Mallex Smith has a very special skill set. His all around game has flourished because of it, but it’s when he gets on base that the Durham outfielder really shows what separates him from the rest.
Smith, a native of Tallahassee, Florida, is fast. Like, Florida fast.
“Anybody (from Florida) who moves is pretty quick out there,” he said.
Bulls’ manager Jared Sandberg said Smith’s wheels cause “disruptive speed” when he is on the bases. It makes the pitcher take his focus off the batter and focus on Smith, because, more times than not, the 24 year-old Floridian is taking off. Smith leads Durham in stolen bases with 16 this season. Last month in a home contest versus Rochester, Smith stole three bases. He also picked up three hits and had two outstanding catches in the outfield. The next day he was gone, called up to Tampa for a brief appearance with the Rays. His speed isn’t limited to the Triple-A level. In nine games with Tampa Bay, he has stolen three bases. Drafted in the 13th round by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011 out of James S. Rickards High School, Smith hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down in his sixth year of professional baseball.
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“It’s always been part of my skill set, but to be comfortable and running, that took some years in the league,” Smith said. “Coaches and managers influencing that I need to run instead of playing careful. You go through your ups and your downs, but you continue to grow and learn. With growth you get more knowledge, more power; you know when to run and when to shut it down. You still get picked off, that’s just part of the game, but the numbers do go down.”
Smith played football in high school and was offered a football scholarship by Florida A&M coming out of high school. But he stuck with baseball, signing with Santa Fe College and was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2012. Towards the end of the 2013 season, playing with the Fort Wayne TinCaps, Smith stole 64 bases. It was there he gained the confidence that he would be tough to stop once he took off. Always comfortable with his bat and ability in the outfield, Smith started to trust his wheels more. He says once he realized he belonged, there was no stopping him.
“I just kept playing and you start looking around and realize you’re at the same level as the guys you are playing (against),” Smith said. “That’s all levels as you go up. You’re there too. There is a reason why you’re there. As as a player once you realize that, it shoots you to another level.”
Sandberg has enjoyed from watching Smith develop. While he admitted the speedster still has some things to clean up - when to run, when to be aggressive, when not - he is still fun to watch.
“If I were coming to watch the game I would definitely want to see some disruptive speed,” Sandberg said.
The scary part is, according to the Bulls’ skipper, Smith still has lots of room for improvement when it comes to stealing bases. There are some reads from the pitcher he can pick up, and even though he has freedom to run on the bases, Smith still takes his signal from the coaches. But it all goes back to the pitcher, who gives him the signs on whether to take off or not.
“The pitcher is your book, you just study him, really. He’s the guy who’s going to give you the tell,” Smith said. “You got the basics - watch the front foot, if you feel like you can get off that there is no need to look for more. Know what’s going on, who’s hitting behind you, who’s in front of you, know the score. All that matters. Know the situation, whatever you’ve done that day, so when you keep up with that it helps. Not with just stealing bases, but so that you can advance to the next base.”
Baseball teams do their homework, so the scouting report is out on Smith: If he gets on, he’s looking to get an extra base. Teams shift their defenses, or slide step, as Sandberg said, knowing that Smith is looking to take off. It doesn’t make life any easier, but there is still an extra base out there for the taking.
“There’s no secret,” Smith said. “You’re not surprising anybody, they’re expecting it. But you get paid to do a job so you have to go out there and figure out ways around it.”