Last Updated on May 27, 2020 by Luke Arkins
When the Seattle Mariners acquired Mallex Smith, the team was expecting to get the player coming off a breakout 2018 with the Tampa Bay Rays. But after a disappointing season in Seattle, Smith is now at a crossroads in his Mariners career.
Smith’s Emerald City debut fell well below the high expectations expressed by Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto to media members, including Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, when the team acquired Smith in November 2018.
“His [Smith’s] combination of speed, base running impact, defense, and on-base abilities are unique in today’s game. We believe his breakout 2018 performance reflects the many ways his skills will positively impact the Mariners for years to come.” – Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto
Essentially, Dipoto was seeking a dynamic table-setter capable of being a disruptive force on the base paths. That’s what Smith was in Tampa Bay – not so much with the Mariners.
Mallex Smith’s 2018-19 Stats
Smith’s problems began when an elbow injury sidelined him for most of Spring Training. Matters only worsened once the regular season got underway. Through the end of April, he was scuffling at the plate and struggling to reign in routine fly balls in center field. So much so, management sent the Florida native to Class-AAA Tacoma to regain the mojo missing from his bat and glove.
Upon returning in mid-May, Smith’s numbers at the plate were better than prior to his stay in Tacoma. So was his defense. Unfortunately, offensive production remained below average.
Stat Line Pre/Post Tacoma
There were glimpses of the on-base abilities Dipoto touted. But June and August were the only months Smith’s on-base percentage (OBP) bettered the league average. Compounding matters, August’s encore was a dreadful .232 OBP in September.
The inconsistency demonstrated from one season to the next, and even during the 2019 campaign, heightens uncertainty regarding Smith and his role with the Mariners moving forward. Adding to the intrigue, the organization has a cadre of outfield prospects hurtling towards the majors, who seemingly represent the future for the organization – Kyle Lewis, Jake Fraley, Braden Bishop, Jarred Kelenic, and Julio Rodriguez.
Could time be running out for Smith in Seattle? It certainly would seem so if he doesn’t recapture the excellence demonstrated with the Rays in 2018.
With this in mind, we should delve into deteriorating metrics, which may help give explanation to Smith’s sub-optimal 2019 stat line. Before turning our attention to variations between the last two seasons, let’s discuss a constant likely to remain unchanged – average exit velocity.
During 2018-19, Smith’s exit velocity averaged 84-MPH, which placed him in the lower 4-percent of MLB both years. A low average exit velocity adds a layer of difficulty to the already demanding task of being a productive big-league hitter.
Intuitively, we know mashing the baseball is every hitter’s goal, while avoiding such contact the aim of pitchers. In the following illustration, we see the effect of exit velocity on AVG and weighted on-base average (wOBA). Weighted OBA is similar to OBP, but gives batters additional credit for extra-base hits over singles and walks.
Our chart illustrates both AVG and wOBA climb as exit velocity increases with wOBA skyrocketing as balls approach 100-MPH. This makes sense – 84.2-percent of all home runs hit in 2019 topped 100-MPH.
Relationship Between Exit Velo & Offense
So how does any of this apply to Smith, who managed to have a breakout performance season in 2018 with a low exit velo?
Recent history suggests hitters with low exit velocities may struggle with sustaining on-base success over multiple campaigns. This was certainly true for the Mariners’ center fielder last year after a breakout performance with Tampa Bay the season prior.
Twelve players, including Smith and teammate Dee Gordon, put 300-plus balls in play in 2019 with an average exit velocity under 85-MPH. Only half had at least a league-average OBP (.327) – Hanser Alberto (.327), David Fletcher (.350), Eric Sogard (.353), Kevin Newman (.353), and Kolten Wong (.361).
Within the above-average subset, only Wong has been above league-average for OBP in consecutive seasons (2015-19). It’s worth noting 2019 was the first full season for Alberto, Newman, and Fletcher. Furthermore, Sogard hadn’t appeared in 100-plus games in a season prior to last year since 2015.
When we expand our search to the entire STATCAST era, we find similar results. Since 2015, fifteen active players have put over 1,200 balls in play with an average exit velocity under 85-MPH. Less than half maintained an OBP above the league-average (.321) for this six-year period – Gordon, César Hernández, Delino DeShields, Miguel Rojas, Jon Jay, and Ender Inciarte. Only Jay, Inciarte, and Hernández were above league-average OBP in consecutive seasons they had at least 300 plate appearances.
Perhaps Alberto, Newman, and Fletcher join Wong by demonstrating consistent on-base abilities over an extended period. However, as a group, hitters with a lower exit velocity tend to be less productive than their hard-hitting counterparts. The following illustrates the average production for the 30 players with highest and lowest exit velocities last year.
