By Shannon Drayer
So who is this new Justin Smoak and is what we’re watching now something different or something like what we’ve seen the last two Septembers?
Coming into Wednesday’s game against the Angels, Smoak had put up a .548 on-base percentage, an .889 slugging percentage and a 1.473 OPS in 42 plate appearances since Sept. 13.
Seen it before, right?
From Sept. 18 to Oct. 3 of 2010, Smoak hit .340/.421/.580/.1.001. From Sept. 2 to Sept. 14 he hit .326/.396/.465/.861. There were reasons for these numbers. The numbers in 2010 came after Smoak was sent down to get much needed at-bats in the minors. In 2011 he suffered a broken nose and while he was out with that he had an opportunity to rest two injured thumbs which no doubt had been affecting his swing.
Justin Smoak entered Thursday’s game hitting .355 with five home runs and nine RBIs in September. (AP photo)
What about this year?
The improvement somewhat corresponds with a short trip to Tacoma. Although he did not spend a lot of time there he was at least able to start work on new mechanics and get a much needed breather. Smoak is not one who often shows that the struggles are bothering him. According to Triple-A hitting coach Jeff Pentland, Smoak’s struggles were weighing on him to the point of hindering any chance of progress.
“Justin is a little bit of a different animal because he is a great human being and when he doesn’t do well it bothers him,” Pentland said. “You have to turn the page and move on. You can’t let at-bats affect you. When he came down to Tacoma I saw a very good athlete, a good player. I thought he was a little stressed out and I think it was a good time for him to get away from it. I think it has carried over for him.”
Smoak headed straight to the batting cages after his first game in Tacoma with Pentland and spent two to three hours working. The goal was what it had been for some time: shorten the swing from the left side. Smoak put in good work and showed some progress. He was on his way, but there were more changes to be made. Namely, keep both hands on the bat as he swing.
“It sounds so simple but it is really not as you can tell by the way this year has gone,” Smoak said in the dugout before Thursday’s game. “It is really just try to keep it simple, keep both hands on the bat and just try to square balls up.”
Easier said than done. Smoak was struggling with the adjustment and finally decided to try something that had been suggested by a few of the coaches for some time. He went to a smaller-barreled bat on the left side.
“I am actually using the same bat [Dustin] Ackley uses,” he said laughing. “I don’t know if that makes me feel like a smaller guy, but whatever works.”
When did he switch bats?
“About two weeks ago, when it started to turn around a little bit,” he told me with a half smile.
The bat not only has a smaller barrel but also a thinner handle. Hitting coach Chris Chambliss has been working with Smoak for some time from the left side to get his top hand, which is his dominant hand, more active in the swing. While many guys will go to a thicker handle to prevent them from rolling over with their hands, Smoak had a different problem. He was basically dragging his top hand through the hitting zone. The thinner handle and smaller barrel help get the hand more into a power position through the zone and give him a shorter, quicker swing.
Chambliss likes what he has seen.
“Before there were many moving parts to his swing. Now we are seeing one complete motion,” he said. “It is a significant change.”
For Smoak, there is not only relief in that he has found something that gets him back to feeling like he did when he had his most success, which was when he was in college, but also a clear path in what he will do in the offseason. He feels he has found the answers he needed to.
“It’s real important,” he said. “I like where I am at now. I would like to keep doing what I am doing this offseason work-wise, cage-wise, BP-wise. I’ve gone back to how I was hitting in college and it has a lot to do with what I am doing now.”
In addition to cage work Smoak will once again work on his body. Last year it was about getting leaner. This winter it will be about adding muscle mass.
“It will be more about trying to get as strong as possible,” he said. “I have got a big frame, and there is a lot more strength I can put in this body and I think that is something I need to do.”
There are reasons for why we are seeing what we have seen from Smoak. He can’t continue to hit at a .472/.548/.889/1.473 clip but there is good reason to believe that he is setting the foundation for being a much more productive hitter from the left side than what we have seen.