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A tale of three second-year Diamondbacks: Pavin Smith is having the typical ups and downs

Pavin Smith has shown improved contact in 2022, but that has come with some warts.

Kansas City Royals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

In the first progress report, I talked about Daulton Varsho developing into a star player. The second will cover Pavin Smith and his struggles for the 2022 season. Smith is a former first rounder at a corner position whose bat hasn’t developed in the way the Diamondbacks have hoped, but has done enough to get an extended look at the MLB level.

In 2021, Smith broke camp with the team although what position he played was very dependent on the health of players at other positions. The team deployed him as a first baseman and all three outfield positions. Despite the rest of the roster dropping like flies due to injuries, Smith was one of the few players who stayed healthy through the course of the season as he appeared in 145 games and took 545 plate appearances for Arizona in 2021. Over the season, Smith batted .267/.328/.404 with 11 homers and was 4% less productive than the league average hitter with a wRC+ of 96. As a result of playing out of position for most of the year and unimpressive production at the plate, Smith only put up 0.1 bWAR/fWAR with Arizona that season.

Looking at his Statcast profile from 2021, Smith was a below average hitter. While showing a good eye for the strike zone and rarely chasing out, Smith had difficulty punishing hittable strikes. One common problem in his professional career was a high ground ball rate, which he hit 47.8% of the time in 2021. That limited the impact of a hard-hit rate (95+ MPH exit velocity) of 42.7%, which ranked in the 63rd percentile amongst MLB players that season. Hitting the ball in the air with authority also proved to be somewhat problematic for Smith, whose average exit velocity on fly ball and line drive contact clocked in at 92.3 MPH and a barrel rate of 3.7% per plate appearance. For those two metrics, Smith ranked 103rd and 111th out of 132 qualified hitters on the Statcast leaderboard.

While 2021 certainly wasn’t a statistically great year for Smith, it was a chance of him to establish himself in the big leagues and prepare for the road ahead. For the 2022 season, the D-backs needed to limit the amount of positions he needed to play and also to limit his exposure to left-handed pitchers. Against lefties in 2021 Smith struggled to a .239/.309/.299 slash, where the lack of loud contact made him a liability against southpaws. As a result of those struggles, the team looked to keep Christian Walker in the fold coming off a down year and trade for Jordan Luplow.

Pavin Smith’s 2022 season up to this point has been quite bizarre to say the least. That’s been the overlying theme of his career, as progress for Smith has mostly been one step back then two steps forward. He’s certainly making more meaningful contact, as his hard-hit rate of 41.7% is in the 59th percentile amongst MLB hitters and his barrel rate has exploded to 9.4% per plate appearance, good for the 19th best mark amongst all qualified hitters, with Christian Walker being the only D-back to best that mark. It does come with an increase in fly ball and pull rates in 2022, with Smith’s fly ball rate jumping from 22.4% to 28.6% and his pull rate increasing from 34.4% to 39.3%. At the same time, it’s come at the expense of line drives as his ground ball rate has increased from 47.8% to 51.2%, which has caused his average to drop due to a decreased amount of line drives.

Unless his approach is selling out for power, I can’t seem to reconcile those changes other than he’s trying to improve his batted ball outcomes but is inconsistent at doing so. There have been at-bats where he’s been paralyzed by over-analysis, taking very hittable pitches in the strike zone early in counts before striking out. That was very evident in a stretch from May 6th through May 19th, where Smith struck out in 22 of 51 PA. Those 22 strikeouts account for nearly half of his yearly total of 46, so while there is an elevated strikeout rate compared to years past, his strikeout rate will not be anywhere close to 30% when the season is over. From what I can glean from this, it’s a situation where we probably need to exhibit more patience if you believe the bat will develop. After Monday’s win against the Royals, in which he hit a 444-ft home run, he talked about making swing changes to be able to make more impactful contact.

Pavin Smith audio (focus around the 2:00 mark)

As of the publishing of this article, Smith has hit .237/.322/.412 with 6 homers and a wRC+ of 109 in 149 plate appearances for the 2022 season. While his PA split of right vs. left is 2 to 1, Smith has struggled against left-handed pitchers. Against southpaws, Smith is hitting .233/.283/.349 with a strikeout to walk ratio of 18/2. His wRC+ of 84 against southpaws is largely propped up by a .375 BABIP, which isn’t sustainable. Against righties, there is a bit more to be excited for as he’s hit .239/.340/.443 with 5 of his 6 home runs and a strikeout to walk ratio of 28 to 14 when he has the platoon advantage. Barring drastic improvement against lefties later this season, Smith looks to be a potential platoon option at either first base or right field. A disappointment for a player taken 7th overall, but certainly better than what we thought of him two years ago when he was teetering on bust territory.

His defense in a corner outfield has also improved in 2022, where Smith has gone from outright bad to passable. Smith has converted 64 of 70 chances in right field into outs, 1 out better than the average right fielder, showing an improved ability to field balls hit to his left and behind him. The one area that seems to be an issue is moving to his right, which has shown up at every position he’s played. That’s a future area of improvement for Smith and outfield/1B coach Dave McKay to work on as the season progresses. When the team’s best outfield prospects start becoming regulars in the lineup, I see Smith moving back to a 1B/DH role.

Overall I see some improvements in Smith’s game to be somewhat excited for. His strikeout rate had spiked as a result of indecisiveness at the plate for a 2-week stretch, but there has been an improvement in more meaningful forms of contact. A spike in barrel rate as well as a jump in fly ball and pull contact has me hopeful that Smith could break out in the power department, as his ISO has jumped from .137 to .157. We may have to view Smith in the same lens we viewed Varsho coming out of 2021 where his second half performance will be more telling of what’s to come vs. the overall season numbers. While I don’t think he’ll ever live up to the billing as a Top-10 selection, I can see him developing into a solid platoon option at 1B/corner OF.