NYM CF Mallex Smith: Candidate for The 2021 NL Comeback Player of the Year Award

Earlier in the offseason, the Mets may have made one of their biggest move in signing 11 minor league free agents that included Jose Peraza, Arodys Vizciano, and 27 year old Centerfielder Mallex Smith! Smith was originally drafted by the Padres in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft out of Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, FL. Before I go into a deeper analysis as to why I think he could be a comeback player of the year, lets look at the history of Smith as he bounces around different ballclubs.

TRADED TO THE BRAVES: On December 19, 2014 the Padres traded 2B Jace Peterson, LHP Max Fried, 3B Dustin Peterson, and CF Mallex Smith to the Braves in exchange for LF Justin Upton and RHP Aason Northcraft.

2016 SEASON – ROOKIE DEBUT: Smith made his MLB debut with the Braves in 2016 where in 72 games and 215 PA, he slashed a .238/.316/.365 with 3 HR and 16 SB in 24 attempts. The then 23 year old, also had a Strike out rate (K%) of 22.3% with a Walk rate (BB%) of 9.3%, Which is not too bad for a Rookie debut.

TRADED TO THE MARINERS AND TO THE RAYS: On January 11, 2017 The Braves traded Mallex smith to the Seattle Mariners with RHP Shae Simmons for RHP Thomas Burrows and LHP Luis Gohara. A few hours after being traded from the Braves, the Mariners trade Smith to the Tampa Bay Rays along with INF Carlos Vargas and LHP Ryan Yarbrough for LHP Drew Smyly.

2017 – 2018 SEASON – THE GOOD: Mallex Smith played two seasons with Tampa, which included a break out year in 2018. During the course of his time at Tampa, Smith played 222 G with 826 Plate Appearances where he slashed a .287/.354/.389. He’s not known for his power so the youngster only hit 4HR but he did steal 56 SB in 73 attempts. His speed was the game changer as he lead the league in triples in 2018 with 10. It is also worth noting that in 2018, he only struck out 98 times (K% of 18%) and walked 47 times (BB% of 8.6%). He finished 10th place on OBP for the year.

TRADED TO THE MARINERS (AGAIN): On November 8, 2018, the Rays traded Smith to the Mariners with OF Jake Fraley for OF Guillermo Heredia (yes, same guy on the Mets in 2020) and C Mike Zunino.

2019 SEASON – THE BAD: Things started to go south for Smith in 2019. In 566 plate appearances, he slashed a horrid .227/.300/.335 with a K% of 24.9 and a BB% of 7.4%. The only good that came out of this season for Smith was that he had an MLB leading 46 SB in 52 attempts. He also hit a career high of 6 HR that season.

2020 SEASON – THE UGLY: In 2020, Smith production went further south. Smith had delayed his debut to the M’s summer camp for undisclosed reasons. He missed out a few weeks to prepare for the already shorten season due to the pandemic. He was able to make the M’s opening day line-up, but only appeared on 14 games before getting optioned back to the alternative site. He made 47 Plate appearances, slashing a pathetic .133/.170/.178 with while only stealing 2 bases striking out 13 times with while drawing only 2 walks. Meanwhile, the Mariners had some great production coming from Kyle Lewis who earn the AL Rookie of the Year award at CF. The Mariner’s have a bright future in their OF prospects that are close to MLB level in Jared Kelenic (ahem, thanks again Brodie) and Julio Rodriguez. Mariners did not tenure Smith and he opted out to Free Agency.

METS SIGNED MALLEX SMITH TO MINOR LEAGUE DEAL: As mentioned earlier, the Mets quickly signed 11 players into minor league deals on November 4th. They took the opportunity to add much needed depth at CF before other teams could sink their teeth into Smith.

DEFENSIVE UPGRADE:

In 2019, Smith ranked 8th in Outs Above Average (OOA) for any OF Position with 10 while logging in 9 Runs Prevented. In 2020, he did not play enough games to be eligible, but also see below on how horrid the Mets defensive numbers were. Spoiler alert, it sucked.

2019 OOA Rankings Baseball Savant
2019 Mets OOA Baseball Savant
Mets 2020 OOA Baseball Savant

THE OFFENSE: I took a look into Smith’s number to see if I can see any evidence of what exactly changed from his 2019 to 2020 season. Granted 2020 was a much smaller sample size, and in my opinion, Smith did not get enough time to prepare with the team as his sessions at the summer camp were delayed due to undisclosed reasons. That aside, the number one thing that popped out to me during his 2020 season was his BABIP. His BABIP was well below the league average of .300. In short, when he was putting the ball in play, he was a victim of either very bad luck or amazing defensive on the field. His BABIP was .188. This may be me speculating a bit, but I think he may have made attempts to over compensate by attempting to be more aggressive in the strike zone, and trying to sell out for power, a tool in which he lacks. The Speedster, appeared lost, while his counterpart, Lewis was scorching hot.

Fangraphs.com

The 2020 MLB season was a season where every single game was much more significant than ever. Not that a normal season is okay to lose, but in a shorten 60 game season meant that if a team lost, they had more grounds to cover in a shorter period of times. In a regular 162 game season, the club can be more patient as a player works through a slump. You also have the option to send a player down to the minors as long as they have enough available (Smith has 1 option remaining on his contract) to improve and figure out what the issues were. In a 60 game season were the playoffs were expanded, clubs were treating every game as a playoff game and if a player was slumping, there was much smaller tolerance to see if they could figure it out.

THE PROJECTIONS: Most projections have Smith seeing 200 or less AB. This make sense due to the abundance of left handed hitting OFers the Mets currently have, and how the Mets are linked towards the FA acquisition of George Springer. One thing that most of the projections indicate is that Smith will see regression on his OBP which would go back up north of .318. The most compelling projection that I seen is the one on Baseball reference where they are projecting him to see a decent amount of time in the OF and producing the following numbers.

Baseball Reference

Smith is also a left-handed hitter so the need for his bat may be limited. I expect the Mets to make some moves this winter that would shift the team around to work out the current log-jam of having too many poor defensive performers at LF and 3B. I also expect Mallex Smith having the potential to breakout of the 2021 Spring Training which will push the (much more analytical) Mets to include his bat and speed in the line up.

IN CONCLUSION: The Mets signing Mallex Smith to a minor league deal was one of the smartest things they have done in the offseason. They are taking a very low risk on giving Mallex Smith a chance. The pay off could be so significant that it could be the missing piece to the Mets defensive woes in the position and give them a push for a playoff slot or more. It is no secret that the Mets have a great offensive team. They also have a decent pitching rotation in which they are more than likely to further improve. Their bullpen, is top notch! However, if the defenders can not keep the opposing teams from scoring as they have, all that great pitching performance just goes to waste. This pitching staff needs to have the confidence to step up on the mound without questioning their teammates defensive abilities. If they need to throw a sinker to induce that double play ball, then so be it. They should also not have to worry about how much defensive ground their OF would be able to cover. If Mallex Smith gets the opportunity to play every day, he has the upside to be an impactful player that pitchers can trust to make the necessary outs.

(Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

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