There is a familiar axiom of its not how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get up is what really counts in life. That dictum particularly applies to anyone that has played minor league baseball.
Most of the players that we speak too were not only the best player on their team, but frequently the best player on either side of the ball or even the league. So failure on an athletic field is not really something that most of them have come across and learning how to overcome failure is one of the most important parts of the development process.
In 2013 Mallex (it’s pronounced like “Alex”) Smith, 21, had a good year with the Low-A Fort Wayne TinCaps hitting .262/.367/.340 and stole 64 bases. The problem was a crowded outfield in High-A Lake Elsinore, led by 2013 number one draft pick Hunter Renfroe and Alberth Martinez, who was coming off of a very strong second half in the Midwest League, necessitated that someone had to stay in the Summit City for 2014 and unfortunately that was Mallex.
However, instead of pouting Smith went out and dominated the league with 48 stolen bases in 65 games while hitting .295/.395/.394. He was promoted to Lake Elsinore in mid-season and performed even better and ended up being the stolen base champ for not only the Padres’ organization but all of minor league baseball.
As of now, Dee Gordon of the Dodgers is the leader in stolen bases at the major league level with 58, so unless he goes crazy in September, Smith will end up leading all of professional baseball.
Smith, a native of Tallahassee, Florida, played one year at Santa Fe Community College in the Mid-Florida Conference, before being selected by the Padres in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. He had moderate success his first year playing in the Arizona League and in Eugene where he established the primary components of his game; a leadoff man that can get on base and play a solid defensive centerfield.
Only five-foot-nine, the left-handed hitting Smith has a better arm than he was given credit for coming out of the draft and saw some time in right field for the Storm this year.
We caught up with Mallex near the end of the regular season to talk about his game and ability to get better.
You were at Fort Wayne and had a good year in 2013. This past season you started there again and really performed well. How were you able to keep such a positive attitude when many people would have really pouted about not moving up?
Mallex Smith: I just trusted my ability and that God had a plan for me. I believe in my abilities and just took it as another opportunity to show people what I could do.
In addition to your ability to steal bases you also have some really good gap power. Where does that come from?
Mallex Smith: I like to work out a little bit. [laughs] Seriously, I think that is more of a question of knowing what I can and can’t do at the plate and staying within myself. I’m going to run into some balls now and then and the results have been a little better than I’m used too.
The results have been pretty good. Is the big difference between you this year and last year is that you have refined your approach at the plate more?
Mallex Smith: Definitely. I’ve always tried to be a student of the game and understand what I can do. It’s fun to drive the ball and get a few home runs but that needs to come off of a good swing when the ball happens to carry. My game is about hitting line drives and getting on base.
I always think there are amazing amount of contradictions for a leadoff hitter on one hand you are expected to be more than a singles hitter but on the other if you go for too much you get criticized. How do you handle that?
Mallex Smith: It just goes back to knowing what type of player you are. I understand the most important thing is me getting on base. Anything else that comes with it is great because I know I’m not a power hitter.
You may not be a power hitter, but you are a gap hitter.
Mallex Smith: That is true, but that also comes along with understanding the player you are. My legs are going to get me a few doubles.
I really just try to play hard.
For people who steal as many bases as you I always find this scenario fascinating. You get on base without anyone on, and you’re running. You know you are running. The pitcher knows you are running. Everyone in the press box and the stadium knows you are running; and then you steal the bag.
That has to be a great feeling for you to know that, ‘I am taking the bag.’
Mallex Smith: [laughs] It is a good feeling, just the other side isn’t always helping me or enjoying it as much. I really don’t think about it too much because I’m just really focused on getting to the next base.
In the off-season I will think about it a little more.
You have speed, but there is a lot more to stealing bases than just speed. What types of things do you look for when you are trying to steal?
Mallex Smith: I look at the pitcher’s delivery. I need to know how quick he is to the plate and try to get an idea of the catcher’s arm sometime during the game.
Are you keying off any part of the pitcher’s body?
Mallex Smith: I look at the front foot when I’m trying to take second. It really depends on the pitcher. Some guys will switch around their moves or set times too.
What part of your baserunning game would you like to improve?
Mallex Smith: My biggest issue is shutting it down when I don’t get a good jump. As a baserunner you need to get to the next base but if you don’t get a good jump you are relying too much on your speed.
That is a part of my game that is getting better but needs to improve. I do not want to give away outs.
What part of your game has improved the most defensively?
Mallex Smith: I think my routes have improved the most but they can also get better. Coming out of high school and college players weren’t hitting it as far so you have to know where you are going along with the winds that can come into play.
When I’m in right field out here there are some interesting angles you have to be aware off too.
It’s unusual that you play right because most center fielders when they rotate over always go to left because they don’t have the arm to play in right. You must have a decent arm?
Mallex Smith: It’s decent, I wouldn’t say good. At the Diamond it can get a little tricky for me out there because I mainly play center.
I’ve never spoken to a center fielder in my life that doesn’t feel a little out of place when they are on the corners.
Mallex Smith: I always want to be in center. I’ve played there the most and am most comfortable out there.
In center you get the best looks, so if you have speed like you do, it must be the easiest of the three.
Mallex Smith: Well, I’m not going to say it’s the easiest. [laughs]. Let’s just say it’s where I am the most comfortable because that is where I am most used to getting all of my reads.
If I played right or left more, then maybe that would be the easiest for me.
You throw from the right side but bat left. How did you get to be a left-handed hitter?
Mallex Smith: It’s just the way I picked up a bat. I tried swinging from the right side off of a tee when I was a kid but it just never felt right. Obviously with the type of game that I play it is a blessing.
You have really put yourself on the map this year as a prospect. What is the biggest part of your game you are going to work on going into the off-season?
Mallex Smith: Defense. That is going to be my biggest focus. I’m not saying that I’m not going to work on offense, but I want to get better defensively.
How do you get better working on defense in the off-season?
Mallex Smith: I’m from Florida, which is where I go to in the off-season, and there are always people playing ball. I’m just going to find some colleges and teams that are having BP and keep working on running balls down.