When Mallex Smith was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays by the Seattle Mariners, he was a prime regression candidate given his .366 BABIP from 2018. But, few of the Mariners faithful were prepared for the rocky start Smith got off to in March and April in which he hit an anemic .165 in 110 PA over 27 games. Following a ten-game stint in AAA Tacoma where he slashed .333/.375/.467, Smith’s return to the big leagues has produced numbers closer to what the Mariners thought they were getting.
In twelve games in May, Smith hit .250 with 6 stolen bases. As of June 27, Smith has hit .296 for the month with 7 SB, bringing his season total to 21. As of late, both Smith and fellow offseason acquisition J.P. Crawford have been terrors to the opposition at the plate and on the base paths.
Heading into the final game of the series with the Milwaukee Brewers, Smith had a seven-game hitting streak and had hit safely in 23 of his previous 25 games. Combine that with Crawford’s .367 June (.318 average over the season) and a slightly less torrid 7 out of 8 game hitting cluster and the Mariners’ one-two punch at the top of the lineup is proving to be quite productive.
In Wednesday’s 4-2 win at Milwaukee, Smith teamed up with Crawford to go 5-10, scoring 3 of the Mariners’ 4 runs. Both Smith and Crawford recorded a triple among their collective hits, further demonstrating the speed acquired in the off-season.
According to Baseball Savant—an MLB-run website that features public Statcast information—Mallex Smith ranks 23rd in all of major league baseball in sprint speed with 29.2 ft/s. On a Mariners team that includes both Crawford and 2B Dee Gordon, Smith is the fastest on the 40-man roster.
The speed on the base paths may help to explain the extraordinary BABIP and suggest it’s not simply a 2018 outlier. It may be that Smith is simply so fast that he beats out infield grounders more frequently than most of the rest of the league.
On the downside, despite the speed, public defensive statistics do not paint a pretty picture of Smith as a center fielder in Seattle. Through 510 innings in CF this season, Smith has cost the Mariners 11 runs or a little over a full game according to DRS (defensive runs saved) or 9.5 runs, also nearly a full game, according to UZR (ultimate zone rating). Projected out over 150 games using UZR/150, Smith’s play in center would ultimately cost the Mariners -23.2 runs or close to 2 ½ games a season.
Statcast tells a different story, though, assessing Smith’s season so far as producing one more out than expected and matching the league at the position in expected catch rate. Given that Smith was a plus defender in center in Tampa according to DRS, UZR, UZR/150, and Statcast, the early returns for the Mariners may just be a blip on the Mallex Smith defensive radar. Also, teams today most certainly have better data than the public, unlike just a few short years ago.
The bottom line here is that Mallex Smith is probably not quite as good as his last year with the Rays might suggest. But on the other hand, he is far and away better than his first two months in Seattle. Given that Smith has just turned twenty-six and won’t hit free agency until 2023, the Mariners may have found their center fielder for the foreseeable future.