2012 was to be a critical season for the Seattle Mariners, as the organization hoped its young talent would start to jell and suggest the possibility of a playoff bid in the near future. Outside of Felix Hernandez, the keys were assumed to be Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, and Justin Smoak. All three position players have recently been tippy-top prospects, and all three position players got their own Mariners team commercials. Ackley was billed as a hitting prodigy, Montero was advertised as the new guy with tremendous power, and Smoak was shown punching down trees with raw strength. The season’s almost over — really! it’s gone so fast — and Montero has a -0.2 WAR. Smoak has a -0.2 WAR. Ackley has a 1.8 WAR, but a lot of that is good defense, which, take that, minor-league scouting reports.
The breakthroughs have come from Kyle Seager, John Jaso, and Michael Saunders, which pretty much no one expected. The three guys thought to be most important have all been disappointments. But with that in mind, check out what happens when you sort the September leaderboards by wRC+:
By that measure, and by others, Justin Smoak has been baseball’s best hitter so far this month. He’s also batted just 75 times this month, so blah blah sample size, but Smoak’s done enough to get himself noticed, and the four hitters directly behind him on the wRC+ leaderboard are all very good. It’s not uncommon for players to have their performances bounce around month to month, and in fact it would be disconcerting if a given player’s didn’t, but it’s one thing to fluctuate and it’s another thing to hit better than anybody else. Smoak’s August wRC+ was 68.
This isn’t the first time that Justin Smoak has put together a strong September, and whenever a young former top prospect finishes strong, fans like to automatically assume big things are in store going forward. Big things haven’t been in store for Justin Smoak before, and prior to this September, 2012 Justin Smoak was a pile of crap. Smoak went to sleep August 31 with a .190 batting average and a .316 slugging percentage. His season OPS began with the same digit as Tsuyoshi Nishioka‘s career OPS and Tsuyoshi Nishioka just got released by a bad team. Smoak went from disaster to beacon of promise in a matter of seconds, and now we all have to wonder. Again.
A thing about Justin Smoak before was that he didn’t look like he even had the makings of a good hitter. He didn’t show a great ability to make contact, he didn’t show a great eye, and he didn’t show great power. One of the Mariners’ preferred explanations was that Smoak is a switch-hitter, and switch-hitters can take longer to develop because they have twice as many swings as a non-switch-hitter, but still people were losing their patience. This past July, Smoak was demoted to triple-A to work on his approach. A few weeks later, Smoak was recalled, having put in some work. An injury forced the Mariners to recall Smoak sooner than they would’ve liked.
And now here we are and the Justin Smoak that we’re seeing is a tweaked, different version of the old Justin Smoak. Shannon Drayer offers a pretty thorough explanation. Smoak has adjusted his swing from the left side, and from the left side he’s also now using a different bat. I have whipped up some comparison .gifs — Smoak hitting home runs before and after his time in the minors, from both sides of the plate. The pitches are pretty similar.
Smoak, lefty, May
Smoak, lefty, September
Smoak, righty, July
Smoak, righty, September
You don’t see much of anything different from the right side, or at least I don’t, and it seems like the bulk of the work went into changing Smoak as a lefty. The differences batting lefty might not be immediately obvious, but look at Smoak’s two follow-throughs. A long time ago, when I was trying to learn about pitching mechanics, I was told to pay attention to the follow-through because the follow-through tells you something about what happened before in the sequence. Before, Smoak took his left hand off the bat. Now, both hands remain on the bat. On its own that doesn’t mean a whole lot, but what it suggests is that Smoak’s left hand is more involved in the swing now, instead of just being taken along for the ride. One can imagine how that could improve Smoak’s bat control.
If Smoak were succeeding with his old approach, one might justifiably be skeptical. When success follows adjustments, one is more inclined to buy in, and Smoak’s success is following adjustments. He already has more doubles this month than he had through June. He’s hit five home runs and they’ve all been very well struck. For good measure, Smoak this month has ten strikeouts and eight unintentional walks. Before, he had 98 and 35. Everything seems better.
What you shouldn’t do is assume that Justin Smoak has figured it out. We can’t come to that conclusion yet. Smoak, for example, was terrible in August after making adjustments, although that was supposedly before he switched to a different bat, if that means anything. Smoak’s swing from the right side hasn’t gotten much attention, possibly because the team doesn’t see anything wrong with it, and Smoak’s career OPS batting righty is .689. That is a poor OPS for a first baseman! Smoak hasn’t proven anything, except that he’s still capable of getting people excited, even after many had all but given up on him.
But if people wanted a reason to keep believing in Justin Smoak, he’s given them a reason. He’s made changes, and success has followed. Brandon McCarthy‘s preferred explanation for why some players make it and some players don’t is mental, and Drayer’s article implies that Smoak’s confidence was completely torn to shreds before. As it should’ve been, because he sucked. Now Smoak’s seeing some hard work pay off, and his confidence is soaring. That confidence could allow him to stick with his adjustments and forget about previous at-bats when he steps in for a new one.
Justin Smoak hasn’t yet re-established himself as the Mariners’ first baseman of the future. He might well be on the way, though. As little as one month ago, that was practically inconceivable.