What You’ve Been Waiting For
The entire offseason has had an if, not when, status for when the Rays would move one of their extraneous starters. While Chris Archer has more trade value than most teams can match up with, and even fewer with the impetus to do so, he has garnered the majority of headlines. That’s fair, fans like people they’re familiar with, but it never really made sense for the team to move him unless blown away. Jake Odorizzi is a long step down from Archer, but three arb years of a league average starter that can give you innings would have also taken a fairly large package. I felt all along that the guys most likely to move would be either Drew Smyly or Alex Cobb.
Both of those starting pitchers are closing in on the end of their term wearing the powder blues. Cobb is in his walk year and could be anything between a zero-win dumpster fire and a four-win pseudo ace. At an estimated $4M in his final year of arb the cost would be minimal to find out, but the risk is so high that the return becomes substantially tempered. Smyly, on the other hand, comes with a second year of control, though he will be better compensated in 2017. MLBTradeRumors places that figure at just shy of $7M. A normal season for him would have pushed into eight-figures for his last season of control. As a two-win pitcher there isn’t a whole lot of efficiency there, but another team doesn’t face the same budget constraints with which the Rays front office is challenged.
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Despite operating in a market that is utterly bereft of starting pitching options I still didn’t expect either of these guys to bring back a massive return. There is value in opening up a slot for the Rays bevy of swingman/spot starters, re-appropriating the money and getting something back so it makes sense to move Smyly, and this is about what I had hoped for.
Also, I’ve thought all offseason that Smyly to Seattle made a ton of sense for the Mariners. Following in the footsteps of illustrious lefties like Jamie Moyer, Jarrod Washburn and Jason Vargas, among a host of others, Smyly would be an ideal fit for a ballpark that turns fly balls into outs at a high rate. The issue with the Mariners is that they didn’t have a whole lot to give back. Something like Luiz Gohara and something decent probably would have got it done, but it appears the Rays had little interest in a promising lefty that throws hard. A big reason is the likelihood that he would have to be put on a 40-man roster to avoid being taken in next year’s Rule V draft. It would be hard to justify that in a system that has lost numerous players to this draft due to already present jams thanks to more talent than spots. Further clogging that roster with a guy that hasn’t thrown a single pitch at high A ball would be hoping for the best case outcome.
Instead, the Mariners flipped the promising youngster to Atlanta for Mallex Smith and righty reliever Shae Simmons. Smith probably didn’t even have time to exhale before he was immediately turned around and traded as the most well known name in this here Smyly trade. He brought a couple of friends who are further away, which will be touched on later, but there is so much to uncover with the headliner that he is worthy of his own deep dive.
If you’ve read my last few pieces this might look familiar to you, but since Mallex only has 215 plate appearances it didn’t make much sense to compare him to most other ball players. Going a little unnoticed is that he was merely 23 years old last year, and pressed into duty earlier than the team would have liked in order to cover for an injury to starter Ender Inciarte. Instead, the comparison pool here will be all 291 players since 2002 that received at least 100 plate appearances in their age 23 season. How does he compare to this peer group?
A few things jump out immediately. This is a guy that had one of the highest groundball rates of all players. That is probably a good thing based on his skillset as he can leverage his speed to beat out infield hits, and those that get through could be a familiar sight to those that enjoy the Kiermaier hustle double on a ball that goes 150 feet. In conjunction with his extremely low pop up rate, and willingness/ability to go opposite field this gives him a chance at having an above average BABIP.
Additionally, he shows an approach that leans passive as his excellent walk rate came with the downside of a worse than average strikeout rate. I prefer patience over passivity, but that’s awfully hard when you’re getting first pitch strikes at such a high rate. His Good Approach, Good Result (GAGR) was around league average, though there are some contact concerns here. Both in and out of zone rates profiled as well below average, and that also carried over into his swing strike rate. That would be fine if he supplied a lot power, but his 37th percentile power (not featured here) means it isn’t, and probably will never be a big part of his game. The triples will replace some of that power, but that owes more to his elite speed profile.
Speed is an area where he underwhelmed quite a bit last year. As one of the fastest players on the planet he decimated batteries in the minors, but posted below average numbers for both base-stealing (wSB) and running (UBR). After posting a success rate on steals above 80% in the minors he was well below that rate with his 16 steals in 24 attempts. The raw figure projects for more than 30 pilfered bags over an entire season, but the success rate leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, it looks like he was a victim of the insanely stupid on-the-bag, off-the-bag replay calls that Major League Baseball still refuses to acknowledge is a massive problem. Turning a few of his caughts into successes would help both numbers, and seems like something that should be teachable if not imminently correctable via rules that recognize simple physics.
