By TJ Cotterill The News Tribune
Tacoma — These days, Justin Smoak’s swing is noticeably different.
The now-Tacoma Rainiers first baseman’s swing is shorter, more compact and doesn’t start so far behind his head. It’s supposed to help him react quicker to pitches.
It’s also not the swing that produced 13 home runs during his time with the Seattle Mariners before being demoted to the Class AAA Rainiers. But after watching his batting average plummet to .189 in Seattle, something had to change.
“Being a big guy and knowing you have power can make it hard sometimes to not try to muscle it out,” Smoak said Wednesday. “It’s … where I’m at right now; I have to stay loose and stay short and quick.”
Where Smoak is right now is far from where the Mariners expected him to be when he came in the trade that shipped pitcher Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers in 2010.
“It definitely hasn’t been easy, but at the same time I’m here for a reason,” Smoak said. “I have to work on a few things to get better and to get to where I want to be because that’s not where I’m at right now.”
Smoak is working with Rainiers pitching coach Jeff Pentland, who was the hitting coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers last year and was the Mariners’ hitting coach for three years before that. Pentland is the architect of the new swing, which is supposed to help Smoak attain consistency.
But Pentland is adamant that Smoak’s swing was only part of the problem.
“I think the expectations are so high that you do things out of character as far as your talent is concerned,” Pentland said. “I think that got to the point where everything happened with him in Seattle. What we are trying to do is get him more comfortable and doing things his way, his natural way, rather than trying to force things.”
Pentland said he has noticed daily improvement with Smoak in the batting cage and in batting practice, but it has yet to transfer to the field.
While Smoak’s batting average has climbed above the Mendoza Line (.200) since being handed a Rainiers jersey, it’s not by much. He is batting .216 with Tacoma with only four extra-base hits in 51 at-bats — none being home runs.
“Hitting has to be a reaction,” Pentland said. “Sometimes when you try to hit the ball a little too hard or do too much that’s when you have all the mis-hits. But he is working really hard at this, and there is no question he has been there and had success. All we are trying to do is get him back.”
Smoak has had periods of success in the major leagues but not consistently. He is tied for the Mariners’ lead in home runs this season, and had some power stretches in 2011. Despite injuries and the death of his father last season, he still hit 15 homers.
However, during his three years in the majors Smoak has not produced like the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft was expected to. He has a lifetime batting average of .215 in 1,119 at-bats with an on-base percentage of .297 and a slugging percentage of .365.
Switch hitters — of which Smoak is one — have been known to take longer to develop than others. At 25 years old, he still has time to turn things around.
Exactly how much time is up to the Mariners’ front office.
“There is no doubt I can play there (in the major leagues),” Smoak said. “It’s just a matter of being consistent. What I am working on now is showing them I can be consistent in the cage and in BP every day, and hopefully it starts carrying over into games.
“I’m putting in the work and things are feeling better. It’s just a matter of carrying it into games.”