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Last year, it took the Mariners six games to draw their first dozen walks of the season. But last night, the Mariners had their 12th walk of the season before Game No. 2 was even in the books.
That’s a pretty positive sign for a team still getting used to this whole “attack hittable pitches” mode that Eric Wedge has been preaching for two-plus years. Kyle Seager spoke after the game about how the Mariners weren’t getting much to drive from Jarrod Parker, so they waited him out and took their walks instead.
That’s the whole philosophy behind how Wedge wants walks to be drawn: as a byproduct of pitchers not throwing hittable pitches. If pitchers to throw balls that can be driven, then by golly, Wedge wants to see the driving take place. And last night, he saw that from Michael Morse and Seager when the pitches were there.
One guy everybody hopes to see driving more pitches is Justin Smoak. But what people forget is that — according to him — it wasn’t really his swing that was changed this past winter as much as it was his entire plate approach. The approach is the big thing because it’s helped Smoak go to the plate better prepared and thus, it’s enabled him to “shorten” his swing by limiting the thought process involved in going after certain pitches.
We have yet to see byproducts of that change in the hit column the first two days. But I’m not worried because Smoak has already drawn three walks in those two contests — including a big one in the seventh inning that scored a run and turned a 4-1 game into the laugher it eventually became.
Last year, it took Smoak 10 games to draw three walks.
Looking back at last night’s contest, you saw Smoak step up in the seventh inning against struggling relief pitcher Ryan Cook — who had already walked a pair and hit Morse with a pitch in the inning. Rather than press and flail away at bad pitches, Smoak simply waited for Cook to throw something hittable and never saw it.
Four straight pitches later, Smoak had driven in a run without swinging his bat. The only pitch even close was the fourth one, but at 3-0, there’s no way Smoak was swinging. In years past, Smoak tended to chase bad pitches early, dig himself a hole, and let the pitcher climb out of one in the process.
“He’s just so much more grounded now,” Wedge said. “He’s in a much stronger position to hit. He’s in a better balanced position. And because of that, he’s seeing the ball so well. He’s really worked hard to find out what he needs to do up there to give himself a chance to be the hitter that we know he’s going to be.”
So, yeah, don’t fret about Smoak only having one hit the first two games. The fact he’s taking walks is a huge sign that the chasing of bad pitches has stopped and that he truly has a clue what he’s doing up there now.
If teams want to keep walking him, that’ll work if Morse and others keep cashing runners in. But if you’re looking for a young guy to blossom into a power hitter someday, seeing him take those walks and be a more patient and disciplined hitter at the plate is how it all starts.
Smoak, as we’ve discussed before, just looks comfortable up there now. It’s the pitchers who look uncomfortable.
The Mariners made the Oakland staff throw 196 pitches in the game. The Mariners needed just 133. Tough to tell which team is the defending AL West champion so far, at least in terms of pitching and plate discipline.
It’s still far too early to proclaim any lasting trends. But if you’re looking for signs of encouragement, there are some obvious ones that jump out.
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