By Brent Stecker
With a steady stream of production since June, it appears Justin Smoak has finally turned the corner to become a better-than-average option for the Mariners at first base. But that doesn’t mean all the questions have been answered regarding his ability to be an everyday player in the MLB.
Without a doubt, Smoak has been on a tear since he returned to the lineup from an injury on June 18. He’s batting .273/.368/.453 with 14 homers and 34 RBIs this season, including 11 homers and 26 RBIs since June. That only tells one side of the story, however.
Justin Smoak has hit 14 home runs this season, but none have come from the right side of the plate. (AP)
Smoak, a switch-hitter, has been dynamite from the left side of the plate – he has a slash line of .308/.406/.549 against right-handed pitchers. But swinging as a right-hander, he’s been woeful against southpaws (.194/.275/.235 with no homers and three RBIs).
One look at those split numbers, and it’s evident that while Smoak is terrorizing right-handed pitchers, he’s still at best a platoon player because of his issues hitting lefties.
So how should Smoak approach correcting his problem?
An interesting idea is to abandon switch-hitting entirely to focus on hitting from the left side of the plate. That is easier said than done, and extremely rare in the MLB, as is detailed in this Beyond the Box Score article from last year.
Though there are limited examples of players who ditched switch hitting at some point in their career, one does stick out as a good comparison for Smoak. J.T. Snow, a former first baseman most notably for the Giants, spent the first six years of his career batting from both sides of the plate until he opted to hit left-handed exclusively starting in 1999. He had immediate results – his average jumped 26 points from the previous season and he hit 24 home runs, tied for the second-most in his career. And against lefties, he hit .231, a drastic improvement from .157 in 1998, when he was still switch-hitting.
It was a mixed bag from then on out, however – Snow was arguably even better in 2000 with 19 homers, 96 RBIs and a .284 average (including .256 against lefties), but he was a combined .246 with just 14 homers over the next two seasons, and moved into platoon roles for much of the rest of his career.
It’s highly unlikely Smoak will cease to hit right-handed after this season, but it’s worth consideration. At the very least, his offseason should have a clear concentration on fixing his approach against lefties. And in that respect, there’s another person he can follow in the footsteps of, though they are mighty big footsteps.
In the early part of his career, Braves legend Chipper Jones was known for being death to righties while having very limited power against lefties. In 1997, he hit .317 with 20 homers swinging left-handed, but just .250 with a single home run hitting right-handed. In 1998, he smacked 34 homers, but all but two were hit left-handed.
And that’s when things started to change.
In 1999, at the age of 27, Jones hit a career-high 45 home runs, including 15 against lefties, and his batting average from the right side was a robust .352, a full 44 points higher than his average from the left side. From then on, the book on Jones read a lot different, because he wasn’t the same hitter that lefties had no problem keeping in the ballpark.
Like Jones was in 1999, Smoak will be 27 when the 2014 season rolls along. And the Mariners can only hope that a little bit of that same type of improvement that Jones enjoyed (albeit in a much more hitter-friendly era) will show from the big first baseman from Goose Creek, S.C.