In 2019 Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Jake Lamb went down with an injury and was replaced by Christian Walker. Lamb ended up getting cut by Arizona the following season after Walker had taken his job for good. But now the tables have turned.
Walker has missed almost all of the young 2021 season and when he returns healthy he may not have a job, much like Lamb two seasons ago. The culprit this time? Pavin Smith.
First it was Walker getting hurt, then Ketel Marte, then Tim Locastro. Smith has filled in for all three, starting games in all three outfield spots plus first base since April 1. Since then his triple slash of .271/.311/.457 isn’t so much awe inspiring as it is serviceable for a major league club. That’s good for a .331 wOBA and 108 wRC+ which is similar to Walker’s (.334 wOBA, 105 wRC+) and Marte’s ( .338 wOBA, 109 wRC+) career marks. Marte certainly won’t lose playing time to Smith upon his return, especially since he can play the infield, but Walker and Locastro may each be in danger because I think we may be witnessing a Pavin Smith breakout.
A decent hit too mixed with good raw power made Pavin Smith a one-time top-100 prospect coming in at 91st on MLB Pipeline’s pre-2018 list. Fangraphs had him among the top-10 Arizona prospects this spring, but with just a 45 future value grade he didn’t crack the overall top-100. Aside from 44 PAs in the bigs in 2020 Smith has been an above average hitter everywhere he’s played. wRC+ marks of 136, 101, and 142 in A-, A+, and double-A, respectively and almost exactly as many walks as strikeouts (143 BB to 150 K) backed by sub-7% swinging-strike rates suggest that Smith’s bat is for real.
What really excites me, however, is Smith’s plate discipline, contact skills, quality of contact and versatility. In his small 2020 sample Smith looked good (.357 xwOBA, .394 xwOBACON) but he wasn’t hitting the ball particularly hard and made contact at a league average rate. In 2021 Smith statcast profile is red in all the right places.
(Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.com)
The 80th percentile max exit velocity and 92nd percentile hard-hit rate (rate at which balls are batted at 95 MPH or higher) stand out to me the most. That’s exactly what you want from a hitter – a demonstrated ability to hit the ball really hard and with frequency. Smith also has a knack for hitting the ball hard when he puts in in the air, evidenced by his 97.2 MPH average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, which ties him for 21st in baseball. His 30% flyball rate is up from 22% in 2020 and is climbing still, which is good news for the power department.
(Image courtesy of Fangraphs.com)
And while you’d like to see a better walk rate, Smith’s better-than-average strikeout rate is supported by low whiff and chase rates. He’s also making contact more often (83%, up from 76% in 2020), especially on pitches in the zone (94%, up from 86% in 2020). The only thing Smith could do better is simply swing more. A 40% swing rate is perhaps too passive for someone capable of so much contact in the zone and such hard contact.
Lastly Smith has played 10 games in the outfield and 7 at first base, likely qualifying for both spots in your league. And if he doesn’t he will soon. Dual eligibility is always great to have as is someone who is leading off for his team, like Smith has done in Arizona’ last 7 games. To rely on Smith so much as to bat him first with regularity means the Diamondbacks have no intentions of taking him out of their lineup even when everyone is fully healthy. And if that’s correct we could be looking at at a .270 average, 20+ home run bat the rest of the way.
Who else is on the verge of breaking out? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on twitter @JoeyThomasD!