The great Ty Cobb was known for, among other things, his ability to steal bases with ease. The hard-nosed Hall of Famer is fourth all-time in that category, swiping 897 bags in his 24 seasons. But despite his speed, Cobb knew that to be successful on the base paths, you needed to be more than fast. "Speed is a great asset," he said. "But it's greater when it's combined with quickness - and there's a big difference." It's a difference that Storm centerfielder Mallex Smith knows all too well. The speedster runs like lightning, but it's his understanding of the game that has led him to become professional baseball's leading base stealer this season.
Mallex Lydell Smith was born on May 6, 1993 in Tallahassee, Florida. Much of his youth was spent outdoors, and it was early on that Mallex developed an interest in sports. "I played football and baseball competitively," he said. "Baseball was more for fun because I enjoyed playing and I knew how to play. Football was more like 'Ok, I need to get my scholarship here, this is what [my future] is riding on.'" Smith's early dedication to the gridiron was in part influenced by his older brother Michael, who went on to play at the University of Arkansas. But despite his preference of football over baseball, Mallex's parents, Michael Sr. and Loretta, always encouraged him to continue playing the latter.
It was partly due to his family's influence that he continued to play both sports at Rickards High School. His focus, however, was still directed towards zone defenses and blitzing technique as opposed to laying down bunts and stealing bases. "At that time I still thought football would be my long-term career," the speedster reminisced. "I thought that I'd go to college on a football scholarship and just be a walk-on for the baseball team. But by my junior and senior year [at Rickards] I started to get collegiate and professional baseball attention, and that's when it started to become clear that I'd be playing baseball."
After weighing his options following graduation, including being drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 13th round, Mallex decided to attend Santa Fe College in Gainesville. His purpose for being there was clear from day one. "I got myself ready for one year there," he continued. "It was going to be my first time playing just baseball all year, so I went in with a strong mindset to focus in, put my talent to the test and try and elevate my game to another level." Smith's motivation to improve was rooted in his decision not to sign out of high school so that he could go in an earlier round in the next year's draft.
As a freshman at Santa Fe, Smith hit .380 (62-for-163) with nine doubles, seven triples, one homerun, 17 RBI and 31 stolen bases, the third highest total in Santa Fe history. Those numbers, combined with his impressive work ethic, drew big league attention for the second-straight year. "[The draft process] was so much easier," Mallex remarked when asked about the lead up to the 2012 Draft. "In high school I was wide-eyed about all the attention, but when I went into my freshman year of college it was not a surprise. I knew that I needed to focus on my game and better prepare myself each day if I wanted to get selected early."
That mindset paid off, as the San Diego Padres selected Smith in the fifth round as the 165th overall pick. From there, the whirlwind began. "I was on a flight two days after the draft," he said. "I went to Arizona, did all the paperwork and had my physical, then started playing about a week later." In his first professional season, Mallex hit .305 in 35 games with the Arizona League Padres and the Eugene Emeralds, stealing 17 bases in the process. The following season was spent in Fort Wayne, where he continued his success on the bases and at the plate. He hit .262 and stole 64 bases, eighth-best in all of the Minor Leagues, in his sophomore professional season. After spending the first half of 2014 with the TinCaps, Smith joined the Storm after the All-Star Break. His impact was immediate, and despite a brief stint on the DL just one game after his California League debut the 21-year old has been a catalyst at the top of the Lake Elsinore lineup. At the time of this writing, Mallex was batting .325 through 18 games, stealing 17 bases in that span. He currently leads all of professional baseball, from rookie ball to the Major Leagues, in steals with 65.
Smith's success on the bases is multi-faceted. His raw speed, a Smith family trait that has been well documented thanks to the success of his mother Loretta and his two sisters Loreal and Lauren as world-class sprinters, combined with an understanding of opposing pitchers and catchers rarely seen at this level makes for a near uncatchable combination. "A lot of [base stealing] hinges on the first step," Mallex explained. "The first three steps are key. 90 feet isn't that long, so I try to make sure those steps are in the proper places and as explosive as possible. I'm looking at the pitcher before anybody gets on base, to see how quick he is on the mound. I try and pay attention to their warm-ups when I'm leading off. I do whatever I can to prepare myself so that I can advance another base closer to home."
Mallex's meticulous approach to base running goes beyond what he does during the game. He keeps a notebook in the dugout that's filled with any and all information that could be the difference between being safe or out. "I've been keeping a notebook for quite awhile now," Smith remarked. "Anything I pick up goes in there, whether it's about the pitcher or catcher. I like to track the pitches he throws, arm angle, is he quick to the plate and so on. Same for the catcher, whether he has a good arm, quick feet or what have you."
Smith has risen through the system at a good clip, and he has prepared himself for the long haul. "My biggest thing is to stay even keeled," he said. "Don't get too up, don't get too down. Just stay even keeled and everything else will take care of itself. It's a long season and you're going to go through ups and downs, so it's best to stay level so you don't get out of whack." As Mallex Smith continues his ascent towards the big leagues, he's left his mark at each level in the form of a cloud of dust and plenty of dirt on his jersey. Don't blink; he'll be speeding his way to the next level before you know it.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.