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2021 Arizona Diamondbacks Player Reviews, #7: Pavin Smith

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What kind of season did the Pit’s Rookie of the Year have?

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Rating: 6.50

Age: Turned 25 on February 6

2021 Stats: 145 G, 545 PA, .267/.328/.404 = .732 OPS, 98 OPS+, 11 HR, 49 RBI, -0.3 bWAR/0.3 fWAR

2021 Earnings: League minimum

2022 Status: Pre-arbitration, arbitration eligible 2024


Introduction

Pavin Smith was selected seventh overall in the 2017 draft. The selectin of Smith was essentially Mike Hazen’s first marquee decision after being named General Manager of the Diamondbacks. At the time of the draft, Smith’s bat was considered the most polished of the collegiate bats in the draft, a point that was leaned heavily upon to account for taking a non-power-hitting first baseman in the upper echelons of the first round. Adding to a bit of the confusion on draft night was that Paul Goldschmidt was the incumbent first baseman for the Diamondbacks at the time and was in the midst of an MVP-caliber season, hitting .306 with a .999 OPS and playing Gold Glove defense at the time of the draft. To say that Smith’s introduction to the media on draft night was an awkward one would be putting it mildly. The young man was trying to celebrate and enjoy the fact that his life had just changed drastically and that he was about to come into life-changing money for his family. Meanwhile, the first barrage of non-canned questions (“How does it feel to be drafted?) revolved around how he felt about the perceived inevitable move to left field - a position he played once a week in college, on nights when the next selection in the draft, Adam Haseley would pitch for Virginia. Smith was fairly firm and confident that he had been drafted as a first baseman and that it was his intention to stick there, though he would of course play where he was told. That led to the second barrage of questions, mostly regarding how he saw that playing out with Paul Goldschmidt ensconced at first. It was almost painfully obvious that this was not a discussion Smith wanted to be having. Frankly, I cannot say as I blame him. Following draft night, the comps started flying for Smith, pegging him somewhere in the range of the lame version of James Loney, to Lyle Overbay, to the solid version of John Olerud. All of the evaluators seemed to agree on one thing though; Smith might hit, even hitting for average, but he was never likely to hit for enough power to be a first-tier first baseman. This only increased the skepticism of taking Smith so high in the draft. In Mike Hazen’s defense, in the months and years following the draft, he has commented that, had there been more time to prepare for the draft, Smith is unlikely to have been the pick at #7, but that Smith’s profile made him a safe, potential quality selection with the seventh pick. Of course, hindsight is nearly always 20/20 in these sorts of things.

Smith’s debut as a professional came later in the summer of 2017, when he was assigned to A- Hillsboro. The results were something of a mixed bag. Smith did indeed hit for average. He also walked more times (27) than he struck out (24) in the 51 games he played. Also on display, was a total lack of power. His doubles were liners and grounders which managed to find the gap and he posted no home runs in 195 at-bats. 2018 saw Smith promoted to A+ ball. That did not go nearly as well. The average dropped significantly. The strikeouts began to creep up, and the power dropped off even further. By the time the Arizona Fall League rolled around, there were significant questions about whether or not he was going to hit enough to move up the ladder, especially as a 1B/DH type. Then the Diamondbacks traded Paul Goldschmidt, creating a wide-open path to the Majors for Smith. The response to that opportunity was underwhelming, to say the least. 2019 saw Smith open the season in AA ball. The performance was mostly more of the same. Halfway through the season, there were questions about whether or not AA was going to end him. Then, he started to slowly trend in the right direction and finished the year on a fairly good run. He finished the season with 59 walks against 61 strikeouts and elevated his OPS to .835. The notable difference during his improved performance was that he began to add a bit more loft into his flat Virginia-taught swing. The power still was not showing up as much as one would hope, but the profile of extreme ground baller was slowly being re-written. Then, 2020 happened, sending Smith to the alt-site, where he continued to work on refining his swing. COVID, injuries, and performance issues opened the door just a crack, giving Smith an opportunity to debut in late 2020, paving the way for him to open the season on the roster in 2021.

2021

Smith was the Day 1 starter in right field, going 1-for-2 with a double. His first complete game came on the third game of the season, when he went 1-for-3, again playing in right field. Through the first eleven games of the season, Smith was part of the starting lineup seven times. Through that time, Smith was hitting a respectable .241/.290/.414. He had one home run and two doubles to go along with his two walks and six strikeouts. When he was making contact, Smith looked like a big leaguer. When he was swinging and missing, he looked woefully overmatched. In the field, he seemed average at best. Then something strange happened.

