Braves rookie Mallex Smith: ‘Got a lot of learning to do’

The thing about rookies is that we never know – they don’t either – when they’ve truly turned a corner, or when the rest of the league will figure out a weakness in their game and exploit it until it’s corrected.

Take Mallex Smith, for example.

The Braves’ talented rookie outfielder has been spent most of these past two months in the big leagues, gone through some hot and cold stretches, and produced some disparate splits that probably shouldn’t be projected long-term but are nonetheless interesting.

Especially the thing about him hitting in “clutch” situations. The kid has done that, big time.

He entered Monday with the 10th-best average in the National League with runners in scoring position, which he raised to .407 ( 11-for-27) with a bases-loaded triple in the second inning that gave the Braves a 3-1 lead en route to a 5-3 series-opening win against the Giants. It was his seventh extra-base hit (including two triples, two homers) in those spots.

“He’s been up in a lot of big situations and got a lot of big hits for us,” veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski said.

Smith began the day with an already-robust 1.276 OPS (.469 OBP, .808 slugging percentage) in RISP situations.

“I didn’t know that,” he said, when informed Monday morning of his proficiency in that area. When it was suggested that was a good area in which to excel, he agreed. “You want to make (hits) count…. But it’s still May. Got a lot more to do.”

While Smith has prospered with runners in scoring position, he’s struggled with nobody on base. Go figure that one. He’s hit .213 (16-for-75) with six extra-base hits, five walks and 25 strikeouts with bases empty.

Again, it’s still a small sample size and too early to make much of the trends. But results so far suggest that Smith, contrary to so many other players, stays within his approach better when runners are in scoring position than when bases are empty.

“I’ve been relaxed all the time,” he said. “Sometimes you come through, sometimes you don’t. It’s baseball. Just trying to have the same approach every at-bat.”

His most extreme split is a far more common one, particularly among players at the outset of his career: The left-handed hitter has struggled against lefty pitchers, a problem he didn’t have in the minor leagues.

Smith entered Monday batting .294 (25-for-85) vs. right-handers with a .351 OBP, .506 slugging percentage and .857 OPS. But against lefties he’s 3-for-32 (.094) with 11 strikeouts, a .147 OBP, .156 slugging percentage and .303 OPS.

“Everything’s just a process,” he said. “I felt like I had good at-bats vs. (Marlins left-hander Wei-Yin) Chen the other day (three ground-outs Saturday). A ball to the left or right two inches maybe it’s a completely different story. Got to keep putting the ball in play.”

Smith had moved into the regular lineup in center field before manager Fredi Gonzalez was fired after a May 16 game at Pittsburgh. Under interim manager Brian Snitker, Ender Inciarte has returned to the regular center-field slot and Smith has mostly split starts in left field with hot-hitting Jeff Francoeur.

It was Inciarte’s injury in the third game of the season that prompted the callup of Smith sooner than expected from Triple-A. He’s played well enough to avoid returning to the minors, though lately Smith’s bat has cooled.

He hit .347 (17-for-49) with eight extra-base hits (three homers), nine RBIs and a .653 slugging percentage in 16 games from April 28 to May 17, with no walks and .340 OBP.

In the 10 game since (through Sunday) Smith hit .208 (5-for-24) with one extra-base hit, one RBI and a .292 slugging percentage, though he had four walks (all in the past six games) for a .321 OBP in that span.

He also was caught stealing an NL-leading seven times in 13 attempts before Sunday.

“Like we always talk about, he’s a work in progress,” Snitker said. “I think you can pick and choose and get him in there and not just beat him over the head with (playing every day). He can continue to develop and learn. He’s doing fine.”

Smith said the learning process is ongoing and covers all aspects of his game, at the plate and in the outfield.

“There’s plays I feel like that need to be made that I haven’t made. Got a lot of learning to do,” said Smith, who gets tips constantly from Braves veterans. “Everybody’s been helping me out, giving me advice here and there, so it’s been like a group effort…. A lot of guys who’ve been around and been doing really well for a while. Some good guys to listen to.”