Top-30 vs Bottom-30 In Average Exit Velo
The batters hitting the ball harder struck out more frequently, but drew walks at a higher rate than their softer-hitting peers did. Pitchers being more cautious with hitters possessing explosive bats likely contributed to the higher walk rates.
We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact average exit velocity isn’t a goal to pursue. Rather, it’s a statistical consequence of pitch velocity, bat speed, power, and swing mechanics. Realistically, hitting a baseball hard is a skill; it inevitably factors into a hitter’s ultimate value. Lower velo hitters can compensate by making consistent contact at a high rate since fewer of their balls will be of the well-struck variety. A willingness to draw walks doesn’t hurt either.
This notion seems particularly vital to speedsters like Smith, who led the majors with 46 stolen base last year. As we all know, players can’t swipe bags until they reach first base. On that thought, let’s pivot to several indicators illustrating where the left-handed hitter regressed in terms of quantity of contact.
Putting Bat To Ball
The following table lists Smith’s strikeout, walk, and swing rates. Also included, the percent of swings creating balls in play (BIP%). When we compare 2019 to his final season in Tampa Bay, it’s obvious why batting average (AVG) and on-base percentage (OBP) plummeted.
Although Smith swung at balls at a slightly lower rate last season, he struck out significantly more often and walked a little less. The Santa Fe Community College product’s 3.7-percent decline in BIP% may not sound like much, but consider this. A repeat of the 38.8 BIP% from 2018 with Seattle puts another 40 balls in play.
Mallex Smith’s BB & SO Rates
Without doubt, improving his strikeout rate leads to more on-base opportunities for Smith. As already noted, accruing additional free passes benefits the disruptive runner with the eighth best average sprint speed (29.4 ft/sec) in 2019.
While Smith put bat to ball less often in 2019, he also dealt with a decline in meaningful contact. Therefore, let’s shift our attention to quality of contact categories developed by Baseball Savant. Doing so will prep us for a conversation regarding the type of batted balls best suited to help the 2019 stolen base king return to being a productive hitter.
STATCAST separates quality of contact into six categories. Three favor hitters: Barrels, Solid Contact, and Flares/Burners. Pitchers prefer the remaining types of poor contact: Weak, Under, and Topped. The following illustrates the percentage of each during 2019, plus their average exit velocity (EV), AVG, and wOBA.
STATCAST Quality of Contact Categories
As you can see, the best struck balls – barrels, solid contact, flares/burners – create the highest probability of run production. All three have an average exit velocity over 90-MPH; the less desirable outcomes fall under 86-MPH.
According to STATCAST, the range for a “barreled” ball begins at an exit velocity of at least 98-MPH and a launch angle between 26-30 degrees. As exit velocity increases, that range of launch angles expands. To be clear, even hitters with a low average exit velocity barrel balls. They just don’t so very often.
In Smith’s case, he had a 2.2-percent barrel rate in 2019, placing him in the bottom 6-percent of the majors. Overall, he barreled eight balls last year – five produced home runs, another a double. For context, Jorge Soler led the majors with 70 barrels in 2019. Right behind Soler with 66 were Mike Trout, Pete Alonso, and Ronald Acuña Jr.
Here’s one of Smith barreled homers (105.7-MPH exit velocity).
It’s worth noting not all barreled balls lead to hits. But the odds heavily favor the batter when he barrels the ball. Frequently making this kind of contact is a characteristic shared by many of baseball’s best hitters.
Two of Smith’s barrels resulted in outs thanks to outstanding plays by defensive stalwarts Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kevin Kiermaier. Here’s Bradley’s grab made at T-Mobile Park during the first series of the 2019 season.
Solid contact just misses the launch angle/exit velocity range of barrels, but produces excellent results also. Barreled balls produced 81.7-percent of all home runs hit last season; slightly over 12-percent of the solid contact variety were four-baggers.
The last optimal category for run production – flares and burners – occurs when the hitter misses the launch angle or exit velocity necessary for barrels or solid contact. Flares generally have lower exit velocities and higher launch angles.
When it comes to flares, think of a Texas Leaguer dropping between an infielder and outfielder for a hit. Although flares create positive outcomes, batters don’t go to the plate attempting to hit them. Here’s a Smith flare off Angels lefty José Suarez.
Burners have higher exit velocities and lower launch angles and are normally associated with hard-hit grounders. Yet, only a third of burners were ground balls; the rest were line drives. Here’s an example one such ball off Smith’s bat during the last weekend of the 2019 campaign.
STATCAST defines “weak” contact as balls with an exit velocity under 60-MPH. Meanwhile, “topped” balls typically lead to unproductive grounders. Balls hit “under” create fly balls with predominantly poor results, although 394 home runs fell into this category in 2019.
