I can just hear the people screaming at their computer: “You moron, don’t get sucked in. Don’t let a September surge wipe out the memory of what we saw for most of five months from Justin Smoak.”
I get it. I get that his numbers have indicated that Smoak is heading to a busted career. I get that the baseball landscape is littered with players who had gaudy Septembers to earn a spot the following season, only to flame out (cough Jeremy Reed cough).
I don’t know if what we’ve seen from Smoak these last three, nearly four, weeks, is “real,” to use one of Eric Wedge’s favorite terms. But I do know this: He looks like a different hitter to me. I’m a big believer in two things that lead me to the conclusion that the Mariners shouldn’t discard Smoak; that, in fact, they should give him a fair shot to be their first baseman again next year.
One is that players do indeed mature, improve and figure things out. What you are at age 23, 24 and 25 is not necessarily what you will be in the future. Smoak, as a switch-hitter, has two batting strokes to hone, and it’s only logical that it would take him a little longer. I acknowledge that bad players sometimes have hot streaks, and claim it’s because of some mechanical adjustment which seems to magically disappear when they revert to their flailing ways. Smoak has teased us before, but the more I see of him, the more I think that whatever wisdom he gathered from Jeff Pentland during his minor-league stint has led to a shorter stroke that’s conducive to more consistency and production.
The second truism I suscribe to is that confidence can take a player a long, long way (and lack of same can bring him down). I believe that Smoak has had a confidence problem in his Seattle career that built upon itself and has been compounded by the frustrations of hitting at Safeco Field. I think the dimensions and lack of carry at the ballpark has psyched him out, and that has helped sent him on a downward cycle.
What I’m seeing now, in addition to a more technically sound hitter, is a more confident hitter. Even his outs are hit hard. If Smoak follows through with his promise to get stronger this winter — which I see as vital to his development — and the Mariners adjust the dimensions of Safeco Field (which I’m convinced they will), then I don’t see any reason Smoak can’t maintain the confidence that he’s developed in September. And that should translate into increased production.
Yeah, I know. Small-sample size. But look at it this way: Smoak is going to finish this year with 20 homers — a season in which he spent three weeks in the minors and much of the rest of the time looking clueless or overmatched at the plate. Straighten him out just a little, and the Mariners could be looking at a 30-homer guy next year. Would we all agree they could use one of those?
I’m not saying Smoak is a sure thing. It’s going to a complicated puzzle to figure out playing time for Jesus Montero, John Jaso and Smoak once Mike Zunino takes over at catcher, which could even happen out of spring training but more likely will occur at some point in the first half. Perhaps they look into trading Montero, as Dave Cameron has suggested, but he’s another potential 30-homer guy that I’m not ready to give up on yet, after just one full season. With Montero and Jaso both having the capability to play first (not necessarily play it well, but play it), I think it would be possible to juggle those four at three positions, giving Zunino a soft landing at the outset of his career by not playing every day, and sitting Jaso against lefties and Montero against tough righties. Then Jack Zduriencik can concentrate on what remains the top priority: A premier outfield bat to anchor the Mariners’ lineup. If Smoak bombs out, well, they would have Montero and Jaso as fallbacks at first.
Smoak’s surge might be an illusion, and I might be a fool for thinking otherwise (don’t answer that!). But I want to ride this shiny new version of the Smoak-a-motive a little farther down the road.