At a time of year when a lot of focus at the Triple-A level is on who will earn September call-ups and when, Gwinnett Braves manager Brian Snitker is relishing a player like center fielder Mallex Smith, who knows and believes he has work yet to do at the Triple-A level.
“I liken him a little bit to Gregor (Blanco), when I had him,” Snitker said. “He needs to play games. He needs at-bats. He needs that whole thing, and he’s done really well, to his credit. He’s all ears and eyes. He hangs on everything you say.
“He’s willing to listen. He wants to learn. He wants to try. He doesn’t get down. He has a lot of confidence in himself. He doesn’t beat himself up. Failure is a learning experience, which a pretty good way to look at it.”
Smith, who came to the Braves as part of the prospect haul from the Padres for Justin Upton, was called up from Double-A in late June, and after six weeks of catching on to Triple-A pitching has taken off. In 19 games this month, the speedy leadoff hitter is batting .349 (30-for-86) with seven extra-base hits, 16 runs scored, 11 stolen bases and 11 multi-hit games.
Thursday night saw an end to Smith’s season-high seven-game hitting streak, which included multi-hit games in his past four. He was hitting .278 in 51 games for Gwinnett, after hitting .340 in 57 games for Double-A Mississippi.
Smith is an exciting player. He scored from second base on a run-of-the-mill bunt play in an Aug. 12 game at Charlotte, never hesitating after the catcher fielded the bunt in front of the plate and threw to first, leaving the slightest opening at home plate before the pitcher got there to cover. He tripled twice in a game Monday night in Toledo. His 48 stolen bases lead the Braves’ system and are tied for seventh in the minor leagues.
But ask Snitker what has impressed him the most about Smith so far. It’s the way he’s responded to failure. Not that he’s had much of it lately, but he went 4-for-26 in his first six games in Triple-A and followed it up by hitting .240 in the month of July.
“He doesn’t get down on himself,” Snitker said. “… I get the feeling that he uses a lot of the negative, the failure, in a really good way.”
How is that exactly?
“First of all I try to cut out the ‘what if’ factor, and I go back to ‘What did I do wrong?’” Smith said. “When I fail at the plate it’s, ‘Did you get a good pitch to hit? And if you got a good pitch to hit and you missed it, well then that’s your fault that at-bat.’…
“Then there’s are the days where you are smacking it, but it’s right at people. Those days I tell myself, ‘Some way or another they’re going to drop.’ After good days, I try to remember what I did and build off of it because you appreciate the good days. You remember there’s another day following behind that, so you can’t harp on it too much.”
As Snitker sees it, Smith is still raw. He grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., with football as his primary sport and played safety in high school. (His older brother, Michael, was a running back for the University of Arkansas.) That changed after the Padres drafted him in the fifth round out of Sante Fe Community College in 2012.
“He’s still learning the game,” Snitker said. “He’s gotten better defensively. He’s got a lot of work to do in his total game, his routes, reading balls, angles, understanding where to throw the ball, when to throw it, but he’s holding his own.”
Smith said he learned with the Padres, when he had to go back to Fort Wayne of the Midwest League for a second time to start the 2014 season, he has to earn his promotions with his performance, so he hasn’t started looking ahead to “what-ifs” and “when” he’ll get to Atlanta.
“Honestly it’s easy for me to stay here in the moment,” Smith said. “Until I can take care of my business here, there’s no really need for me to put myself anywhere else. I have a lot of things to work on. I’ve got a lot of things to improve, which doesn’t ever stop. But I have things I need to do here.”
Snitker wouldn’t mind seeing Smith spend another full season in Triple-A. He knows that could change if he puts together a hot streak next spring training. But he doesn’t think the Braves should rush Smith either.
“I hope they don’t put a timetable on him. Just let him go,” Snitker said. “Let him develop. Let him play. He’ll let us know when he’s ready. Who knows it might be May 1, or he might go to spring training and something might click. I just think they need to let this kid go and play.”
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