Mariners profiles: Justin Smoak under the spotlight

Is Justin Smoak a bust?

#17 – Seattle Mariners
Position: First Base
Height: 6’4″
Weight: 230 lbs
Birthdate: December 5, 1986
Birthplace: Goose Creek, South Carolina
College: South Carolina

Interesting question isn’t it? For most of the Seattle Mariners fans who have been waiting for Justin Smoak to live up to the enormous expectations of being the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee deal, the bust tag has been a common theme.

It’s not that simple though. Many times a player has been written off by a team before he should’ve been, only to resurface a few years later on another team living up to the expectations of years past.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik understands this better than anyone and when it comes to the touchy subject of Justin Smoak, this subject isn’t lost on him.

Expectations are a double-edged sword for high round picks. On one hand, a prospect can live in the moment and be able to thrive under the constant spotlight.

He can produce for his MLB club and still develop his tools without missing a beat.

For the rest of the prospects, the spotlight can be so glaring it actually becomes a detriment. In this case, a player’s deficiencies are placed on the forefront for everyone to pick apart and because of that, his development time slows down.

He ends up trying so hard to produce he becomes his own worst enemy.

Enter the 2012 version of Justin Smoak

What we have seen develop right before our very eyes is somewhat of a head scratcher because Justin Smoak was a player that excelled at every level of professional baseball.

He never showed signs of regression or a even showed signs of a potential prolonged hitting slump.

On the contrary, Smoak showed his potential worth during his short time in Texas‘ minor league organization.

  • (*)2008 – A – Clinton – in 50 games, .304/.355/.518/.873, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 3 2B, 9 R, 5 BB’s/10 K’s in 56 AB’s. (* Shortened season. Smoak signed with the Rangers on Aug 15th, 2008)
  • 2009 – AA – Frisco – in 50 games, .328/.449/.481/.930, 6 HR, 29 RBI, 10 2B, 30 R, 39 BB’s/35 K’s in 153 AB’s
  • 2009 – AAA- OKC – in 54 games, .244/.363/.360/.723, 4 HR, 23 RBI, 11 2B, 25 R, 35 BB’s/45 K’s in 197 AB’s
  • 2010 – AAA – OKC – in 15 games, .300/.470/.540/.1.010, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 6 2B, 10 R, 16 BB’s/8 K’s in 50 AB’s

The mystery behind this demise is immense because generally speaking, a hitter never shows the prototypical signs of regression. It doesn’t equate to why Smoak has struggled during his short time in Seattle (.221/.307/.371/.677, 31 HR, 113 RBI, 39 2B, 87 R, 109 BB’s/223 K’s in 882 MLB AB’s).

One theory surfaced a few weeks ago by uber sabrematician Dave Cameron of who wrote that Justin Smoak‘s pitch recognition and elongated swing doesn’t allow him to catch up to inside fastballs or off-speed pitches down in the zone.

Which in turn results in a low contact rate (71.3%).

While Cameron’s points are valid on many levels, he failed to point out the simplest explanation for Smoak’s lack of production.

He’s mired in the mother of all hitting slumps!

I know, it sounds too easy of an explanation

I get that, but do you really need a bunch of spray charts and pitch graphs to tell you that Smoak is slumping at the plate? All you need to do is watch Smoak’s demeanor during an at-bat.

His mannerisms scream of a guy who is pressing. He’s over-adjusting in every at-bat, trying to catch up to the fastballs pitchers are pounding in on his hands.

Justin Smoak, Seattle Mariners

He's mired in the mother of all hitting slumps!

Instead of taking what a pitcher is willing to give him (anything on the outer-half of the plate/going the other way), Smoak is trying too hard to swing himself out of his slump. Once a player reaches that point, he is absolutely no good to his team or his lineup.

This isn’t anything new in terms of struggling prospects. It happens every year to every MLB team.

When teams are faced with the tough decision of sending a prospect down it’s because he was overwhelmed or flat out wasn’t ready for MLB. Case in point, Alex Gordon of the Kansas City Royals.

After being selected 2nd overall in the 2005 MLB Draft, the Royals fast tracked Gordon in hopes of having his ready-made tools be the difference for their franchise.

It didn’t work out the way Gordon or the Royals hoped it would. Gordon struggled through two and a half seasons (1200 AB’s) before being sent back down to AAA Omaha. In hindsight that ended up being the right decision.

I think we can be quite honest with each other

Justin Smoak is not comfortable in a MLB batter’s box. For the first time in his life, he is not excelling at the one thing that brought him joy. He needs to recapture that. He needs to feel good about stepping into the batter’s box knowing he will succeed.

He needs to have the confidence in his swing that made him a #1 pick and a top prospect. Right now he is so far in his own head he cannot see the forest through the trees.

By going down to Tacoma, Smoak can calm down and just relax and refocus his energy back on baseball. He can work out whatever swing issues he has with the Rainiers coaching staff, and feel good about dominating a level of pitching he is clearly better than.

At this point, it’s the only thing that could potentially get Smoak’s season back on track.

I think we all want Smoak be the player we know he can be, but we can also understand what it means to be in a slump. I think we need to spend more time respecting his slump and allowing him to work through it instead of micromanaging his slump by picking him apart.

It’s way too early to label him a bust but if something doesn’t give, the Mariners will be adding 1B to their off-season shopping list.


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