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A new Mallex Smith?

The Rays’ replacement for the injured Kevin Kiermaier might have found some power in Durham.

Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Kiermaier fractured his hip sliding into first base in the fifth inning of a six-run game on Thursday night, and is expected to miss at least two months. After a slow start at the plate, Kiermaier had rebounded a bit, raising his slash line to .258/.329/.408 with a wRC+ of 101 by the time of his injury. For some reason UZR did not like Kiermaier so far this season, but because defensive metrics are very unstable in small samples, and because his Def ratings over full seasons (15.5, 32, 13.8) have been extremely strong, let’s go ahead and assume that Kiermaier has been providing his characteristic elite defense in center.

This injury is obviously a huge bummer for the Rays, who have remained competitive (32-31, 3 games back from the wild card) in a very tough AL East so far this year. But they can take solace in the fact that they had the presence of mind to trade for Mallex Smith five months before Kiermaier’s ill-fated slide.

Smith was called up and inserted into the leadoff spot last night, and went 2-3 with 3 stolen bases and a home run. So this problem is already solved. But on the off-chance that Smith won’t do that every night, let’s take a quick look at his profile to assess the chances that Smith can replace Kiermaier’s production for the Rays over the next two months or so.

A Tallahassee native, Smith was a 13th-round draft pick out of high school in 2011, but elected to take a junior college year, after which he was selected by the Padres in the 5th round of the 2012 draft. Smith quickly earned the 80 tag for his speed, swiping 64 bags in 2013, his first full season in the Midwest League. He followed that up by stealing 88 bases in 2014 with a walk rate over 12 percent and a 134 wRC+. The Padres then traded him to the Braves in the Justin Upton deal.

Smith showed some red flags upon making it to triple-A halfway through the 2015 season: his walk-rate and speed-aided BABIP both declined at the new level, and he still wasn’t hitting for any power. After a disappointing and injury-shortened rookie campaign for the Braves in 2016 (84 wRC+ in 72 games), Smith (who was blocked by a crowded Atlanta outfield) was traded twice in one day this offseason, as Seattle sent pitching prospects (including its number 3 prospect, Luiz Gohara) to Atlanta, then flipped Smith to the Rays as part of a package for Drew Smyly.

Now in his age-24 season, Smith was briefly up with the Rays in April, but has spent the majority of his time this season (30 games) with the Triple-A Durham Bulls, where he has turned a more aggressive approach into a significant power increase. His batted ball profile shows nominal 5 percent increases in both his line drive rate and fly ball rate, yet he is still running a .373 BABIP. While his walk rate is down to 5 percent, his strikeout rate (19.3 percent) is still below his career average. In 75 fewer plate appearances, Smith has only 2 fewer extra base hits than he had all last year in the majors, yielding a SLG of .477, which is the highest of his career and a full 100 points above his career average.

The sample size is only 140 plate appearances, the competition level is lower, and the BABIP seems unsustainably high, even for a player as fast as Smith. But it does appear that Smith is trying to hit the ball in the air more, and that, at least so far, he’s been able to add some power in the process.

In the field, Mallex Smith’s speed covers for some lingering issues with routes and instincts, although he appears to have shown continuous improvement in that regard. Scouts also grade his arm as below average. Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA, a limited defensive stat but one which, nonetheless, is available for minor leaguers, shows a 4.0 rating for Smith this year in Durham, up from 3.0 in the majors last year and his highest rating in that stat to date. The charts below show Statcast’s assessment of his defensive performance last year with the Braves, where he earned a 2.5 Def rating.

Chart by MLB Advanced Media
Chart by MLB Advanced Media

Of course, no team wants to lose a player of Kiermaier’s caliber. But the Rays’ misfortune is also an opportunity to see whether Smith’s adjustment can last. And after Friday’s game, it sure is off to an interesting start.

All statistics current through June 9, 2017

Ross Drath is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on twitter @looselids.