Where There’s Smoak, There’s Something

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+:

  1. Justin Smoak, 195
  2. Joe Mauer, 187
  3. Chase Headley, 183
  4. Adrian Beltre, 180
  5. Ian Desmond, 173

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.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Bryan Grosnick
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Member
Bryan Grosnick
3 years 10 months ago

I hope that something is Michael Fiers.

hmk
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hmk
3 years 10 months ago

i smoak bunts.

snoop LION
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snoop LION
3 years 10 months ago

me too!

Eric
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Eric
3 years 10 months ago

Maybe he just stopped punching trees, and started buying bats like a normal person. Seriously, punching trees seemed like a really dumb thing for someone with a previous thumb injury to do.

Aggie E
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Aggie E
3 years 10 months ago

Smoak just got lucky that he has played Texas a bunch this month. He always smokes Texas. Must be that raw hate….

philosofool
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Member
philosofool
3 years 10 months ago

Three of his homers were in LA and three were well over 400 feet. It might be a fluke, but it isn’t a park thing.

walt526
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walt526
3 years 10 months ago

Beyond the sample size concern, there’s another reason to be skeptical of Smoak’s September numbers. When you see a young hitter put up strong September numbers after struggling all year, the first thing that I wonder about is whether he’s simply hitting better against inferior pitchers. Because of September callups, hitters–particularly on teams that won’t make the playoffs play other non-contenders–are more likely to be facing pitchers who were in the minors for most of the regular season. It’s similar to how we can’t take performance in spring training.

It’s an empirical question that should be relatively easy to see: has the relative quality of opposing pitchers to Smoak decreased in September and, if so, has that loss in quality been greater than league average. We already know that Smoak can hit minor league pitching, so figuring out whether his September numbers are being driven (at least in part) by facing inferior callups will help inform the Mariners and their fans about which Smoak to expect in 2013 and beyond.

ThirteenOfTwo
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ThirteenOfTwo
3 years 10 months ago

Someone hasn’t been keeping up on their Fangraphs.

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/roster-expansion-and-september-hitting/ was posted less than a week ago, which, while the methodology isn’t perfect, largely disproved any correlation between September callups and hitting. Besides, as Jeff mentioned, Smoak has dingered off of three aces, one good relief pitcher and one scrub. His hot streak has coincided perfectly with the Mariners playing a whole run of games against nothing but playoff contenders. I don’t think there’s really an argument there. Now, that doesn’t mean this is sustainable (it’s not, he needs to be better with offspeed pitches), but I don’t think you can blame it on strength of competition.

Craftcj
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Craftcj
3 years 10 months ago

Until September, it was looking like where there’s Smoak, there’s a fired Mariners scout. I wonder if his September surge has saved someone’s job.

Aggie E
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Aggie E
3 years 10 months ago

Not sure why a scout would get fired. Smoak was a highly touted Rangers prospect for a few years…

CMC_Stags
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CMC_Stags
3 years 10 months ago

That trade already got the head of Pro Scouting fired for one of the other prospects who came back.

dan6491
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dan6491
3 years 10 months ago

Numerous players have had one or two excellent months in an otherwise uninspiring career. How about Justin Smoak in September of 2010 – .975 OPS. That was a precursor to . . . The real reason people like you (and I mean that only in the most respectful way) are interested in people like him is that his name is Justin Smoak and he’s from Goose Creek. If he were Jim Smith from Bakersfield, you wouldn’t care.

jackyz
Member
jackyz
3 years 10 months ago

“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.”- Jeff Sullivan

J.D.
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J.D.
3 years 10 months ago

I can’t tell if this is a joke or not. If it isn’t, did you even read the article? Jeff addresses Smoak having a hot September before this one.

ThirteenOfTwo
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ThirteenOfTwo
3 years 10 months ago

That was a precursor to a 156 wRC+ in April 2011 and a 112 WRC+ in May 2011, by the way. Though those months didn’t feature the line drives he was supposed to have, he still showed great power and terrific plate discipline and produced at an outstanding rate until his hand injury in June, which was when everything went to hell.

