Q&A: Seth Smith, Evolution of an Approach

Seth Smith continues to mature as a hitter. Despite a recent cool stretch, the 30-year-old Oakland A’s outfielder is off to a .283/.366/.455 start. A career year may be in the offing, as well as a shedding of the platoon-player label.

A left-handed hitter, Smith came into the campaign with a career .614 OPS in limited at bats against same-handed slants. This season he is getting more opportunities versus southpaws, and the results have been positive — he’s hitting .345./.387/.586. The sample size is too small to be meaningful, but the same can’t be said of his efforts to fine-tune.

Smith talked about the evolution of his hitting approach — against righties and lefties alike — when the A’s visited Fenway Park in late April.


Seth Smith:
“When you get to the big leagues, you’re taking that next step from just kind of swinging and trying to hit home runs to working counts. The longer you’re around, the more you pay attention to what the pitchers are trying to do. Strengths and weaknesses become more important. Over time, you learn how to be a smarter hitter.

“I don’t think you ever have it completely figured out, but I’ve made a steady progression. I have a good idea of what I’m trying to do up there. You need to be right physically, but being right mentally is equally important.

“An adjustment I’ve made is not worrying about getting deep into counts, nor worrying about putting the first strike in play. It’s about waiting for the strike you’re looking for. That comes with at bats and knowing what the pitcher is going to do late in the count. The more comfortable you are — regardless of the count — the better chance you’re going to have of success.

“Sticking to my plan might be the best way to sum that up. Coming up through the minor leagues, and early in the big leagues, I was a see-the-ball-hit-the-ball guy. I still am to some extent, but I’ve thought a little more about it and put a little more effort in my plan at the plate. I’ve seen how much more consistent you can be when you have a plan and stick to it.

“You have to be able to evaluate situations and see if your plan isn’t working because baseball is a crazy, stupid game, or if it’s because you have a bad plan. More times than not, it’s just baseball being baseball. If you stick to the plan, over the course of 162 games it’s going to work out for you.

“Your plans can still be fluid within a season, depending on how you feel physically, who you’re facing, and things like that. The overall plan is the same, but things here and there will change from day to day.

“They say to look away and adjust in, but I used to do the opposite and look middle-in, then adjust away. I don’t know how to judge the success or failure rate I had with that approach, but I’ve come a long way since then. I still don’t have a look-away-and-adjust-in approach, but it’s more that than look-in-and-adjust-away. I definitely don’t do that anymore.

“My thing has always been line drives. I’m not trying to hit home runs, I’m trying to drive the ball where it’s pitched. If my swing is where it should be, I’m not hitting a lot of balls up in the air. When I’m hitting pop ups, that means I’m probably dropping my back shoulder and trying to lift the ball. That never works for me. The better I can stay on my back side and keep my hands and back shoulder up, and hit down through the ball, the more line drives and hard ground balls I’ll get.

“I’ve never been very analytical. I don’t look at my swing very often. I’ll look at tape to see… sometimes I’ll think balls on the inside are off the plate, so I’ll look at that on video to judge where my strike zone is and what adjustments need to be made. But swing analysis isn’t something I do.

“I hit left-handed pitchers well early on, and I actually feel pretty comfortable against them. It’s just always been a struggle to find those consistent at bats. For much of my career, I’ve gotten two or three at bats against lefties a week. As a result, I’d take an approach up there and if it didn’t work, I wouldn’t know if it was a bad approach or just that one at bat. Sometimes I’d go into the next at bat not completely sure.

“Your approach against a left-hander is totally different. Your swing is your swing, but the fact that the ball is breaking away from you obviously factors in. You need at bats to stay on top of that. Right now I like my approach, and hopefully I can continue to ride it out.”

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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 February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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excellent stuff