PEORIA, Ariz. – A conversation with Mallex Smith can be enlightening, amusing and maddening, all in the same moment.
Flighty at times, focused at others, Smith will say what he thinks regarding just about anything, whether it fits the expected tone or not. His self-awareness can be limited to a small radius around him, but he also can have the best perspective on how issues affect the game.
The intention is always in earnest. A perfect example: His comments about himself and his performance last season that included a demotion to Class AAA Tacoma in late April and a benching in September.
“Embarrassing,” he said. “It was embarrassing.”
He relayed a similar message to the coaching staff.
“He was lost for the majority of the year,” manager Scott Servais said. “And I know he admitted it at the end of the year, in kind of his end-of-the-year review meeting. He said, ‘I’m embarrassed. I think I’m better than this.’ ”
And what did Smith think of his numbers: a 227/.300/.367 slash line with 19 doubles, nine triples, six homers, 37 RBI, 46 stolen bases, 42 walks and 141 strikeouts?
“Trash, plain and simple, trash,” he said. “You saw it. I had almost 150 strikeouts. That’s just terrible.”
He struck out in 24.9% of his plate appearances. A year earlier, he was at 18%.
“Just swinging at good pitches more than anything,” he said. “Don’t miss good pitches. You could see the result, but what is really the problem? I was missing good pitches early on. And in an effort to try to make up for what I missed, I’d find myself chasing other things. If I fix the issue, I can eliminate the negative result.”
And there were the miscues in the outfield early last season, where he dropped routine fly balls and struggled on plays near the wall.
“Hell, I thanked Jerry (Dipoto) for keeping me on the team,” he said.
And yet in all that self-criticism, there is some awareness.
“It’s definitely not my most favorite season,” he said. “But you know, I still play a child’s game from my job. So that was not that tough when we talk about the grand scheme of life. This year, I just wanted to just make sure I take advantage of all of my health.”
Indeed, this spring is much different. A year ago, Smith was relegated to watching. An elbow strain before camp was a problem that couldn’t be reasonably resolved in the shortened camp before the trip to Japan. Smith still tried to expedite the recovery and his preparation to be ready for the home opener. It was a mistake.
“Missing that time was crucial,” he said. “Now, I get to work on things and I have a very singular focus when I get to the field, versus hurry up and just try to get to a result that I didn’t necessarily build up to get to. I didn’t really go through the process. So being able to break it down day by day, that’s been very beneficial.”
Smith has looked much better at the plate this spring in terms of swing decisions and swing intent. Servais credited the relationship being built with hitting coach Tim Laker and assistant hitting coach Jarrett DeHart as being crucial.
“Mallex is in a pretty good spot,” Servais said. “I think Mallex coming here last year not really knowing anybody, not having an opportunity in spring training. (Hitters) are out in that batting cage every morning at 7:15. And there’s a reason the hitting coaches are not in the staff meeting every morning, because that’s their time to connect, working with guys one-on-one in the cage.
”I know, even as the season went along last year, the trust factor really wasn’t there. Mallex being able to have a relationship with our hitting guys, and them understanding where he was at and where he’s coming from, those guys have done a nice job getting to Mallex.“
Will it lead to success? It might be important for Smith’s future with this team – or another one. The Mariners have a slew of young outfielders, and Smith is arbitration-eligible after the season.
With another down year, he might not be thanking Dipoto for keeping him on the team, because he’ll be gone.
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