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It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a safe speed option on your fantasy roster that doesn’t completely drain all your other roto categories. With the sport changing to selling out for power instead of hitting for average and playing small ball, stolen bases have been a lost art. Not counting the strike-shortened 1981 and 1994 seasons, Major League Baseball seen it’s lowest stolen base total in 2018 since the DH began in the 1973 season.

A new set of legs emerged in 2018 to counter the league’s current mentality. After debuting in the bigs back in 2016, Mallex Smith played his first full year in the Majors and finally lived up to the hype revolving around his speed. Spending over half of his bats at the bottom of the order with the Tampa Bay Rays, Smith stole 40 bags last year. He accomplished it without sacrificing the AVG category as he swatted a .296 and he had pretty decent RBI and Run numbers (40 and 65 respectively).

Smith carries tremendous value heading into 2019 and this might be the last year you’ll be able to draft him outside the top-100. Find out why below.

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Minor League Legs

Check out Smith’s eye-popping minor league SB numbers by year.
2013 - 64 (Single-A)
2014 - 88 (Single-A/High-A)
2015 - 57 (Double-A/Triple-A)

For those of you counting at home, that's an average of 69.7 SB a year. Not only does he offer speed, but a high batting average to go with it as well. Good plate discipline numbers helped a career .294 minor league average, including a high .347 in Double-A. Career minor league rates of 10.5% BB% and 0.60 BB/K aren’t typically this high of numbers seen by these types of stolen base threats. Caution must be taken with the lack of power, in which he severely lacks, only 16 total HR from 2012 to 2016. The good news is he’s accepted the fact that he’s not a power guy and drove the ball on the ground over 55% of the time, smart mentality for a speedster.

 

Major League Transition

Smith saw a big developmental jump in 2018. Besides HR, he set new career-highs across the board in all the other roto categories as well as a new high in OBP (.367). Much of his success was due to career-highs in LD% (24.9%), Hard% (27.1%), and SwStr% (11.5%). Smith needs to put the ball in play and let his legs get him on base. He hits the ball 33.3% of the time to the opposite field, third-most in baseball.

This understanding is ideal for a left-handed hitter as it’s harder for an infielder on the left side of the diamond to throw out a runner. The ability to spray the ball all over the field also makes him unable to shift against, so there’s no defensive advantage there. Pitchers also don’t have an advantage against him either as he hits lefties better than righties. His .337 AVG against southpaws is tied with Christian Yelich for the league lead by a left-handed swinger.

His 40 SB last season with the Rays put Smith third in baseball behind Whit Merrifield (45) and Trea Turner (43). He managed to do this with over 150 fewer at-bats. Statcast also had him third in sprint speed, of runners with 200 opportunities his 29.8 ft/sec trailed only Turner and continuing SB threat Billy Hamilton who both sat at 30.1. An improvement in success rate would cement him as a top speed option as his career success rate is just 74.2%.

 

2019 Expectations

Dealt this offseason to the Seattle Mariners for Mike Zunino, Smith is going to be the M’s everyday center fielder. It’ll be worth monitoring in spring training as to who will bat leadoff. Dee Gordon will turn 31 this April, and his speed numbers have had a slow decline with age over the last couple of seasons. Gordon also had an abysmal .288 OBP in his first year in Seattle, terrible for a leadoff hitter. If Smith doesn’t begin the year in the leadoff spot, he’ll be sure to take it over at some point.

The Mariners still have solid run producers in Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager and Edwin Encarnacion, so the run numbers should pile up even with the departures of Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. There’s nothing in his swing to suggest he will deter from hitting the ball hard and on the ground or as a line drive, so the 25-year-old has an excellent chance to repeat in the AVG category.

The higher the spot in the order the more opportunities for SB there will be. A 50-theft season is in all likelihood even with the sub-par success rate, and he has the potential to lead the MLB. Be cautious that with speed the HR output is next to nothing, as he’ll only provide a handful. Do not let the power numbers discourage you, finding HR bats in your draft will be much easier to get than SB. There were 27 players with 30 HR in 2018 compared to only 11 players with 30 SB. Over the last few years, Billy Hamilton was getting selected in the 40-50 range, he carried a little bit better SB potential, but his AVG was a roster drain. This fact makes Smith’s 100.4 ADP look even more satisfying and will save you from searching for elite speed in the late rounds.

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