The Tampa Bay Rays had 12 bunt hits in 2016, with Kevin Kiermaier’s four leading the way. Expect Mallex Smith to surpass both of those numbers this season — not just the individual mark, but the team total, as well. The 23-year-old speedster already has one in the books, and if all goes to plan, more are on the way.
Mallex Smith is a bunt machine in the making. That’s not a pejorative. The kill-the-bunt crowd isn’t off base, but their primary target is the out-surrendering sacrifice. Smith’s aim is to reach safely, and to then wreak havoc once he’s on. There’s no questioning his ability to do the latter. Smith led the minors with 88 steals in 2014 (as MLB.com’s Jim Callis sagely predicted he would), and he’s a perfect three-for-three since donning a Tampa Bay uniform.
Acquired over the offseason — he went from Atlanta to Seattle to Tampa on January 11 — Smith isn’t conventional in a modern-day sense. Launch angles and exit velocity are in vogue, and the 5-foot-9 outfielder is all about electricity. He fashions himself a jackrabbit, which is exactly how his first-base coach sees him.
“Mallex is a very dynamic athlete who can do things you don’t see a lot on a baseball field these days,” opined Rocco Baldelli, who as a player was dubbed The Woonsocket Rocket. “There just aren’t a lot of players that fit that sort of speedy, athletic profile in 2017. He really endears himself to that role. He knows what he is as a player.”
When I caught up to Smith this spring, he told me that he wants to hit line drives, and if he misses, he wants to miss on the ground. Walking away — BP was about to begin — he added that he’s been working a lot on his bunting.
According to Baldelli, “a lot” is no exaggeration.
“He’ll bunt maybe two full buckets of balls every day,” said the outfielder-turned-coach. “Mallex works on everything you can imagine in the world of bunting. He wants to have all of these things in his bag. It’s rare in today’s game to have a young player who desires to be that type of player. He’s already a good bunter, and he’s motivated to get even better.”
Smith came to the Rays with what Baldelli described as “a bunting plan.” Throughout spring training, he’d go through the buckets of balls, laying down a variety of bunts to different areas of the infield. If he wasn’t happy with their placement, he’d continue working until he got it right.
Augmenting his wheels is the fact that he swings from the left side. The extra step gets Smith to first base an eyelash faster, further increasing his chances of beating a throw. Of his 45 hits with Atlanta last season, five came on bunts and seven more were of the infield variety. Sans a perfectly executed defensive play, he’s going to be safe.
“When you go 3.6, 3.7 down the line on a bunt, and it’s a well-placed bunt, you’re going to get a lot of hits,” said Baldelli. “And once he gets on, he’s going to steal bases and take extra bases. He’s going to cause some panic on the field with what he can do with his legs. He’s a dynamic player.”
He was exactly that on Saturday. In five plate appearances against the Toronto Blue Jays, Smith doubled, legged out an infield single, and drew three walks. He also stole two bases, drew an errant pickoff throw, and advanced on a wild pitch. His extra-base hit came in the 11th inning, and preceded him crossing home plate with the winning run.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.