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The irresistible rise of Pavin Smith

He has gone from a bench player to a potential Rookie of the Year candidate.

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Arizona Diamondbacks v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

In Tuesday night’s dramatic victory over the Mets, it was Josh Rojas and Josh Reddick who got all the glory, tying the game in the ninth and winning it respectively. But key elements in the victory belonged to Pavin Smith. He had first brought the D-backs back into the game, with his three-run homer in the sixth, which made it a one-run game. But then, with one out in the tenth, he came back from an 0-2 count to draw a walk. He then scored the winning run on Reddick’s drive, just fair down the right field line. It was the latest bit of success for the 25-year-old left-hander. He is now being openly talked about as a potential long-term occupant of first base, drawing comparisons to Mark Grace.

Smith made his first appearances for the Diamondbacks in September last year, being promoted when the club eventually cut ties with Jake Lamb. He had almost become the forgotten man among Arizona’s prospects, since being drafted in the first round of the 2017 draft, the seventh overall pick. That’s understandable, as some of his minor league numbers through the end of 2019 were nothing special. He showed good plate discipline, with almost as many walks (143) as strikeouts (150). But for someone who played mostly at first-base, the power was underwhelming. Over 294 games in the minors, he hit only 23 home-runs, and Smith was perhaps better-liked for paying off his parent’s mortgage:

When he reached the big league in September, he mentioned that he had been able to use his time at the alternate site, to adjust his swing and improve his launch angle. Smith described the changes as, “Staying behind the ball and getting my foot down earlier. I would tend to drift forward, and when I would drift forward I would hit the top of the ball instead of staying back and hitting the bottom of the ball more.” That translated into a decent showing over a dozen games in September, hitting .270 with an OPS+ of 99. He then made the Opening Day line-up this year - but not at first-base, starting in right field due to the absence of Kole Calhoun.

He had his share of struggles. Through his first 15 games, he had a .656 OPS, with four times as many strikeouts as walks. Oddly, it was a shift to center field which seemed to trigger an improvement for Smith. The emergency move was necessary after Tim Locastro dislocated his finger, with Ketel Marte already out of action. But it was something GM Mike Hazen had foreshadowed the previous September, saying “(He’s) to the point now that we wouldn’t hesitate to run him out there in center field.” It was a bit unusual, because Smith’s speed - generally seen as a necessity at the position - has never been that great. [Per Statcast, at 26.6 ft/sec, he’s below average for an MLB player]

He didn’t embarrass himself or the team, and posted positive metrics at the position. Still, it was likely a relief when the need was no longer there. Another injury opened a more normal door for Smith, with Christian Walker’s balky oblique giving him the chance to start on an everyday basis at his natural position of first-base. That’s where the Pavin Smith story really took off, even as the team foundered around him. Beginning May 14, he has started every game bar one, all but one of those at first base. Smith has an ongoing 13-game hitting streak, the best by a Diamondback since Goldy reached 14 in August 2018, and including five consecutive multi-hit games, the longest from an Arizona rookie since 2015.

Going into play yesterday, he had 1.0 bWAR, behind only Carson Kelly among healthy D-backs (it also trailed Asdrubal Cabrera). That ranks him equal second among NL rookies, behind the Cardinals’ Dylan Carlson. If Pavin can keep up this pace, he will potentially be worth close to three bWAR. That would be impressive, since there have been just a pair of rookie position players for the D-backs to reach that mark in franchise history. A.J. Pollock was worth 3.1 bWAR in 2013, and the following season, Ender Inciarte reached 3.3 bWAR. The latter received Rookie of the Year mentions, so if Pavin can keep this up, he may potentially become the first D-back since Yoshihisa Hirano in 2018 to appear on a ballot.

One area which has been particularly interesting to watch Smith develop, is the increase in his patience at the plate. As mentioned above, this was a feature in the minors, with a K:BB of not far off one. But initially, he seemed a bit quick on the trigger. His first twenty plate-appearances averaged only 3.1 pitches/PA - clearly not enough for a walk. But that number has gradually - if not steadily - increased over the course of the year. Nothing illustrages that better than the SIXTEEN pitch at-bat he had against the Mets’ Jason Barnes on May 9, fouling off ten two-strike pitches before finally going down. It tied a franchise record, last matched by, of all people, Rusty Ryal, who had a 16-pitch at-bat in September 2010.

But below, you can see what I mean. It shows a 10 PA rolling average of Smith’s pitches per plate appearance this year, along with the trend line. If this keeps up, Pavin could get up into the 4+ range, which is kinda elite, and should allow his plate discipline to become a very useful weapon.

With his performance improving as he saw regular starts, it does seem the team is increasingly inclined to commit to Smith as the “strong” i.e. left-handed, half of a platoon at first base. One wonders whether this means Christian Walker is now largely surplus to requirements, and potentially trade-bait? That said, Pavin has been merely okay (OPS = .698) versus left-handed hitting this year, and a right-handed hitter with some potential thump is never a bad thing to have on your bench. It may also be worth remembering that Smith still has barely 250 PAs in the majors, and things can still change as the league adjusts to him, and he adjusts to the league.

But the potential is there, and seems closer to be being realized than for many prospects we’ve seen in the past few years. If nothing else, he may well be the best red-headed hitter the Diamondbacks have had, since the glory days of Chad Tracy!