For all of Mallex Smith’s baseball career, his defining characteristic has been his speed.
Yet, although his ability to steal bases has been his calling card since making it to The Show, it hasn’t always been like that for the Mariners’ center fielder. In fact, he might not even be the fastest member of his family. That says a lot when you’re talking about a guy who was in the 97th percentile of sprint speed in the entire league last season. The son of a former track star, it appears that Smith was destined for a life of stolen bases, gifted with the ability to run 90 feet in 3.75 seconds. However, in a 2017 interview with Capital Outlook, Loretta Smith, Mallex’s mother, explained that it didn’t always look that way. She described Mallex doing a running drill when he was 13 in less than glowing terms: “For me, it was embarrassing,” she said. “He had absolutely no form. He just ran terribly.”
In fact, Loretta and Mallex aren’t the only people with runner’s genes in their family. Mallex’s two sisters, Loreal and Lauren, each ran collegiately at North Carolina A&T as well as University of Florida. Loreal would go onto achieve All American Honors and would make it to the semifinals in multiple events at the 2012 US Olympic Trials. So when Mallex was seen struggling with basic base running drills, the family had to step in and help. Per the article from Capitol Outlook, Loretta and Loreal would spend lunches with Mallex going through running drills to help get his speed up to the family’s standard. Clearly these speed drills paid off, as Smith is now one of the fastest players in the MLB.
Even after a breakout 2018 season where he boasted a 118 wRC+, his 40 stolen bases popped off the box score the most as he was second in the AL (a whole ten more than current teammate and known speedster Dee Gordon). Smith was brought over last offseason in a trade that sent away former top pick Mike Zunino and fan favorite Guillermo Heredia to the Rays for Smith and another promising outfield prospect in Jake Fraley. Just 25 at the time, Smith figured to be one of the first building blocks acquired in an offseason most notably known for the trading away of key organizational pieces in hopes of rebuilding and acquiring a high team ceiling in the coming years by way of young, controllable players and prospects.
Smith’s 2019 season would be mostly a disappointment in terms of things he would be able to do with a bat in his hand. He failed to live up to his 2018 season or even his two seasons prior, turning in a .278 WOBA, good for bottom 4% of the league. Following an elbow injury to start the season and missing all of Spring Training, Smith struggled when he finally made it back in 2019, hitting .165 with a .255 OBP to match over the first month of the season. This, combined with some very noticeable struggles in the field, led to a two week long trip to Tacoma, where he worked to get his swing right again before being recalled on May 16th.
Upon being recalled in May, Mallex hit .250 for the month, but ultimately he wouldn’t improve much on the season, finishing the year with an abysmal 74 wRC+. The key to returning to his 2018 self appears to be remembering how to hit off speed pitches at a more pedestrian rate. In Smith’s 2018 season he struck out on curveballs at a rate of 25.8% compared to his 2019 rate of 44.2%. When looking at how Smith fared against sliders in 2018, he struck out at a rate of 28.4%, whereas he whiffed at them at a rate of 42.5% in 2019. The 2018-2019 splits for other pitches are much smaller and in many cases, almost unnoticeable. Considering that these numbers remained so similar as to the previous year and that his numbers against breaking balls changed so much in 2019, it’s likely that Mallex’s inability to hit offspeed pitches was another casualty of his miserable year. This points to a strong chance that he improves his numbers against breaking balls leading into 2020.
Smith’s greatest skill is the ability to pressure other pitchers with his legs, but in order to do that he must put the ball in play and not be able to put out so regularly with breaking balls. Smith saw no shortage of hittable pitches in 2019 either, as only 30% of his pitches seen were either chase or waste pitches, leading to 28% of his seen pitches being right in the heart of the plate. He also appears so be swinging and holding off on pitches at a league average rate, which is good to see. If Mallex is able to figure out his approach in 2020, there’s a chance he could tear the cover off the ball should pitchers continue to pitch to him the way they were in 2019.
When Smith could get on base in 2019, he made the most of it. He led the AL in stolen bases with 46 and finished 6th in the AL in terms of SB%, swiping bags at a rate of 83.64% (for comparison, known speedster Trea Turner has a career SB% of 84.1%) His plus speed also allowed him to rank 4th in the AL in triples. A useful tool to look at base-running abilities is UBR (Ultimate Base Running); this stat looks at the runs added to a players respective team on the basepaths throughout a season. This is valuable because there is much more to base running that just stealing bases (for example, advancing from first to third on a single). Smith was able to turn in a 3.1 UBR in the 2019 season, meaning his base running skills contributed 3.1 runs over the course of the season, 16th-best in the league despite possessing an OPS approximately half of that of 14th-place Christian Yelich.
Combining Smith’s abilities with Gordon’s (2019 UBR of 1.2) allowed the 2019 Mariners to actually be good at something, which was, unsurprisingly, swiping bags. With 115 bags stolen the M’s finished 3rd in the AL in stolen bases. The ability to, at times, have both Dee Gordon as well as Mallex Smith on the basepaths could wreak havoc on opposing pitching, creating a headache for the rest of the inning. Although Smith struggled in most categories last season, he was a huge part of that aspect of the 2019 M’s.
As analytics continue to devalue the stolen base as more and more batters are able to drive runs in, Mallex Smith represents a player from the past. The soft hitting, fast running baseball archetype is one synonymous with baseball since its inception, and Smith fits that build to a tee.
An area that Smith figures to improve in in 2020 is his defense. After turning in a 2.4 UZR/150 in 2018, he turned in an abysmal -11.2 UZR/150 in 2019 (good for second worst on the 2019 M’s behind known defensive liability Domingo Santana). This is surprising as one of the most important skills as a center fielder is speed, of which Smith has a plethora of. When looking below at his 2019 MLB rankings courtesy of our friends at Baseball Savant it is apparent that he has the makeup of a terrific center fielder. He ranks in the 92nd percentile for both outs above average and outfielder jump, while turning in a sprint speed at the 97th percentile. This all points to more mental errors than anything which, with practice, should become fewer and fewer.
Still a young (ish) player (just 26 until May), Smith still has much of his career ahead of him. Entering his first year of arbitration, Smith is projected to earn around 2.7 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility. He is of course penciled in as the starting CF for the 2020 season, yet the following seasons appear to be much more murky.
Should Smith turn in a 2020 season much more akin to his season of 2018, there’s no reason as to why the Mariners wouldn’t want him on a cheap arbitration deal. Yet with that being said, the Mariners have a notable prospect logjam in the outfield. Young outfielders Kyle Lewis, Braden Bishop and trade partner Jake Fraley all had cups of coffee with the Mariners last season and figure to be fighting for regular playing time with the club as soon as Spring Training. Super-prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, although a bit further behind, figure to be knocking at the door sooner rather than later as well.
Throw in former All Star and the M’s closest thing to a franchise player in Mitch Haniger and the outfield begins to look like a Target on Black Friday. With just three starting OF slots and one bench spot it becomes clear that there will likely be two or three of these guys playing somewhere else in the coming seasons. Kelenic, Fraley and Bishop have all played CF in the minors and could all conceivably play there in the majors even though none posses the speed that Smith does. This creates pressure for Smith to perform sooner than later and, more specifically, perform to his strengths. Smith won’t be punishing any baseballs any time soon and will likely always rank towards the bottom of MLB in metrics like exit velocity as the league gets progressively tilted towards power hitters; however, as long as he can be a plus defender while hitting for contact and stealing bases, he has value as a niche player. The numbers suggest that 2019 was an especially poor year for Smith both at the plate and in the field, and if he can play more to his talent level in 2020, he can round back into form. After all, he can always call his mama for help.