PEORIA, Ariz. — Jeff Pentland looked at the kid sitting in front of him.
He was big. He was strong. He was talented. And he was completely lost.
There was Justin Smoak — a one-time, can’t-miss hitting prospect — who had been missing so much at the plate that he was sent to Class AAA Tacoma to figure things out. As hitting coach for the Rainiers last season, it was going to be Pentland’s job to fix what was broken in Smoak’s swing, and restore his confidence.
The hitting coach knew what he had to do. He knew it wasn’t going to be fun for Smoak, who had been sent to the Rainiers the day before.
Pentland and manager Daren Brown had let Smoak play his first game after the demotion on July 24 without saying much. Smoak went 1-for-4 with a single and a walk and a strikeout.
After the game, plenty was said.
Pentland had spoken with Mariners manager Eric Wedge and former Seattle batting coach Chris Chambliss. He’d watched tape of Smoak’s struggles during the season. And he watched from the dugout that night.
With Smoak sitting there, Pentland told Smoak all that was wrong and he didn’t sugarcoat it. It wasn’t mean-spirited, just “absolute honesty,” which is how the veteran hitting coach went about his business.
“I let him have it,” Pentland said of the meeting. “I told him everything I thought. And I’m sure some of it wasn’t easy to hear. But it needed to be said.”
It was that meeting that began the process of changing Smoak’s left-handed swing into what we see today. The swing helped Smoak put together a solid September when he returned to the big leagues. The swing he worked on all offseason in preparation for this season. The swing that has gotten Smoak off to a torrid start this spring. The swing that could possibly help him blossom into the hitter the Mariners thought he would be when they acquired him in the Cliff Lee trade from the Rangers in July of 2010.
“After what happened last year, knowing where I’m at now, hopefully I can look back and say it was one of the best things to happen to me in my career,” Smoak said.
At the time, it was the low point of his career. He was hitting .189 with a .579 on-base plus slugging percentage and 85 strikeouts in 344 at-bats.
“No one ever wants to get sent down,” Smoak said. “But I knew something was wrong.”
Pentland could see it immediately.
“He was a mess at the plate,” Pentland said.
And Smoak’s mindset?
“He was fried,” Pentland said.
So after that meeting where Pentland did most of the talking and Smoak did most of the listening, the two went to work the next day.
It wasn’t going to happen overnight.
“It’s not like we work miracles,” Pentland said.
Instead, Pentland stressed simplicity. He went back to basics with a “go back to Little League” approach.
“The big thing for me was my upper body,” Smoak said. “I was trying to generate everything from there. I was hiding my hands behind my body. My shoulders were turned. Everything was long. I was trying to generate everything with my upper body instead of being short and quick to the ball and let my legs do the work.”
Smoak’s swing wasn’t always that way. But over the years, the idea of living up to expectations, trying to hit baseballs farther and farther, playing in Safeco Field, it all led to bad habits that led to bad technique.
“It’s easy to lose your way,” Pentland said. “He got so caught up in being this power hitter and trying so to hit balls a long ways that he stopped worrying about just squaring the bat up with the ball.”
So Pentland changed Smoak’s hand placement, lowering them toward his body. They cut out the pre-swing movement and the dramatic trigger to start the swing. Simple was better.
They put in hours together — the craggy veteran and the fallen rising star.
“He loved to put the work in,” Smoak said. “If I was there doing something, he was there with me. He was easy to talk to. I could tell him what felt right and what didn’t feel right.”
There were hours spent hitting off the tee and in the cage. There were early batting practice sessions. Smoak never complained and embraced the teachings.
“The trainer came to me and said I had to back off or else he wasn’t going to be able to play,” Pentland said. “I went to Justin and asked if he wanted to give it a break and he said, ‘absolutely not.’”
With the swing getting shorter and shorter, Smoak had to adjust to the idea of being quicker to pitches.
“Going into games I was hitting a bunch of ground balls to first and second,” he said. “I was way out in front. But it was one of those things where I just had to trust it.”
Pentland continually preached to Smoak that “speed is not a factor.” So no matter how fast the pitch was coming, his swing would be quick enough to hit it. He had to let the baseball come to him instead of reaching for it.
“It felt like I was hitting the ball out of the catcher’s mitt,” Smoak said. “It showed me how long I could let the ball travel.”
By seeing the ball longer, it was supposed to help with Smoak’s other problem — pitch recognition.
“The longer you see it, the better chance you have to recognize it,” Pentland said.
Smoak spent a few weeks with the Rainiers before being called up when Mike Carp went on the disabled list. But Pentland was able to join Smoak with the team when the Rainiers’ season ended.
The two continued to work on the swing. During a five-day stretch where Smoak wasn’t playing, he came to Pentland with the idea of finishing his swing with both hands on the bat.
Pentland liked the idea. It emphasized the idea of the front arm controlling the bat and making contact with the ball and the back arm providing the power.
“Justin had it backwards,” Pentland said. “He tried to generate his power with the front arm.”
The change stopped the problem.
“When I was started finishing with two hands on the bat, it was a night and day difference,” Smoak said. “My hands were where they needed to be, my path was right and I was able to finish my swing.”
Smoak started putting up numbers. He hit .341 (31-for-91) with six doubles, five homers and 11 RBI in his last 27 games.
The success gave him confidence heading into the offseason where he continued to work on what he and Pentland had developed, while also dropping his body fat and adding muscle.
So when Pentland decided to seek employment elsewhere, Smoak had the base of instruction embedded into him.
“He had forgotten so much of what he already knew,” Pentland said. “You teach him so he can teach himself.”
Smoak started Cactus League games on a torrid pace, and even after a couple bad games, he’s still hitting .360 (9-for-25) with three doubles, two homers and six RBI. Smoak knows the numbers are meaningless, but he’s seeing things that tell him he’s where he should be.
“Normally, I’m a guy who would have broken five or six bats in spring, and I haven’t broken one yet,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about the inside pitch anymore. It’s something I always worried about because I couldn’t get to it because my swing was so long.”
Will Smoak’s September and spring success carry over into the 2013 season and beyond? He’s at a minor crossroads in his baseball career. He needs to prove to the Mariners he can hit and be the every day first baseman they’ve envisioned or they will simply move on without him.”
“I’ve never once felt he wouldn’t hit in the big leagues,” Pentland said. “He just kind of lost his way.”
Smoak believes he’s found himself in this swing.
“This is who I was before the struggles,” he said. “I picked up a lot of bad habits along the way. I feel more comfortable in the box and I feel more comfortable where I’m at right now,” he said. “I’m swinging at pitches I should be swinging at and taking pitches I shouldn’t be swinging at.”