Earlier this season (maybe even at the beginning of the season), Mariners’ manager Lloyd McClendon said that he was done with Justin Smoak being a home run guy. This season Smoakie was to be turned into a doubles machine. It certainly said a lot about how Lloyd envisioned the Mariners, a team that would manufacture runs through more than simply pounding balls out of the park, a feat that is sometimes hard to accomplish at Safeco even with the walls brought in.
Now that we’re nearly two months into the season, how is this great experiment working out? Well, lets compare notes for the Big Smoak over the last few seasons.
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Note that these are only April-May stats for the last three years. There is a notable slump to kick off the 2013 season, a season in which Smoak saw a career high home run count (20) and career best triple-slash (.238/.334/.412). So clearly he managed to do something differently over the remainder of that season.
My initial reaction to seeing that was that maybe nothing actually needed to be changed. Smoak is coming off of a career year at the plate in terms of both HR and BA, and he was very close to his best RBI production (50, career best 55). It seems silly to mess with something that is clearly working. While by no stretch is that a Hall of Fame worthy career, it certainly indicates things are progressing.
Lets take a step back for a second though. I mean, Justin Smoak is a name that makes many Mariners fans cringe, or at the very least, shake their heads in discontent. Smoak is sometimes really good, and oftentimes really bad. Inconsistency was the name of the game with him, if he had been able to stay hot for a whole 2013 season, we might have seen 75+ RBIs and 30+ HRs. Instead we were treated to an 18 game skid mid-August where he managed only 7 hits in 69 plate appearances. It was enough to make most fans slam their face into a wall. Moreover, those 2012 numbers above, with 27 RBIs in the first two months of the season seem promising, but we were treated to only 24 more over the remaining 4 months of the season. Streakiness isn’t really something new with this guy.
With that, even though 2013 was a career year for Smoak, it may not actually be as good as the numbers. Clearly he’s got more potential somewhere in the chamber, it’s just a matter of getting to it. There is clearly some validity to Lloyd trying to change things up this season.
Turning Justin Smoak into a ‘doubles machine’ is actually working quite well. The table above shows that he’s on track for more extra base hits than ever before. His previous highs were 2011 and 2013 with 39. Given that we’re only wrapping up May and sitting at 19, there’s a pretty high likelihood that we’ll see him eclipse those numbers sometime in August (and that’s allowing for some wiggle room). We’re only a third of the way through the season right now, so we still have lots of time left to keep things rolling.
Newly promoted hitting coach Howard Johnson looks like he’s playing a huge role in this conversion. Greg Johns noted that Howard makes a great coach for Smoak because he too was a switch hitter during his career nearly 20 years ago. Johns also noted that Smoak and HoJo are riding to the park together frequently, if that means anything for his swing. Generating offense from both sides of the plate certainly looks to be one of the biggest changes for Smoak this season.
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Note that the 2013 numbers are for the whole season, while 2014 is obviously only April and May.
The biggest change here is that Smoak appears to have figured out (a little bit at least) how to generate some power off of left-handed pitching. He’s already reached his 2013 numbers in both extra bases and RBIs. Certainly a good place to be after only one third of the season. On the down side the strikeouts are racking up pretty quickly over there, so that’s certainly something to watch out for. Smoak is on pace to shatter his strikeout numbers against lefties and has only managed a meager 3 walks off them this season. So while well-hit ball numbers are going up, there’s definitely a price to pay.
Justin Smoak, if he can keep it up, might actually be on pace for a spectacular year. Only 1/3rd of the way through the season he’s likely to have 30 RBIs by the time May closes out, giving him a chance at hitting the 100 mark if he can keep it together. I remain cautiously optimistic because we saw similar numbers from him in 2012 and then saw the wheels fall off. Having those kinds of numbers mean a lot of Smoak continues to bat behind Robinson Cano.
As always, consistency is the name of the game. It’s a long season, but so far there’s a reason to be happy with Justin Smoak.