On April 17th, Pavin Smith was once again in the starting lineup. Except Smith was not playing right field, or left field, or even first base. No, Smith was the starting center fielder. This seemed like an odd assignment for Smith. After all, his defensive profile was one of a 1B/DH with the possible potential to not completely suck in left field. However, the Arizona outfield was undergoing all sorts of issues at the time. When strange combinations of performance issues and injuries hit a team, oddities sometimes happen. Longtime fans of the Diamondbacks will remember that Chris Herrmann started a game in center field in 2016. Sometimes, these things just happen. Before the first pitch of the game was even thrown, the questions started to be asked about how well Smith would handle moving into center, a position he had never played before. This is how he responded:

Once the game was over, Diamondbacks fans were able to breathe a bit easier. Smith had gone 1-for-4 and even managed to be a net positive defensively for the day. Then, another oddity occurred. Smith began to get regular starts in center. Almost immediately, it became clear that the highlight above was indeed a player playing out of position making what should have been a routine play. The diving attempt was exciting. The mechanics to protect the catch and the ball were good to see. Smith did everything right and maximized his athletic talent. But that did not mean he belonged in center field. Yet, Mike Hazen had Tory Lovullo stick to the concept. By the end of the season, Smith logged 252 innings in center field, accounting for -10 defensive runs saved. That’s -48 defensive runs per year/1200 innings. This was not a matter of Smith getting bad jumps or taking poor routes. This was a matter of Smith not even being in the same zip code when some balls came landing in the outfield. The shortcoming, however, was not so much on him as the organization’s insistence on running him out there over and over again. Some of this, was due to outfield injuries. Some of this was due to the desire to keep Smith’s bat in the lineup. Most of it though, seemed to be entirely about an unwillingness to accept that Smith had no business patrolling center - none.

The desire to keep Smith’s bat in the lineup, even at the cost of him playing center was a suspect one all along. While learning to play center and bouncing around all over the outfield and playing first, Smith’s bat continued to drop off. Those watching with regularity could tell when he was most comfortable - games when he was manning first base. Smith’s best offensive position was first base, by a decent margin. Second was center field, though his overall hitting as an outfielder fielder was below average.

Smith’s biggest offensive contribution came on May 27th, when he played first and went 2-for-4 with two doubles and three RBI in a 10-inning loss to the Cardinals. Smith’s contribution was good for .508 win probability added. Alas, Paul Goldschmidt doubled home the Manfred Man in the 10th, ruining the chances of Smith’s strong day resulting in a win.

All-in-all, Smith’s 2021 was a rollercoaster affair, with most of the dips not being of his own making. His bat showed flashes of being a high average, high on-base bat that could work well either in the two-hole or right behind the heart of the order. Other times, Smith still seemed baffled by Major League off-speed pitches. While his walks no longer kept pace with his strikeouts 42:106, he maintained a walk rate over 8%. For the season, his OBP was a decent .328. He even managed to pull 11 home runs. Yes, all of his home runs were pool-side, pull-side. Smith led the team in plate appearances and hits and was second only to David Peralta in terms of games in which he appeared. As a rookie player who spent more than half the season playing out of position, Smith’s overall performance was an acceptable one, though one that still raises questions about just how long he can stick at the top level.

2022 and Beyond

The offseason trade for Jordan Luplow and the decision to tender Christian Walker muddies the waters for Smith’s future. Looking at the numbers of David Peralta and Pavin Smith side-by-side, the two had very similar seasons at the plate, though Peralta was much better on the bases and did lead the league in triples. Still, this gives some idea that perhaps Smith could find himself an everyday home in left field should the need arise. Regardless of where he plays, the front office has done nothing but show confidence in the young man at every turn. His age and the fact that he will only be entering his second season create the expectation that Smith will once again be an everyday player for the Snakes. This changes the question from whether or not Smith will be playing to, where will Smith be playing?

The biggest thing Smith can do to improve his stock moving forward is to continue adding loft to his swing. His present power is still well-below average for a corner position player. With more power will come more walks, helping him regain his reputation as a high OBP player. With Smith’s erratic profile and the numerous other players all vying for time at his most likely positions, it is difficult to tell whether or not Smith will figure into the plans of the next competitive Diamondbacks team. One thing that will surely help him succeed though, would be if the organization stopped setting him up to fail by putting him in center field.