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A Mallex Appreciation

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The Rays outfield is looking better since July, and we can thank Mallex Smith

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Think back to the eve of the 2018 season. Just before Opening Day. The Rays surprised most of us by trading away, in short order, (Corey Dickerson - 120 OPS+) and right fielder (Steven Souza - 121 OPS+). Who would be playing corner outfield? They were looking at Carlos Gomez (32 years old and not a consistent, everyday contributor since 2014) and Mallex Smith (153 career games with an OPS+ of just 86) as the two replacements.

Outfield of Pain

Flash-forward to early June. Kevin Kiermaier had been on the disabled list for over a month, Mallex Smith had an OPS below .700, but of course, he looked like Babe Ruth compared to Carlos Gomez and his sub-.600 OPS. Kevin Cash was turning to players like Joey Wendle, Daniel Robertson, and Jake Bauers to play out of position just to get a full outfield in the lineup card every night.

Even as recently as Independence Day, things looked sketchy in the Rays outfield. Kiermaier (.468 OPS), Gomez (.593), and Smith (.709) had a combined OPS (1.770) lower than Barry Bonds posted in April of 2004 (1.828). (Side note: Barry Bonds may or may not have been an alien.)

However, if we finally use this time machine we’ve hopped in three times already to bring us to the present day, the Rays outfield looks quite different. An area that stood out as one of the team’s weak spots not long ago now looks, dare we say, strong. And it looks promising not just in 2018 but even beyond.

Yay, Fun Outfield!

What explains the brighter outlook? First, we’ve seen a slight bounceback from Kiermaier (who likely came back too early from his DL stint), who has an OPS of .714 since July 4. There are also signs of life CarGo, who has been even better than KK since early July, slashing a robust .333/.467/.500. Part of that is the brilliant, buy-low acquisition of Tommy Pham who owns an OPS+ of 124 since the start of the 2017 season and is under team control through 2021. And finally, the future part of that is the acquisition of consensus top-50 prospect, Austin Meadows, who should make his Rays debut later this season and will be a perfect transition away from Gomez after this season.

However, in my mind, the biggest factor in the Rays outfield going from gaping hole to secret strength for both the present and future, is the emergence of Mallex Smith in 2018.

If you go back through our previous time machine stops, you’ll notice Smith was always the strongest of the links in a weak outfield, and he has only been better since that Independence Day cut off. He’s slashing .356/.426/.593 since the Fourth, bringing his season-long slash line to an impressive .291/.356/.412, good for an OPS+ of 116. That figure ranks behind only Jake Bauers (135), Daniel Robertson (125), and C.J. Cron (123) on the Rays — not bad for a player who some thought would never contribute much to a major league lineup.

Is It Sustainable?

The best part of Mallex’s 2018 success is none of it seems like a fluke. Smith currently ranks fourth in all of baseball with a BABIP of .367, but his career .344 BABIP paints the picture of a speedy player with a solid line drive rate (26.1 percent in 2018; 22.5 percent for his career), who shouldn’t see that figure drop too far. Expecting a batting average in the .275-.280 range seems reasonable.

Smith’s current ISO (.121) seems just a touch high. His career ISO is .111, and most projection systems have him just below that, but it’s not as if he’s getting extremely lucky in this regard. Maybe he won’t be able to maintain his current triples pace (he is third in baseball with eight), but his 18 doubles seem right in line with what to expect over a full season of Mallex. Expecting an ISO in the .110 range would seem realistic.

The best — and most reliable — part of his slash line is that middle number: his OBP. Smith owns a .356 OBP this season that is topped by only Robertson and Matt Duffy on the Rays. Smith’s walk rate in 2018 (7.8 percent) is right in line with his career walk rate (8.3 percent), and he consistently posted walk rates in the double digits in the minors.

Smith is an incredibly smart player. He knows that getting on base, any way he can, is a strength. He swings at pitches he can hit (82nd percentile on swing rate on pitches in the zone) but is far better laying off ones out of the zone (55th percentile on swing rate on pitches outside of the zone).

If we give Smith a 2019 slash line around .280/.340/.390, that’s highly serviceable. It would be right around league-average, and that’s before we get to Smith’s defense (seemingly improving every day), and his speed (the strength for which he is best known).

Given his many contributions, it is not surprising that, by WAR, Smith has been either the second or third best (behind the now-departed Wilson Ramos) position player for the Rays in 2018.

What Does Smith’s Performance Mean for the Future?

Looking ahead to 2019, a Rays outfield of Tommy Pham in right field, Austin Meadows in left field, and Kevin Kiermaier between them sounds great. The best part is Smith, though. If Meadows struggles to adjust to the bigs, have Smith take over while Meadows works through things at Triple-A. If When KK goes down for a month or so with an injury, have Smith fill in for him in center, where he has played more than half of his career games. When Pham needs a day off — or a day at DH to spell Bauers or Cron — pencil Smith in for right field. It’s not hard at all to imagine Smith topping 100 games played even as the Rays’ fourth outfielder in name in 2019. It’s also not hard at all to imagine Smith being worth upwards of two wins in that role.

If you look at the league’s strongest teams, they often have someone like Smith as a fourth outfielder.

Now, will Smith be *cough* malleable *cough* agree to stay in this supporting role? He has proven himself to be a legitimate MLB starter, yet the Rays, through trades, seem determined to find others to be their regulars in the outfield. As long as he is getting the regular at bats, however, I think he would be content — especially on a winning team. Also, while his production against left handed pitching has been good this year, he has faced few of them. His offensive production might look different if he were in fact not protected against tough lefty pitchers — another benefit of this role.

It’s amazing how quickly the Rays turned a perceived weakness into a strength— for the present and the future. Let’s give a shout out to Mallex Smith, who deserves a lot of the credit for that transformation.