There are other negatives, of course. Even with an above average BABIP, his below average contact would indicate a similarly below the norm batting average. Many of the players in this pool were able to increase their contact rate as they went from greenhorn to belonging, but past precedent does not indicate future performance. There also looks like little hope that he will ever be an even average power producer. This also shows up in his soft and hard hit percentages where he had one of the highest and lowest rates, respectively. We’ve seen the groundball-heavy approach, but it looks like he was more worm-warmer than burner. Moving on from where he ranks I want to take a look at how he evolved over the season starting with zone and swing rates on all pitches:
It stands to reason that if a guy had great walk rates in the minors with very little power that there should be some giveback in the Show as pitchers do not need to fear throwing strikes. We’ve already seen how high his first strike percentage compared to other 23 year olds, but this gives us an idea that pitchers actually went the other way after an initial steady uptick. Mallex showed an impressive ability to mirror his swing decision in parallel with zone rate with better and better results. Pitchers came in the zone less and he similarly adjusted to swinging less often with still quite good results after an initial adjustment period. The end of the season sees the only real divergence between swing and zone rates, and it was also his worst performance period by run values.
Perhaps that is the league figuring him out, but it should be pointed out that in mid-June he got his thumb broken on a hit by pitch. The last 14 games of the season then came after a three month layoff that probably saw his timing disrupted as well as his hand strength diminished coming back from the injury. I would put more stock in the early and middle stuff than the later term lack of performance. Keep this caveat in mind as we progress through this into all swings here, and later on with all contact:
Focusing on just swings can tell us a little bit about how often he is putting the ball in play, swinging at strikes and how often he is whiffing. Nearly 60% of his swings came on in-zone pitches without a ton of separation from his year-long average other than brief stints. The swinging strike percentage started off pretty high, but then settled in at a pretty reasonable 25% or so for the rest of the season. His best results came with his higher ball in play percentage, though the peak doesn’t appear to be indicative of the norm. Lastly, you can see how badly his run values fell off as he got later in the year. I think that reinforces the idea that he wasn’t right to close the season.
We’re in super small sample territory at this point, but the point reiterates here that his beginning of the season took some adjustments, and then the end of it showed a completely different guy from the meat in the middle. During that long stretch between the bookends you can see some very nice batting average on contact (BACON) and a surprisingly robust slugging percentage on contact (SLGCON).
Altogether I think you’re looking at a 90-100 wRC+ that can anchor a bottom of the lineup where a team should be less hesitant to run the risk of stealing bags as the ensuing hitters become less powerful, and more reliant upon the Baseball God’s BABIP whims on that given day. Add in another five to ten runs from his base running and you’re talking about a guy that approaches league average with the bat, while his surface level numbers, like batting average, lead the casual fan to think much less of him.
Meanwhile, I haven’t even gotten to the glove where he profiles as a Desmond Jennings-esque defender that is one of the best in the league in left field, and probably above average in CF, though the arm begins to get exposed the more he plays there. Speed, defense, and a just below league average bat would be a nearly three win player in centerfield, but I think he’ll mostly see time in left field that will take him down to a cap of around a two win player. Not a bad return for a guy that was always likely to be traded, and I haven’t even touched on the lotto tickets that come in tow.
More on them later, but for now enjoy the fact that the team just acquired six years, albeit at super two prices, of a guy that looks like a league average player. At worst, I think he’s a Sam Fuld type of role player that will stay cheap and useful, but in a best case scenario the glove is so good that you have to keep him out there against lefties, and that additional viewings of them lead to better performance. I don’t know that he’ll ever come close to being useful against lefties, but he should be an above average hitter against righties who still dominate the daily lineup sheet.
Hard to find anything to like here versus lefties, but it gets better dot org:
Against righties he shows impressive zone recognition on pitches both in and up, and he shows well on most of the zone other than up-and-in, which is a tough place to hit for any lefty. The walks and singles can turn into doubles with his speed, though he’ll hit some of those the old fashioned way, as well.
Perhaps the most important side-note is to mention that he still has his full complement of three options. The team should be in no hurry to get him into the lineup as twenty days in the minors will give the team another year of control, though making him a super two guy. For now, he’s going to play everyday in Durham and basically shadow Colby Rasmus. If Rasmus comes out hitting a lot like last year with a worse glove, well, the team has a ready replacement. If Colby hits well, but the team falters, then Rasmus can be spun off at the deadline as Steve Pearce was last year, and Mallex can take that role of starting against righties and bringing a great glove. Everything goes right, and he gets a cup of coffee on a pennant contender before taking over the starting role to being 2018. So much to like here.