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How do you solve a problem like a Mallex?

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Mallex Smith is struggling. What can be done?

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

He climbs a wall and then he falls,
his pants have got a tear
He swings and whiffs,
and how he misses—
he strikes out everywhere

But I’d like to say a word in his behalf
Mallex
makes me
laugh

How do you solve a problem like a Mallex?
How do you catch a cloud a cloud and make it catch?
How do you find a word that means a Mallex?
How do you get over this very rough patch?

Mallex Smith is currently, over 110 plate appearances, slashing this line: .165/.255/.247. The good news: he’s walking a lot! at 10%. The bad news: he’s striking out a lot, like a lot a lot, like 30%. He’s not hitting the ball hard; not only has his hard-hit rate fallen since last season, he’s in the bottom 50 in all of MLB (300+) for average exit velocity and the bottom thirty for barrels per plate appearance.

Smith’s performance at the plate wouldn’t be as intolerable if he was also bringing value in the field, but the opposite has been true. Defensive metrics are famously wonky, but Smith’s -6 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) is the worst mark he’s recorded over his career by a significant margin, and that’s backed up by the eye test, most obviously when he dropped a routine flyout in yesterday’s game.

There are plenty of explainers for Smith’s poor play. Smith spent most of the last two seasons playing in the domed confines of Tropicana Field, so maybe regularly drinking in fresh air and sunshine at T-Mobile Park is baffling when one is used to turf and filtered light. Similar to Floridian counterpart Dee Gordon, Mallex is also spending his first year adjusting to west-coast-best-coast life, a new home base on the extreme other edge of the country, separated from his support system both physically and time-zone wise (speaking as someone who knows this intimately, three hours is NO JOKE, y’all.) The most significant similarity, though, might be between Dee and Mallex’s injury histories immediately after becoming Seattle Mariners, as Smith is mere weeks removed from an elbow injury that kept him out for all of Spring Training. Smith’s injury was significant enough that he didn’t make the trip to Japan with the team, although he was activated in time for the start to the season, with Braden Bishop being optioned back to Tacoma.

Most troublingly, after recording two hits in the opener against Houston, Smith’s bat has gone flat, with just three hits over his next fifty plate appearances. Despite extra practice in the field, Mallex continues to struggle. It’s not a tenable situation—not for the player, and not for the team. Mallex is a chin-up kind of fellow, but struggling in such a public way has to weigh on a person. If Mallex were an infielder, he could take comfort in the coaching of legitimate shaman Perry Hill, who has somehow magicked Ryon Healy into a semi-credible third baseman in Kyle Seager’s absence. But there’s only one Perry Hill on the Mariners, and he coaches infield. So the Mariners can either hire a Perry Hill-level genius to coach outfield and pay that person overtime, or they can burn Smith’s lone remaining option year to send him to Tacoma to catch his breath and call up Braden Bishop in his stead.

If the Mariners don’t want to mess with Bishop’s development—he did debut with the big club in Japan while Mallex was still on the IL, but didn’t have a full season at Double-A last year after suffering a broken bone in his arm on a wayward pitch and has less than 100 PAs at Triple-A—they could call up one of their other outfielders, but that would involve creating a space on the 40-man for whichever player, which would involve DFA’ing some reliever who would inevitably get claimed, since they weren’t even able to sneak Shawn Armstrong through waivers, so that’s probably not happening. So let’s say it’s Bishop who would get the call. Would calling up Braden Bishop be the best thing for the team and the players?

Mallex definitely has the edge on Braden speed-wise; Bishop is definitely no slowpoke, but Smith possesses elite speed. However, to access that speed one has to be on-base, and currently Mallex is struggling to get there. The walk rate looks good, but it’s front-loaded; after taking six walks in his first seven games, Smith has five in his last twenty games. Bishop’s walk rate is 12% at Triple-A, but it’s also more evenly distributed. He’s also hit in 15 of his last 20 games at Triple-A, with a career-high ISO of .176. He has three HRs already, or more than a third he had in a season at Double-A last year. The Triple-A ball might be juiced, but this is no cheap shot:

I’m not saying Bishop is going to come up to Seattle and be an immediate upgrade over Smith offensively. Bishop is young, didn’t have a full season at Double-A last season, and is just learning Triple-A. But Bishop, who played his college ball down the street from T-Mobile at Husky Stadium, and has long been considered an elite defender in center, is certainly a defensive upgrade for a team that has been, frankly, embarrassing defensively. Between that and Bishop’s solid performance at Tacoma at the plate, he’s earned a shot to show what he can do, while Mallex Smith takes a breather.