Homework paying off for Rays' Smith

Outfielder's play a reflection of his notebooks

June 22nd, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG -- In the two weeks since his callup, outfielder has made himself a fixture on Rays television broadcasts for his consistent hitting, his thrilling baserunning and his visible dedication to self-improvement. When he returns to the dugout after his turn at the plate, cameras have been eager to show Smith jotting notes down for himself in a personal journal.

The notes are extensive and detailed. Smith's game preparation is even more so.

The notebook is an aspect of Smith's practice most easily observable by fans. The second-year big leaguer has been writing to himself on the bench since 2012, when his father recommended the practice as Smith began pro ball.

He's now on his fourth notebook, all packed with scouting reports individually tailored to what he saw and felt during his at-bats against specific pitchers. The personalized journals are used in combination with the video provided by the Rays in their scouting, and Smith leans on the notebooks when coming into a new series or facing a pitcher he's seen before.

Fans with a good view of the Rays' dugout could see the in-game adjustments Smith made using the notebook Wednesday. A strikeout victim leading off the game, Smith blooped a single to left his next time up and roped an RBI single to right in the at-bat after that, all against .

"Mallex goes up there his first at-bat, strikes out, it doesn't even faze him," manager Kevin Cash said after Wednesday's 8-3 win over the Reds. "He goes in his little notepad, remembers what the guy's trying to do to him, he puts it to use the rest of the game. He's had a very impressive approach here getting on base for us."

Smith is making his biggest developmental strides preparing behind the scenes. However, hitting coach Chad Mottola said, "His whole bunt routine is like nothing we've ever seen -- including [field coordinator] Jimmy Hoff, who's been in the game for almost 50 years and teaching bunting."

Not only does Smith take more pitches to practice bunting than most, he'll break it up into specific and goal-oriented tasks. Bunts from a knee, bunts against left-handers, bunts against breaking balls. Unlike most players, he wants to practice on the field so he can drop bunts precisely on the line, Mottola added.

The routine bears resemblance to the workout of a basketball player working on his jumper.

"I'll bunt the ball in all directions but then I'll bunt the ball in a certain direction five times in a row," Smith said. "If I can't execute it five times in a row, then I won't move on to another direction. I've got to make sure I get them all down."

The purpose of the lengthy routine is to establish muscle memory, Smith said. He has a similar goal in mind when he steps into the box for a teammate's between-start bullpen session.

Before Tampa Bay's Tuesday and Wednesday games, Chris Archer threw in preparation for his upcoming Friday start while Smith stood at the plate without his bat, sizing up Archer's offerings.

"Anybody that wants to throw a bullpen, I try to make sure I stand in there so I'll be able to see. You can't hit what you can't see," Smith said. "When I'm in there, I'm just working on my vision, trying to work on tracking the ball the whole length. When I would attack, and how I would attack that pitch, would I swing at that pitch. You know, just trying to play the game before it happens."

The repetition in bunting and eyeing pitches, along with the internalization that comes with writing down what happened while at bat, form the pillars of Smith's learning style. He's comfortable using that routine and for his diligence, he's been rewarded at the plate recently.

Smith has put together a 12-game hitting streak since being called up 12 games ago to fill in for injured center fielder . The 24-year-old's development has impressed coaches, and his immense preparation routine is one of the driving factors in that ascent. Of course, his talent is also unmistakable.

"Left-handed or right-handed pitchers, he's seen some good Major League pitching and he keeps his bat in the zone a long time for a guy who's supposedly raw," Mottola said. "He still is raw, but the way that he's able to keep his bat in the zone already makes everything easier for him to grasp, to cover these pitches that he's writing down."