Funny thing happened to Justin Smoak on the last Mariners road trip. Smoak saw his on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS) move back up over .800 while his slugging percentage continues to creep up towards the mid-.400 mark.
If the season ended today, Smoak would have a .273 batting average, a .373 on-base percentage, .439 slugging mark and an OPS of .813. Those are perfectly acceptable numbers for a first baseman in today’s game, where home run power is not what it used to be. His weighted on-base average of .359 is just one tick below the .360 posted by Kendrys Morales and good for top-five among AL first basemen with at least 300 plate appearances.
So, if we’re going to discuss possibly paying Morales as much as $14 million to play next year via a qualifying offer, ticking off Smoak’s name under the “good” category should no longer be difficult for some people, even those saying not long ago saying that he’s as good as done and it was time to move on.
As has been well-documented, Smoak put in the work last winter revamping his entire plate approach — most importantly, his pre-at-bat plan and ability to focus on implementing it while in the batter’s box — and carried it through at spring training. So, for the second year in a row, we have a classic example of a revamped off-season regimen producing big gains at spring training and then working in-season. First, it was Michael Saunders in 2012 and now Smoak in 2013.
So, next spring, when the inevitable stories surface about changes made to off-season plans, let’s not be so quick to dismiss them. Sure, some of those plans did not work out: like with Dustin Ackley, Blake Beavan, or Kameron Loe. But there is always a chance they will connect and when they do — as in the case of lifting his career off the scrap heap with Saunders or finally coming into his own with Smoak — they can pay huge dividends for the team.
The difference between Smoak this year, Saunders last year and some of the failed examples I listed above are that Smoak and Saunders clearly dominated at spring training. There were no hiccups along the way. It was evident that big changes had occured. With the other guys, there were stumbles and more of a “let’s see” attitude heading into the season.
Look, this isn’t exact science. And when Smoak stumbled out of the gate the first three weeks of this season, I was very surprised and began wondering as well whether this was it for him.
But since those three weeks ended, he’s hit .300 with a .401 OBP, a .514 slugging mark and an OPS of .915. He’s hit 11 homers during that 257 at-bat span. And that’s with an oblique injury that cost him several weeks being thrown into the mix. Those opening three weeks have taken him the rest of the season to dig out of, but that’s exactly what 2013 has been for Smoak — a three-week slump, followed by an elite-level season so far.
One of the biggest clues as to how far Smoak has come was witnessed on Sunday in Baltimore when he engaged pitcher Wei-Yin Chen in a 16-pitch at-bat that resulted in a single.
How many times over the past three years would Smoak have been as locked-in at the plate to last for even a 10-pitch at-bat? During that marathon clash, he nearly ripped a home run to left field and then followed up with a hard line drive single. And that was batting from his weaker (this year, anyhow) right side.
For me, that at-bat epitomizes what Smoak’s season has been so far. A complete turnaround as far as his focus at the plate on what he is looking for and needs to be doing.
As with Saunders, there are no guarantees this will carry over from one year to the next. There really isn’t with any player and the next step in Smoak’s blossoming career will be to demonstrate the year-to-year consistency that good MLB regulars have. Sort of what Kyle Seager has done this year.
But at this point, if I’m the Mariners, I’m moving Smoak from the “unsure” over to the “don’t worry about it” part of my ledger for next year.
Believe me, this team has plenty of other stuff to worry about in 2014, starting with the entire outfield, everything after the top-2 guys in the starting rotation and the entire back end of the bullpen.
As seen last night, when hordes of British Columbia fans “invaded” Safeco Field and turned things into an away game for the Mariners, this front office — or perhaps a new one — needs to figure out how to get this rebuilding plan jumpstarted. The Mariners, despite some encouraging individual performances this year — especially by the infield — remain a disappointing eight games under .500.
Next year will be Year No. 6 of the current plan. The team they are now facing, the Blue Jays, began going young and cheap back in 2002. This is the second incarnation of that first rebuilding plan for them and they are into Year No. 11, spent bigger bucks this winter when the time was supposedly “right” and have a 52-60 record identical to Seattle’s.
So, the mere act of developing a young core and later supplementing it with dollars is not a guaranteed route to success. There is no one right or wrong way. The Royals and Indians both spent years trying the young core thing, made some trades and threw some free agent bucks around this winter and now both find themselves with winning records and in playoff hunts with seven weeks to go.
There are many ways to go and many things to try in any off-season. The Mariners now have Seager and Smoak in the infield corners and some young talent up the middle for a starting point.
This off-season, they’ve got to do far more in terms of resources and bold decision-making (and successful decision-making) to better this franchise so it can win more than it loses and maybe draw more home fans to games (so the home side isn’t outcheered) once the trade deadline passes. All three of those facets have been missing for far too long each winter and as a result, in the seasons that follow, the team itself gets stuck in the mud.
But hey, at least they can take Smoak off the list of problems that need to be remedied. He’s now become part of the solution.