141 came in center field, with the other 42 percent split almost evenly between the corners. At the very least, it seems highly unlikely that Smith will suck defensively, which is more than we could say last season about the great unknown of Dee’s outfield chops.

While the on-field merits are yet to be seen, Smith has already endeared himself to many with his expressive personality. Smith is one of 21 players ever to wear #0 as a jersey number, and he will be the first to do so for the Seattle Mariners. When asked about this in December, the affable addition said it matches the number of fucks he gives. A more buttoned-up interview with the Cespedes Family BBQ introduced the world to Smith’s hitting notebook, in which he keeps handwritten notes on every aspect of his approach.

Photo courtesy of Cespedes Family BBQ/Cut4

Other charming tidbits in the Mallex Smith catalog include playing catch with a fan, boxing workouts with Jermaine Dupri and a trainer named Xavier “Bad Pads” Biggs, and rocking an enormous tribute to his home state.

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Florida boy

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As the Mariners assess the state of the franchise heading into the 2020s, all we can really ask for is for this season to be enjoyable. Losing more than they did last year is an almost certainty, but if they can do so with equal or increased entertainment value, it will soften the blows of a rebuilding season. Whether the team wins 74 or 84 games, whether Smith posts another 3.4-win campaign or a more reasonable 2.4, he stands to raise the Mariners fun quotient exponentially.