Last season, Smith got under 90 balls, producing 87 outs and three hits. Thanks to his fleet feet and heads up base running, he converted two into a double and triple. The third was a home run with a 90.3-MPH exit velocity and 31.6 launch angle.
That said, this is a more representative outcome for a ball Smith got under.
With the explanations behind us, we can now consider how quality of contact related to Smith’s production in 2018-19. To simplify the process, I’ve combined the three categories favoring pitchers into one – “poor.”
Mallex Smith’s Quality of Contact Rates
As you can see, Smith experienced a small uptick in barrels last year; solid contact essentially remained the same. Still, it’s important to remember both rates placed in the bottom 7-percent of MLB in 2018-19.
The significant shifts transpired in the other categories. At the crux of Smith’s issues last season – a 6.4-percent decline in flares and burners with a comparable increase in poor contact. Reversing these trends create a more productive contributor in the Mariners’ lineup. But what exactly does “more flares and burners” mean to the socially distanced fan watching on TV?
More Line Drives!
When we separate the various type of hits into the quality categories STATCAST uses, we see the majority of flares and burners resulted in line drives. Finishing a distant second are ground balls, which favor Smith more than slower runners.
% Of MLB Hits Based On Quality Of Contact
The greatest overall success comes by producing line drives, but all line drives aren’t created equal. As the preceding table illustrates, 15.9-percent of all liners fell into the poorly hit category. Unfortunately, Smith was again on the wrong side of the league-average.
STATCAST branded a quarter of Smith’s 2019 line drives as poor contact. That’s over 10-percent higher than the year prior. His sub-optimal liners produced a .190 AVG in 2019. Conversely, he hit .836 on line drives falling into the flare/burner category.
Source Of Mallex Smith Line Drives (2018 v 2019)
It gets worse. The types of contact Smith made last year was also red flag worthy. His ground ball rate remained stable. However, line drives, fly balls, and pop ups all trended in the wrong direction. Essentially, the four-year major leaguer was hitting hit line drives at a lower rate with fewer considered well struck.
It’s worth noting pop ups are nearly as useful to pitchers as strikeouts. Therefore, increased pop ups rates are never a good thing for hitters – ever.
Mallex Smith’s Batted Ball Percentages
Some fans mistakenly believe speedy ballplayers like Smith intentionally try to hit ground balls. This isn’t true.
Yes, Smith is one of only 13 players with 1,000-plus plate appearances and ground ball rate over 50-percent since 2018. Plus, he’s able to leg out more grounders than slower his counterparts. But the Floridian’s best results were realized when the baseball wasn’t on the ground.
Although Smith doesn’t try to hit ground balls, I suspect he’d prefer avoiding his kryptonite – fly balls. As we’ve seen, he like other major leaguers, is most successful when hitting line drives. However, his difficulties with fly balls runs counter to MLB norms. This is likely attributable to a low average exit velocity.
Mallex Smith’s AVG On Batted Balls
Hitters with the highest average exit velocities – Nelson Cruz, Franmil Reyes, Jorge Soler, Josh Donaldson, Bryce Harper, Pete Alonso – can enjoy success despite higher fly ball rates. Conversely, only six of 175 players putting 300-plus balls in play last year had a lower AVG on fly balls than Smith and his 84.3-MPH average exit velocity.
Perhaps Smith simply makes the necessary adjustments to convert useless fly balls and pop ups into productive line drives. Sounds easy, but of course it isn’t. Then again, he’s just 27-years-old and previously excelled with a low average exit velocity. There’s no reason to believe he can’t repeat that success whenever the next season begins.
Still, the upcoming season is paramount to Smith’s status with the Mariners. He’ll have to demonstrate he’s the player Dipoto envisioned or risk being squeezed out sooner than later by those young outfielders. On that note, consider JeDi’s comments relayed to Mariners MLB beat writer Greg Johns in November. The fifth-year GM seemingly struck a different tone than a year prior.
“One of the great benefits with Mallex is that he can play all three outfield positions,” said Dipoto. “We needed somebody to play right field, he played right. We need him to play left, he can play left. And that may be the role that he winds up filling here now as we are developing a good deal of depth [in the outfield].” – Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto
Perhaps Dipoto now sees Smith eventually morphing into a fourth outfielder with Seattle or as a trade chip to continue the team’s rebuild. Regardless of the eventual JeDi plan, a reversion to his 2018 form benefits both Smith and the Mariners.
Hopefully, we get to watch Smith redeem himself with his Mariners teammates this summer. It would be the kind of good news story we all could use right now.
My Oh My….
Featured Photo By Elaine Thompson / AP