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Mallex Smith’s hot start has sparked an improving Rays offense

The soon-to-be 25-year old has started hot, hot, hot

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This past weekend the Rays offense broke out into a hitting frenzy against the Minnesota Twins pitching staff. The result? A three-game sweep and a much more pleasing to the eye 8-13 record.

A few notable series stat-lines: Denard Span went 4-for-10 with six RBI. CJ Cron smashed three 2-run bombs. Adeiny Hechavarria went 5-for-10 with five RBI. Wilson Ramos and Jesus Sucre combined to go 6-for-11. Daniel Robertson had a career-high four hits on Sunday.

In total, the Rays scored 26 runs over the three-day span - 29.5 percent of their total amount of runs (88) scored this season!

But there is one player who stands above the rest, and not just for his performance this past series, but for his offensive production this season.

Mr. Sunshine State Chain Necklace, Mallex Smith.

Through 21 games, Smith ranks atop the Rays leaderboards (minimum 50 PA) in BABIP (.429) and SB (3), second in wRC+ (146), wOBA (.386), OBP (.412), and fourth in SLG (.483). Among qualified AL hitters (through Sunday’s games), he ranks second in BABIP, tenth in OBP, sixth in SB, and 16th in wRC+ and wOBA.

The .429 BABIP, an unsustainable number, suggests he’s running crazy hot. That likely stems from his line-drive percentage stemming north of 30 percent. Nonetheless, he’s sporting a 28.0 hard-contact percentage, 6.7 points higher than his 2017 rate, while his K% has decreased from 22.0 percent to 17.4 percent. While it’s much too early in the season to make any assessments of what he’s doing differently, the numbers he’s putting up are an impressive sign that Smith is in a rhythm.

“Mallex is at that point we know how much he can help us offensively and impact us when he gets on base. He’s got a knack for his approach at the plate and not trying to do too much most of the time,’’ manager Kevin Cash told Marc Topkin in an interview last Thursday.

Pitchers have had an incredibly difficult time sending Smith back to the dugout after getting ahead. He’s 9-for-23 (.391) on 0-1 counts, 6-for-9 (.667) on 0-2 counts, and 7-for-19 (.368) on 1-2 counts. Add it all up, and he’s 22-for-50 (.440) when he falls behind in the count. Whether he can sustain those numbers, or even to the point of the numbers not drastically dipping, will be something to keep an eye on throughout the next few months.

With Kevin Kiermaier sidelined, Smith is also the Rays best active defensive outfielder on the team. That may not be saying much with Denard Span in left and Carlos Gomez in right, but his game-changing speed gives him a lot of room for error.

The Rays are confident in Smith’s ability to hold down center field for the time being.

“Defensively, we’ve talked about it from day one how much we value it. We need to get him to do that. I think this will be an opportunity for him to really focus on filling in for an elite center fielder. We’re not asking him to be KK. Go be Mallex. But be kind of clean out there and make the plays that you’re capable of making.’’

His game-changing speed, combined with his learning experience last year playing 400-plus innings in center (again, in KK’s absence), he, at the worst, should not be a liability anchoring the outfield.

One of many players the Rays are evaluating for 2018 and beyond, Mallex Smith has hit better than any of us could have reasonably expected while bringing an unique and impressive vibe to the team. With his note-taking in the dugout and his hard-working style in the batter’s box and on the basepaths, he’s bringing a much-needed energy to the club.

The Rays are feeding off Mallex Smith’s energy.