PEORIA, Ariz. — Justin Smoak will get at least the start of the 2013 season to show he can still be the Mariners’ everyday first baseman.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said Monday that barring “something drastic” Smoak will open this season there and Kendrys Morales at designated hitter. Smoak hopes to demonstrate that his strong final month of last season was more than the mirage his previous stellar Septembers proved to be.
He spent all winter training to sustain his success, working out at the Citadel in North Carolina with his agent, Hunter Bledsoe, who has devoted years of his life to understanding the reasons behind his own baseball failures. Smoak, 26, has known Bledsoe, 37, a former Southeastern Conference Player of the Year at Vanderbilt who washed out in Class AA.
So, when Smoak needed help with his mindset and body after a difficult 2012 season, he turned to a former player he knew could understand where he was at.
“He’s somebody I know I could trust,” Smoak said. “It wasn’t just because he’s my agent. He’s just good. I felt like he was a guy I could go to.”
The simplistic, not-quite-accurate answer to why Smoak hit .341 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.005 last September was that he made a radical change to his swing. To hear the story, Smoak was demoted to AAA in July, worked hard to rework his swing, then returned to the majors and tore it up.
But Bledsoe, who has detailed charts and locations of every pitch thrown to Smoak last season, says his swing was always the same. It was everything he did right before the swing that changed.
“The reason he had success had nothing really to do with a mechanical adjustment,” said Bledsoe, who worked out three or four times with Smoak, then continued conversations by phone. “I think, for Justin, what made the biggest difference was the understanding that every good hitter in the big leagues has a plan and typically, they don’t deviate from that plan.”
For Smoak, that meant getting better at studying pitchers then to reduce guesswork by looking for the right pitches in the right places.
Getting Smoak to better understand this mental side of the game and how it influences his hitting mechanics was key. Bledsoe remembers his own frustrating pro experience.
“I was always frustrated by never getting the answers I searched for,” Bledsoe said. “So, I went back and looked for different ways this could be done. I just centered my quest on finding more efficient ways to teach people and to help.”
Bledsoe believes hitting mechanics are connected to external factors like rhythm, timing, approach and vision at the plate. The more a hitter goes up “ready to hit” the better his overall hitting mechanics will be. Conversely, when the hitter lacks a plan, he chases bad pitches, mechanics are thrown off and a swing gets longer.
While that mental part became their prime focus, they did work on perfecting Smoak’s swing—primarily from the left side—so that it stays short. They focused on getting his hands and hips to work in unison on each swing, starting off with a “slow practice” technique that Bledsoe says is found in martial arts and other sports.
Rather than swing full speed at pitches, Smoak would work on taking one slow, perfect swing over a full minute at a time. Smoak did this for a month, starting in October, then quickened his pace in ensuing months until his swings were full speed.
The result is something Smoak hopes will help him build on his success of last September. He’d had similar success in September 2010 and 2011, when had a .301 average and a .793 OPS. Again, none of it carried over into 2012 — until September.
“This past one was different for me, compared to the other two,” Smoak said. “The other two were good Septembers, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
This time, he added, he feels he has something built to last.
Wedge doesn’t want to mess with that confidence. Monday, he said he’d wait until the regular season before contemplating changing first basemen.
“Spring training is a part of it, but it’s by no means the biggest part of it as far as I’m concerned,” Wedge said. “You’ve got to look at everything.”
In other words, nothing that happens during Cactus League play—barring a trade or injury—is going to change Smoak being the primary first baseman.
“It would have to be something drastic,” Wedge said.
That could change if Smoak struggles once the season starts. There are now, after all, several in-house replacements.
Smoak says he welcomed the Morales move as well as the additions of potential first basemen Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez as positives. He doesn’t see it as a threat to his job.
“For me, I’m looking at it as us getting a lot of good hitters,” Smoak said. “We’re not trying to get rid of anybody, we’re trying to add some good bats to our lineup. So, I’m excited about it. Looking forward to playing with these guys this year.”