What to Make of Mallex Smith | The Process Report

What to Make of Mallex Smith

As play begins on this July 4th, Mallex Smith has a .333/.405/.417 with a .129 wRC+. This is a year removed from a .238/.316/.365 and 84 wRC+ season with Atlanta. Which line is a better representation of Smith’s true talents?

The simple fact is that the Rays won the trade with Seattle for Smith because Drew Smyly is unlikely to ever throw a regular season pitch for Seattle. He was hurt during Spring Training and recently went under the knife for Tommy John. The Mariners should non-tender him after the season as his 2018 season is going to mostly be a wash as well (see Alex Cobb 2016). Having Smith around has certainly helped soften the blow of losing Kevin Kiermaier for a second consecutive season, but what exactly does the team have in the young speedster?

Jason Hanselman and I had an impromptu TPR staff meeting in Baltimore this weekend as we had each made plans to go to the Friday and Saturday games with family. We were able to sit together for good chunks of both games down the left field line which allowed us to watch a number of Smith’s at bats from the side profile that is often neglected in broadcasts unless there is a check-swing review or a home run. Quite honestly, the numbers above do not match well with the at bats we saw in the games which is the underlying purpose of looking further into how he is doing what he is doing thus far.

By Pitch Type:

2S/4S/CT 294 61% 0.368 0.417 46% 8%
Breaking 120 25% 0.375 0.571 50% 15%
OffSpeed 69 14% 0.133 0.333 52% 29%

The league has thus far decided to attack Smith with hard stuff, since he is not a threat to take them deep with hard stuff. The simple truth is that good fastballs can overpower Smith as he has pulled just one fastball over 92 through the infield for a hit and that came yesterday in the 8th inning against Carl Edwards Jr. Every other bigger velocity fastball he has tried to pull has not made it out of the infield.

What he has been able to do is to spray the harder fastballs the other direction for hits over drawn-in third basemen. We can see across all pitch types that Smith is an aggressive swinger when he sees pitches within the strike zone and yet one that is still willing to accept his walks as evident by his double-digit walk rate on the season. Now that teams have more of a book on him, it would not be surprising to see teams attack him more with offspeed stuff to speed up his bat as he continues to hunt for fastballs.

By Count

Ahead 101 21% 0.545 0.500 40% 13%
Even 197 41% 0.415 0.447 45% 11%
Behind 186 38% 0.232 0.394 56% 15%

The observations we made this weekend was when Smith was down in the count, his swing became more aggressive which is counter-intuitive. In recent weeks, we have been able to see guys such as Joey Votto and Anthony Rizzo choke way up on the bat in a two strike approach and still be able to inflict damage with the bat. Smith does not appear to shorten his swing in any way in such situations and his selectivity in two-strike counts has been particularly poor:

With his speed, anything can happen if he were to simply put the ball into play more frequently when down in the count. The “Mallex Effect” is a real weapon for the team, but it is easily neutralized when Smith expands his zone and is more aggressive than protective in two-strike mode.

The second year player is up earlier than the team likely had planned because of the injury, so he is completing his development at the major league level. He has been more impactful running the bases than stealing them of late, especially when he scored on a hit and run single in the series against Baltimore.  Even in limited time, he leads the team in run scoring percentage (min 100 PA) as he scores 42% of the time he is on base and only Tim Beckham has a higher percentage of extra bases taken on the season.

Smith’s plate discipline in 2017 is right in line with where it was in his rookie season. However, the quality of his contact has improved of late as he continues to define himself at the major league level. The first 337 plate appearances of his career have him as a league-average player who is surviving on raw athleticism while figuring himself out as a hitter at an age where many of his age peers are still in the minors. We saw how speed can indeed slump as Kevin Kiermaier cooled off from his initial hot start in his first season with the Rays as he tried to do too much too fast. Smith could very well fall into the same trap if he doesn’t make the necessary adjustments as the league begins to adjust to him in the coming weeks.

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