Simply put, the sequence of events went:
-Smoak looks awesome
-Smoak’s line drives inexplicably vanish, but he still looks awesome
-Smoak hurts his hands and his power goes away
-Smoak tries to lengthen his swing to reclaim power, wrecks his discipline
-Smoak sucks for all of 2012

This month is exciting because Smoak has shown terrific plate discipline, great power and absurdly good quality of conflict, which were the tools that made him a highly touted prospect and the tools that made him great in late 2010/early 2011.

Spike
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Spike
3 years 10 months ago

I think Smoak was underrated before he was overrated and now you’re saying he’s underrated again?? I’m confused.

jackyz
Member
jackyz
3 years 10 months ago

I don’t think Jeff is saying anything about being underrated and overrated. He is saying that Smoak made an adjustment, and he has soared with that adjustment, which is notable.

Spike
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Spike
3 years 10 months ago

hmm, thnx for the translation. I had no idea that’s what Jeff was saying.

Brett
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Brett
3 years 10 months ago

Hmmm… Let’s see… his article did not use the words underrated or overrated at any point… umm… he described Smoak making an adjustment and also having great results after those adjustments were made. Maybe you were reading a different article and then accidentally clicked on a link to this page before posting your comment. ???

Stinky
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Stinky
3 years 9 months ago

Brett…. um, no. check it out… I said that *I think* “he might’ve been underrated before he was overrated” and then added that Sullivan seems to suggest that now Smoak could be underrated again (or perhaps on the rise again whilst most have written him off)…

it’s really not all that confusing.

Bookbook
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Bookbook
3 years 10 months ago

Yep. Baseball America made him their #13 prospect based on name and hometown

Spike
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Spike
3 years 10 months ago

think the M’s could be in on Ike Davis if he’s made available. Frankly, the M’s match up well with the Mets in terms of prospects.

Daniel
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Daniel
3 years 10 months ago

What type of prospects/players are you talking about? I’m curous.

Spike
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Spike
3 years 10 months ago

Maybe Hicks, Miller, Moran… or something of that nature.

Basebull
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Basebull
3 years 10 months ago

This is pure rosterbation and I apologize in advance for getting lured into this, but you’ve got to think that it would take one of the stud pitchers to get Davis. He’s 25 with a good prospect pedigree and 30+ HR power. All it would take is some improvement against lefties and he’s an All Star.

Dan
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Dan
3 years 10 months ago

Noooooooooo

truffleshuffle
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truffleshuffle
3 years 10 months ago

Smoak is using his front foot in a different way in the September GIFs. His upper body is now directly following his lower body, whereas before he was pausing between the foot getting set down and the actual swing. I don’t think he was using his lower body effectively before, and now is. That would explain both faster bat speed and better timing, not to mention allowing him to keep his head steadier. Watch how jerky his head motion is when he swings. It’s still going to hold him back in pitch identification, but it is better than it was.

This guy
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This guy
3 years 10 months ago

Yeah, there’s definitely a smoother weight transfer in the September GIFs, especially from the left side. The GIFs make it look like, earlier in the year, he was shifting his weight to the front foot early and negating the legs almost entirely.

deadpool
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deadpool
3 years 10 months ago

Exactly what I was thinking. His head placement is good enough now that I’d expect his recognition might even improve a bit more as his weight transfer gets smoother. At the very least he’s keeping two eyes on the ball longer.

ThirteenOfTwo
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ThirteenOfTwo
3 years 10 months ago

Thanks a bunch for the GIFs, Jeff. You said there was no big difference you could spot in the RH swing, so I downloaded them to do a frame-by-frame.

The thing I notice is that Smoak’s RH swing looks a little quicker now. The first swing took 15 frames to get from his foot hitting the ground to the bat hitting his back on the followthrough, while the second swing took only 14. However, I don’t necessarily know what you did to make the GIFs… there are repeated frames in each GIF, so that the first dinger swing is 14 distinct frames while the second is only 10 distinct frames. His bat is also cocked further back before the swing begins in the new dinger swing than in the old one. Not nearly as obvious as the LH changes, but maybe something.

Clay.Parrish
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Clay.Parrish
3 years 10 months ago

You can actually see the difference in both swings. He’s driving to a point right out in front of his lead hip in the September swings. His most explosive point of the swing is in the middle of the hitting zone. In the May lefty swing he jammed himself, so that’s not really a good example. In the right handed May swing his most explosive point is somewhere so far on the edge of the hitting zone the only thing he could hit with authority is a ball on the inner half, ie something he could pull.

