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February 19, 2013 at 4:33 PM

A closer look at the off-season training done by Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak

Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak takes batting practice at spring training in Peoria, AZ.

Those of you who read my story in this morning’s paper saw plenty of quotes from Justin Smoak’s agent, Hunter Bledsoe, about the work he and the Mariners first baseman did this winter.

Bledsoe was once a top prospect coming out of Vanderbilt in the late-1990s, but his career as a third baseman topped out in Class AA for the Royals back in 2003. Injuries played a big part in that, but Bledsoe told me he remained very frustrated by his inability to find answers to his hitting woes while still playing. He began a quest during the latter stages of his career and then continued it once becoming a player agent. The quest? To find those missing answers about hitting that eluded him during his pro career so he can share them with others. Especially his clients.

For Bledsoe, the mental side of the game is key. And it plays a huge part in the swings taken by hitters.

I wrote today about how Bledsoe and Smoak worked out together at The Citadel in South Carolina, beginning about two weeks after the 2012 season ended. The first thing they did swing-wise was a technique Bledsoe picked up from other sports — during his quest for answers — known as “slow practice.”

In Smoak’s case, he would do “slow practice” by taking between 30 seconds and a full minute to complete a single swing at a ball on a tee. The idea was to perfect every aspect of the swing down to the last minutae. The best way to do that, according to Bledsoe, is slowly. The slowness allows the brain to process the muscle movements required to do a swing properly. Smoak did this for an entire month. It was only after he’d processed the correct swinging technique — one that enabled his hips and hands to function in-tandem — that they moved on to swinging at a faster pace.

Bledsoe wrote an article about this for the Baseball Think Tank website and it included a video demonstrating “slow practice” when it comes to hitting. He first heard of the technique back when learning martial arts, but as he points out in the article, it’s also something the world’s best golfers have used to perfect their swings.

The entire idea behind it is that if you practice too quickly and incorrectly, you will be doing more harm than good. Your muscles are going to “learn” the wrong stuff that will have to be unlearned. Better to teach them the correct stuff slowly and surely.

And in the end, it’s training the muscles to swing perfectly that Bledsoe is after. The way he sees it, a hitter’s brain can only process so much information at once. In Smoak’s case, it would be recognizing what the 95 mph pitch coming his way actually is, where it’s going and whether it’s in his hitting zone. The swing itself has to be instictive, not thought about. And the only way it can be instinctive is to train the muscles ahead of time to react correctly.

Sounds so simple, right?

Hah. Tell that to Smoak the past few years.

As I wrote yesterday, the common misconception about Smoak — and yeah, I’ve done it, too — has been that he learned an entirely new swing late last year. In fact, as Bledsoe — who knows Smoak better than most people — told me, all his client did was automatically revert to the swing he has always used when things are going well for him. The swing never changed. It’s just that Smoak had a bad approach to his at-bats that was throwing the swing and it’s mechanics completely off. He was doing the wrong things ahead of time and when he later attempted a swing, everything he tried to do was getting messed up.

And that’s the other part of the big mental approach that Smoak and Bledsoe took to their off-season work. Bledsoe says the big change Smoak made late last year wasn’t in his swing mechanics. It was in everything he did before he started to take a swing.

Smoak started to better prepare himself to face individual pitchers. He read up on their tendencies and devised a strategy to counter what they would do to him. He learned to “hunt” pitches and target zones. The result was, when he stepped to the plate, he wasn’t guessing so much. He wasn’t fooled as much. As Bledsoe firmly believes, when a hitter lacks a plan, he goes up there off-balance. And when he’s off-balance, his swing mechanics get all messed up because he isn’t square and decisive and mentally focused.

For me, it was a fascinating chat we had.

And like I said, the whole mental preparation side was something Smoak and Bledsoe worked to hone all winter.

They worked on Smoak having a zone for pitches he should be swinging at. When a hitter can narrow focus into a specific zone and look for a certain pitch to be ready for, it eliminates other stuff the brain has to focus on. And when that happens, the brain can more quickly recognize a hittable pitch and then the well-trained muscles take over and enable the hitter to do something with it.

Remember, the brain must process a bunch of stuff in a fraction of a second when you’re a hitter. If you eliminate the actual swing and unhittable pitches in unworkable zones from the equation, the brain has a much easier time of things.

Or, as Eric Wedge and others might say: “Go up there ready to hit.”

One more thing about the mental side of Smoak’s work. Bledsoe is a firm believer that human beings will respond better over time when they aren’t faced with “do or die” scenarios.

“If you go out and somebody says your job is on the line and you’ve got to get it done, your mind and body are going to find ways to create marginal success,” Bledsoe said.

Instead, he wants Smoak to focus on creating lasting success — not just a respectable season total to save his job, but something a lot closer to the all-star level talent he’s supposed to be.

In other words, lighting the proverbial fire under Smoak’s backside is not going to get the job done. At least, that’s what Bledsoe has worked with Smoak to eliminate from his mind. He doesn’t want him going up there with a sense of do-or-die urgency. He wants him to work towards building real, lasting success by doing things correctly and not panicking out of some sense of self-preservation.

I get the sense Smoak listened to him. Because yesterday morning, before I spoke to Bledsoe, I asked Smoak whether he felt any added urgency this year because of Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez being added to the team.

“Not at all,” Smoak said.

Having listened to Bledsoe now, I don’t think Smoak was lying. I just think he’s blocking the negative vibes from his mind and trying to focus on what he and Bledsoe worked on.

“Let me tell you something,” Bledsoe said. “There’s nobody in this world who wants to succeed more than Justin does. If you think the fans have beaten him up, or the media has beaten him up, he’s beaten himself up a whole lot worse than that. He’s a really good person. Above all else, no matter what he ends up doing in this game, I’ll always be there for him because of the kind of person he is. He’s just a really good person and he wants to do well and make the team and everybody else happy.”

But again, as Bledsoe said, that won’t be accomplished by holding the proverbial gun to his head. This isn’t fast food success they’re after. It’s the real thing. And the real thing takes time. Maybe more than the Mariners will have to offer Smoak if he can’t get it done this season, but the path he’s decided to take is no shortcut to success.

We’ll see how his timing matches up with the Mariners.



Comments | More in spring training | Topics: justin smoak. hunter bledsoe, kendrys morales, peoria


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