To steal the bases one must get on the bases. Mallex Smith is doing that and more.
January 11, 2017 was a very busy and life-changing day for Smith. In a matter of hours, he was traded from the Atlanta Braves to the Seattle Mariners and then to the Tampa Bay Rays. On the same day. Smith, 25, played in 81 games last year for the Rays bouncing between AAA Durham and the majors. He had a modest year at the plate, hitting .270 with a .686 OPS for a bottom of the order guy who platooned at all three positions in the outfield.
Fast-forward to Opening Day 2018. Mallex has made the Opening Day roster and hasn’t looked back.
Up and down to leading off
After tearing up the month of April hitting .329 with an .807 OPS, Mallex struggled in May and June. As the calendar turned to the second half of the season, he put the pedal to the floor and has become one of the better lead-off hitters in the game. July and August were absolutely torrid months for the young outfielder after moving into the lead-off spot. He posted a .377/.435/.607 July with a ridiculous 1.041 OPS for a player that doesn’t hit home runs. Then in August, he quite nearly outdid himself posting a slash of .389/.476/569 and a 1.046 OPS. Again, for a player who’s only hit 2 home runs all season – that’s nearly unheard of numbers.
The Rays struggled to find a true lead-off hitter all season. The experiment of having Kevin Kiermaier in that spot seemingly failed, especially with the constant injuries. Insert Mallex who’s posted some pretty impressive numbers in the #1 spot in the order. In 111 at-bats since moving to that spot, he’s hitting .315/.367/.414 with a .781 OPS.
Though September has seen him cool off significantly (.217/.280/.217, .497 OPS) he did something Saturday that hasn’t been done by a Rays player in six years.
Joining the 30+ club
In the Rays 10-5 win over the Orioles on Saturday, Mallex became the first player since 2012 to steal 30 bases in a season. It came on a double-steal in front of Joey Wendle who stole his 12th of the season, himself. The last player(s) to do it were Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton during that 2012 season. Both of them finished the season with 31 stolen bags.
What’s in store for Mallex?
With a surplus of outfield talent on the current roster and in the wings, Mallex’s future with the Rays might not be certain heading into 2019. It’s almost a sure thing the outfield next season will consist primarily of Tommy Pham, Kiermaier, and rookie Austin Meadows. Having Mallex off the bench to spell any one of those three would be quite the asset. Though a case can be made he’s ready to be an every day player. Unfortunately that may not be in Tampa with the way it’s shaping up heading into next season.
Or maybe it will be. Pham will be 31 in March and will be heading to arbitration in January. As a player who finished 11th in the NL MVP voting in 2017 – he might be due a significant raise that the Rays might not be comfortable shelling out. Especially with the youth movement in full swing and Mallex coming much cheaper with much more control (arb-eligible in 2020). If the Rays want a power-hitting, middle of the order outfielder they’ll have it in Meadows. Kiermaier is having a down year at the plate but he’s shown he has pop in that left-handed bat.
If I had to guess, just based on what I see the Rays leaning towards as the model in their success – Pham stays. Mallex is having a fantastic year and that could be very attractive to someone in the off-season. The Rays might just ship him out for a decent return and keep the veteran in left field for a full season on a team that’s right on the brink of contention with their youth movement. But don’t put it past this front office to find a place for Mallex’s bat in the lineup as often as possible. He’s a spark plug, great locker room guy, and become quite the hitter. His defense has improved since struggling early on and can play all three outfield spots.
No matter where Mallex plays in 2019, it’s been fun watching him develop this year. If it winds up being his last with the Rays – Tampa is where “The Mallex Effect” was born and will always be remembered.
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