A lot of this, at least in the righty swing (the swing I know better) is because his hip isn’t leaking in the September swing.

Bigmouth
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3 years 10 months ago

Interesting…

You typically lose bat speed while presumably gaining control by keeping your top hand on the bat. But by switching to a lighter bat he compensates for the loss in bat speed. So the net result is the same bat speed with greater control.

Bigmouth
Guest
3 years 10 months ago

PS: I should add my dominant recollection of Smoak the few times I saw him before the demotion was that he swung way too hard and out of control. Like a guy playing wiffle ball or something.

dan6491
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dan6491
3 years 10 months ago

Brandon Moss over a similar number of 2012 Sept. plate appearances has an OPS of 1.109 against 1.063 for Smoak. Lifetime over a similar number of plate appearances, his OPS is .750 and Smoak has .680. Many people on this site claim that JS has “taken that next step”. Others point out that the sample size is too small to be meaningful. My comment was meant in indicate that often, mediocre players close out the season in spectacular fashion and then everyone works back to explain why that player did so well. If one month of September at bats is that meaningful, then both Moss and Smoak will be on the AllStar team next summer.

Jeff could just as easily have written this article about Brandon Moss (or some other player), but the player Smoak coming from a small southern town is much more interesting in a literary sense. Heck, image the press if Grant Desme resurrected his baseball career. They’d call him Jesus Desme (and I mean that only in the most respectful way).

Noel
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Noel
3 years 10 months ago

Did you even READ the article? Jeff has noted (here and in other articles) that its way too early to tell if this is the beginning of anything sustainable. Seriously, try reading before posting.

Noel
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Noel
3 years 10 months ago

Oh, wait. I see you’re multi-posting on this topic. Way to troll; go grind your axe somewhere else…

blahblahblah
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blahblahblah
3 years 10 months ago

Isn’t it possible he is being written about because he was one of the more interesting prospects in the game a couple years back, who has faceplanted since, but is now showing an flash of what was once pretty much expected after altering his approach? I mean, doesnt that make a little more sense than your insistent “small town with cool name” theory?

BTW, Smoak has a slightly high, but not unrealistic, .358 BAbip this September. Your example, Brandon Moss, is at .529 for the month. Obviously, one is a unrealistic fluke with massive regression around the corner while the other is a reachable level and possible sign of things to come in a player who has made adjustments. Starting to figure out why Smoak is news and Moss isnt yet, or just going to post once again with the conspiracy theory?

Uh
Guest
Uh
3 years 10 months ago

Or maybe it’s because Jeff is a Mariners fan?

Jaejo
Member
Jaejo
3 years 10 months ago

It seems to me like he’s swinging with just his hands in both befores and afters. He swings his hips around squarely and stops them by the time the bat contacts the ball – which causes him to do a little shimmy-sway with his thigh during the follow through. And now I can’t un-see it.

cable fixer
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cable fixer
3 years 10 months ago

I see a lot of irrational exuberance here. At this point, I’m sympathetic to the view of an earlier commentator who pointed out that the interest in Smoak is largely based in his name (aka his high prospect status). In Smoak’s defense, he never had the minor league stats to warrant such a ranking. It was all projection. Which is fine, of course, but it might be prudent to let go of that 2009 view of him now that we have 1400 major league ABs.

Fwiw, he still could be a nice 2-3 WAR 1b based on his defense, obp, and moderate pop…and, frankly, he’s a distinct bargain compared to another negative WAR 1b–Ryan Howard.

blahblahblah
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blahblahblah
3 years 10 months ago

People seem to lose sight of the fact that Justin isnt but 25 now, was drafted only 5 years ago, and didnt even see 600 PA in the minors before being called up to the show at the age of 23.

In his half season at AA Frisco in 2009, despite having only seen 16 career pro games to that point, he managed to post the 5th highest OPS in the league. Thats when he moved up to become one of the youngest hitters at AAA, and posted a respectable league-average-ish line as a 22yo in a league where the average player was nearly 27.

