PEORIA, Ariz. — They had reasonable excuse to leave immediately after the workout ended on Wednesday. With their first spring-training game scheduled on Thursday, it was the last free afternoon for Mariners players in quite a while.
But as the bulk of the players left in mass exodus following team conditioning, Robinson Cano and Justin Smoak grabbed their bats and headed toward home plate.
Their day wasn’t done.
With the Arizona sun beating down on them, Cano and Smoak went to work. It was one player continuing to work on the things that make him one of the best hitters in baseball. The other was trying to find a way to reach his potential.
Cano decided to introduce his new teammate to the “net drill.”
The drill, which was made popular by Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, is something Cano has used a lot in his career. It’s a reason why he hit .314 (190 for 605) with 41 doubles, 27 homers and 107 RBI last season and is a career. 309 hitter.
A large protective screen is placed on the outside corner of home plate — opposite and parallel to the hitter in the left-hander’s batter’s box. From there, the hitter hits baseballs from a pitcher about 30 feet away.
The drill is designed to force the hands of the hitter inside of the baseball and make him to use the lower half of his body to turn on the ball.
“If you go forward, you are going to hit the net, so you have to stay back and keep your hands inside and use your lower half,” Cano said.
When Cano and Howard Johnson asked Smoak if he wanted to try the drill, he didn’t hesitate. Despite hitting a career-high 20 homers last season, Smoak knows he can do more. He hit .238 (108 for 454) with just a .412 slugging percentage last year. He’s a career .230 hitter.
“Why not try it?” Smoak said.
Cano started off lacing balls into right field — top-spin line drives, shots to the gap and balls over the fence. It was as if the net across from him wasn’t even there.
Smoak was a little tentative at first. The net was obviously in the back of his mind. He even clipped it a few times as he reached for a few pitches early. It took him a while to find the swing.
“Anybody who does it the first time, it’s going to take a while,” Cano said. “He got better.”
Indeed, in his second and third rounds of swings, Smoak got more comfortable and started hammering hard line drives and home runs into right field.
“It felt good,” he said. “It definitely felt weird at first. It’s my first time ever doing it. He’s been doing it for a while now. But it actually felt good to feel what he and I have been talking about the past few days.”
It was the feeling of progress.
“You are trying to pull the ball there, but you are trying to pull it the right way,” Smoak said. “I hit some balls there that I thought were going to be foul, but they actually stayed fair. I like it.”
Cano has taken an interest in Smoak at camp. He likes the potential.
“He reminds me of myself when I first came up,” Cano said. “I used to go forward too much. I started doing the net drill and it really helped me a lot.”
Smoak’s raw tools and power potential have always been intriguing. For Cano, helping out a guy that could provide him protection in the lineup isn’t just helping the team, but helping himself.
“I know he’s a big kid that’s got some power, a guy that can hit, and I told him you got to go out there and try to have a better season than last year,” Cano said. “I asked him, ‘Well, what’s your average?’ And he said, ‘.230.’ I said, ‘Well, you can do better than that. You want to be up here, you’re talented and you’re young. You have to be willing to do the work.’ “
Smoak has never lacked that willingness. It’s just working on the right things. Cano is seeing that.
“We’ve been working,” Cano said. “Howard’s been working with him, and he’s doing pretty good.”
Smoak knows he needs to be listening to Cano and Johnson. He wants the same results and the same progress. The net drill provides another way for him to get there.
“(Cano) said when he first got called up, he said he was a totally different guy,” Smoak said. “You see the work he’s put in and where he’s at today, and it’s pretty darn good.”