Seattle Mariners

Mallex Smith’s speed is paying off. He leads the majors with 34 stolen bases

Blink and he’s gone. Mariners commercial highlights Mallex Smith’s speed

The Seattle Mariners' ever-ingenious marketing department pairs burner Mallex Smith with the more tortoise-like Kyle Seager in a "now you see him, now you don't" scenario.
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The Seattle Mariners' ever-ingenious marketing department pairs burner Mallex Smith with the more tortoise-like Kyle Seager in a "now you see him, now you don't" scenario.

Whenever he runs the bases — looking to stretch a double into a triple, swipe another bag or scratch across a run — it’s almost certain Mallex Smith’s helmet won’t be on his head by the time he reaches his destination.

It’s not intentional, he says, but it tends to happen each time he ticks up his speed on the basepaths.

“I don’t want it to fly off,” Smith said. “It’s actually kind of dangerous when it flies off. That’s not something I’m looking forward to, it’s just something that happens.”

Speed is a central piece of who the Seattle Mariners’ outfielder is as a baseball player — “it’s always been there,” he says — and knowing that when he was first promoted to the majors with Tampa Bay in 2016, he was thoughtful about his headgear.

“I tried to wear a minor-league helmet when I first got called up (because they have two ear flaps instead of one), and the team tore me up about it,” Smith laughed. “So, I deal with the helmet flying off.”

During any given Mariners game, the helmet is almost guaranteed to end up somewhere on the infield dirt, because Smith spends a lot of time circling the bases.

Entering Friday’s series opener in Toronto, Smith’s 34 stolen bases led the majors. He leapfrogged Kansas City’s Adalberto Mondesi (31) earlier this month, and has swiped five bags — including two in Thursday’s win over Detroit — through the first two weeks of August alone.

He’s also on pace to become the second player in Seattle’s history to lead the majors in stolen bases for a season, joining Ichiro Suzuki (56 in his rookie season in 2001).

“Mallex’s speed always shows up — certainly when he’s on base,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said recently. “He’s not afraid to take some chances and do some things.”

That has backfired at times. Smith has been caught stealing eight times this season, which is tied with three other players for the major-league lead. But, far more often than not, his speed adds a useful wrinkle to Seattle’s streaky offense.

He averages a stolen base every three games, and has ramped up his base running at an impressive clip this summer, considering he spent nearly two weeks with Triple-A Tacoma earlier in the spring to hash out some struggles at the plate.

(He had seven stolen bases in 10 games with the Rainiers, which was among Pacific Coast League leaders in May.)

Smith’s stolen base count has come in 101 games, which is far fewer than some other MLB speedsters like Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. (28 stolen bases in 122 games) and Baltimore’s Jonathan Villar (26 in 121).

Only Mondesi, who has been on the injured list since July 17, and has played 82 games, has swiped bags at a faster rate than Smith.

“Everybody has their own way of applying pressure,” Smith said. “My biggest form is my legs. It changes the game for not only me, but everybody else around me. That’s the true benefit.”

He even set a career-high when he was called back up to the big-league club in May, stealing four bases in one game, including home plate, to help pace the Mariners to a win.

“Mallex kind of had his little swagger back on the field,” Mariners first baseman Daniel Vogelbach said that night. “He’s having fun, he’s doing what Mallex does and makes Mallex so good.”

He hasn’t slowed down, adding seven stolen bases in June and eight in July, and he is on the brink of matching his career-high for a season of 40, set last year with the Rays in 141 games. He also led the majors in triples last season with 10.

It’s not only the stolen bases where the Mariners have seen the benefits of Smith’s speed. His seven triples this season lead the club, and rank tied for fifth in the majors. His 96 hits rank tied for second for the Mariners, and his 18 doubles rank third.

“Being fast does a good job of helping me get into scoring position,” Smith said. “I can turn singles into doubles, doubles into triples, and that just applies pressure more than anything.”

Considering he’s usually leading off for the Mariners, any time he reaches base also seems to spark the dugout.

“He gets on, and I think it gives fire to the whole lineup,” shortstop J.P. Crawford, who typically lines up in the No. 2 spot behind Smith, said earlier this season. “It makes you want to hit. It makes you want to drive him in.”

As Crawford and others have witnessed so many times this season, there’s a good chance any drive to the gap will score Smith — he’s scored 55 runs — but perhaps without that shifty helmet. He may have lost it again rounding third.

Maybe he’s just too fast for it.

“If that’s what you want to call it,” Smith laughed.

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.