In 2010, his second full Pro season, the now 23 year old playing in AAA would have again finished 5th in OPS had he not been called up to the Rangers and subsequently traded for one of the best pitchers in the game.

We arent even talking about a player with a track-record here, he had but 136 games worth of stats in 5 quick stops over a roughly year and a half time-frame before seeing the majors. Despite that, he was a top5 hitter in 2 of the more lengthy stops while consistently being years younger then the competition.

Ron
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Ron
3 years 10 months ago

The post doesn’t seem like irrational exuberance. It seems like an attempt to figure out what is going on with Justin Smoak. The last line of the post describes Smoak as an interesting possibility rather than a complete loss. It is not saying that Smoak is going to be a MVP contender next year or even that Smoak is going to make it to Travis Lee productivity. Just that Smoak has made some changes and they appear to be paying off. He is a great example of a player that has had a great month and maybe we can learn something from his changes. This post is filled with qualifiers so I am not sure how that translates into exuberance.

cyberscribe
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cyberscribe
3 years 10 months ago

I think Smoak is one of those guys who would have us groaning if he were traded, like Mike Morse or LeHair. He makes a lot of warning track outs in Safeco that would carry into the stands elsewhere. This is likely why he was a hot prospect in Texas. Beltre is an all-star in Texas, but a dud as a hitter in Seattle. Smoak would have a lot of value to a team in Texas, Arizona or Southern California, but I’d rather see him turn it around in Seattle.

Daven
Guest
3 years 10 months ago

Yep, I agree. Even with him being awful at the plate this season, he still is on a full season worth of ABs pace of about 24 HRs, not to mention the fact that Safeco this year has been murder to hitters.

While his batting average probably still would have been not that good, it seems reasonable enough to think if he played someplace like Texas, Arizona, or the like, 30 HRs in a full season of ABs would not at all been out of the question for him in those environments as well as maybe a 10-ish point increase on his BA.

And the way he looks when he’s going good like now, you can really see why scouts thought so highly of him. Some guys when they get hot, you see a lot of bloopers and the like contributing. When he gets hot, even his outs seem to be predominately deep fly-out or a hard liner somewhere.

So I’m also in the boat of being irrationally encouraged about his hot finish and the fact that there *seems* to be a reason behind it. I’m also encouraged that last off-season his goal was to lose fat, which he did in spades. This off-season, he’s said his goal is to gain a significant amount of muscle. If he starts turning some of those warning track shots he’s so famous for into HRs, even without a huge improvement elsewhere, he’ll start to get a lot more valuable, let alone if they move in the fences at Safeco which it wouldn’t be surprising if they do.

loopie
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loopie
3 years 10 months ago

“… would start to gel and…”

Dirck
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Dirck
3 years 10 months ago

I traded off Smoak in my dynasty fantasy leagues last winter when there was still a bit of hope for him among other owners . I might try to get him back cheap this winter if articles like this haven’t re-lit the hope in his owners .

Scraps
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Scraps
3 years 10 months ago

Let us know!

chris
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chris
3 years 7 months ago

I just bought him for 3 million in my dynasty league.

Justin Smoak
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Justin Smoak
3 years 10 months ago

I try to hit a HR during every PA. I almost have 20; go me!!

Justin Smoak
Guest
Justin Smoak
3 years 10 months ago

… oh yeah, if nothing else I’ll always be good for a September/Playoff run.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 10 months ago

In the GIF’s, from the left side two differences I see are [1] the slight hesitation from toe touch (front foot) and heel drop (the “start” of the swing, and [2] in Spetember he has a 2-handed follow through.

Neither of which would make much difference in the quality of contact.

He has good mechanics for the most part. An Adrian Gonzalezesque “stretch” as the rear elbow moves toward the 1B dugout, so much that you can see his name and both jersey numbers from the pitcher’s view. The rear elbow “drops” or “moves toward the hip, tipping/turning the bat. But he also seems to straighten the front arm almost from the get go. The swing is the strongest when both arms form right angles at contact, compare mechanics to Miguel Cabrera for example (upper arm angles), despite how many broadcasters will talk about “getting extension” with the arms. Extension is at follow through, after contact has been made.

In all 4 vids note: [1] the catcher’s target, [2] where the pitch ends up. All the pitches missed their intended location and ended up in the center of the plate.

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