(Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)
Mallex Smith is a player whose name you should know already, as he’s one of the most added players in fantasy baseball at the moment. His ownership over the past week has skyrocketed, all the way up to 31% on Yahoo and 15% on ESPN. Wait, he’s still barely owned? Stop what you’re doing, go check your leagues, and if Mallex is available, you need to grab him. There’s a legitimate chance Smith ends the season as a top 5 player in stolen bases, and that alone makes him a must add in all categories leagues.
Before we get any further, let’s take a quick second to compare Smith to a few other similar players. The following table shows the average of three years of minor league data for Smith, as well as two players currently listed in the top 70 of last week’s Hitter List, using the three years prior to them becoming a regular MLB player.
Looks pretty similar, right? Obviously, the absurd number of stolen bases from Player B stick out like a sore thumb, but other than that, we are looking at very similar skillsets overall. Similar batting average, BABIP, walk percentages, strikeout percentages, these guys all pretty much look like the same player. If you could choose, which of those players would you want?
The first player on that list is Smith, but the second is Billy Hamilton (currently owned in 90% of leagues on Yahoo), and the third player is Dee Gordon. That’s pretty good company to be with, and I truly believe that he will be able to produce up to the same level as these other speedsters. Smith has all the skills to challenge for the stolen base title this year, and for most of you fantasy owners out there, he’s still available on the waiver wire.
One of the biggest reasons why Smith is so available was that there were major question marks about his playing time when the season started. There’s no doubt that he was an exciting prospect for the Rays, a team that should be playing their prospects regularly, but new acquisitions Denard Span and Carlos Gomez left owners wondering whether Smith would be playing every day or not. Now with Kevin Kiermaier headed to the 60 day DL, and Smith playing the last two days against lefty starting pitchers, it’s clear that Smith will have a regular role moving forward.
So why should we believe that Smith can potentially steal 60 bases this year and be a force in categories leagues? First of all, he’s got the speed. When he was first called up in 2016, Baseball Prospectus mentioned that he had true 80-grade speed, the same grade that megastars Speedy Gonzales and the Road Runner would have earned. Smith swiped 88 bags across two levels in 2014 and followed that up with 57 stolen bases in just 126 games in 2015. If there is one thing he can do, it’s run. In fact, last season he ranked 13th in Sprint Speed per Statcast, at 29.2 feet per second. That’s just behind Hamilton at 30.1 ft/s and ties him with players like Trea Turner and Rajai Davis.
What really excites me about Mallex Smith though, is his potential to be a better hitting version of Hamilton. Part of Hamilton’s problem is that he tries to put the ball in the air too much, something that a career 23% soft contact rate and 18% hard contact rate hitter shouldn’t be doing. It leads to more pop-ups (career 10.4% pop-up rate compared to Smith’s 7%) and less of a chance to use his speed to earn extra hits. Fast players like Hamilton tend to have BABIPs north of .330, as they are able to get more infield singles, but his career BABIP is .304, pretty paltry for a player of his speed. Smith, on the other hand, doesn’t try to do too much, and his career BABIP of .342 is more along the lines of what we should expect. He also is a more patient hitter, with a career walk rate at 8.6% (about two points higher than Hamilton). He displayed a walk rate north of 11% for pretty much his entire minor league career, so it’s something he’s been able to do on a consistent basis throughout his career so far.
At the end of the day, Smith is still going to be a one-category monster who will be able to contribute somewhat in batting average and runs scored. In this current steals environment, that makes him a must-own player, especially since we all consider Hamilton a must-own player. I do believe strongly that Smith will end up being the better fantasy player this year, and you need to make sure you pick him up before someone else does.