When Pavin Smith was drafted with the seventh pick of the 2017 draft, it was quite the surprise. Smith was lauded for his plate discipline and power, but while his plate discipline was as good as advertised, his power definitely wasn’t. In fact, Pavin Smith didn’t hit his first home run of his professional career until his second season in the Arizona farm system. Despite an increase in power output, Pavin’s batting line in Hi-A Visalia (.255/.343/.392) was worse than it was in Hillsboro (.318/.401/.415).
Pavin was looking like a bust in AA, before some very minor adjustments lead to a complete resurgence that allowed him to bring his batting line up to .291/.370/.466, an exactly 100 point increase in OPS. He won Player of the Month honors for July 2019 in the Southern League, and his .835 OPS was third highest in the league. The team's director of player development, Josh Barfield, said, “He really, really worked hard on not only his swing but also his body and getting himself into better shape... You could tell right there, ‘OK, this is the guy that we drafted and he figured something out.’
Expected to start the year in Reno, the pandemic ended any chance of Pavin being able to build on that. And a solid half-season wasn’t enough to undo the significant damage done to his standing as a prospect. Smith was still ranked only as Arizona’s #24 prospect by MLB Pipeline in June this year, as he started the season off at the alternate training site. His chance to reach the majors came at the expense of another. On September 10, the team designated Jake Lamb for assignment, opening up a spot for Smith. He told our own Isaiah Burrows, “I like the progress that I’ve made this year… I made a couple of adjustments to my swing, and it’s something I may not have been able to do during a season. So I’m grateful for this time to tinker around and experiment a little bit.”
He had primarily played as a first baseman in the minors. However, he made his major-league debut in right field, going 1-for-4 against the Mariners on September 12. His first hit was a single in the ninth, coming off former Diamondback reliever, Yoshihisa Hirano. Down the stretch, Pavin saw a decent amount of time, starting at both corner outfield positions, but mostly at first. He got his first home-run in the nightcap of September 25's double-header against the Rockies, taking A.J. Ramos deep, and ended the season with a solid 99 OPS+.
Now, Pavin Smith appeared in only 12 games, and received just 44 plate appearances. Normally you’d write off such a small sample size, so keep that in mind. Smith’s .270/.341/.405 batting line works out to a 98 wRC+, just below average. Smith displayed an excellent eye at the plate, walking 11.4% of the time. Smith’s biggest problem, going all the way back to his first season in the minors, has been his lack of power, combined with realistically being limited to first base or left field. Smith did make some minor adjustments midway through the 2019 season, but the results of 2020 are more similar to his numbers prior to the adjustment versus after the adjustments.
Looking at his Statcast numbers, one metric in particular sticks out like a a sore thumb. Smith’s 8.1 degree launch angle is extremely flat, which led to 45.2% of his batted balls being hit on the ground. His average exit velocity - 86.6 mph - and his max exit velocity (104.9) were both below average. This is something he had looked to change last year. Pavin explained to Isaiah Burrows that he worked to stay more on his back foot, getting his right foot down earlier, in order to get the ball in the air. The results in the majors (though again, small sample size) indicate there still may be work needed in this aspect of his game.
According to the player, “It was more of a mental thing for me here. I made the mechanical adjustments in the minors, but now I’m staying focused and paying attention to those small details.” Still, Smith appreciated the unexpected chance he got this year, despite the unusual circumstances, and absence of spectators in the stands: “I enjoyed every moment of it. I got to ease into it all a little bit without much pressure. A lot of guys get heckled by fans in the outfield, but I didn’t have that my first year and it’s not a bad thing. It made me more confident and ready for next year.”
Pavin Smith is certainly going to have to increase that launch angle if he’s going to succeed as a first baseman or corner outfielder in the long-term. His power output, as of now, is just insufficient for either position. A problem for his future in the outfield is, he's a left-handed bat. Between David Peralta, Kole Calhoun and SnakePit Rookie of the Year, Daulton Varsho, Arizona has quite a few of those already. Given this, his best shot at playing time might be as a platoon partner with Christian Walker at first, especially with Kevin Cron's fall from grace and subsequent departure for Japan removing him from the picture. A positive is that most of the team's top position player prospects are still young, so may not be directly competing with Smith in 2021.