The other day, while playing first base, Mike Carp attempted to do something athletic, which seems like it was a bad idea from the very beginning. Carp came away injured, and while the team didn't have MRI results at the start of the game Monday night, Justin Smoak was mysteriously pinch-hit for with Tacoma, suggesting that Smoak was on his way up and Carp was on his way to the DL with a hip problem. Geoff Baker provides (unofficial) confirmation:
Justin Smoak has been recalled by Mariners. Flew out of Nashville this morning, expected to be here in time to play tonight.— Geoff Baker (@gbakermariners) August 14, 2012
Without yet knowing the nature of the injury, it's a bummer for Carp, who had batted .276 since returning. That's a somewhat empty .276, since Carp wasn't hitting for the power he was supposed to have, but he was at least not embarrassing himself. Now we're going to get more of a player who, the last time we saw him, couldn't stop embarrassing himself. Justin Smoak has a .573 OPS! Brendan Ryan has a .584 OPS!
Smoak batted 82 times with the Rainiers, posting a .754 OPS that was majority OBP. He's leaving behind 16 walks, 16 strikeouts, and zero home runs. Clearly, Smoak wasn't setting the PCL on fire, but then Smoak didn't get demoted to clear his head; he got demoted to clear his head and also make adjustments to his swing, and those things take time. We wouldn't expect Smoak to pick up adjustments immediately, and we wouldn't expect those adjustments to pay immediate dividends. Smoak was a work in progress and now he's had to come up probably earlier than the Mariners would've preferred since the Carp injury forced their hand. It's like how the Mariners had to keep bringing Steve Delabar back even though they weren't yet thrilled with his slider. Steve Delabar has 60 strikeouts and a dozen walks so maybe he doesn't need that slider at all. I'm veering off course.
The point is, the Justin Smoak coming back might not be the same Justin Smoak that went down. There's reason to believe things could be different. From the News Tribune:
These days, Justin Smoak's swing is noticeably different.
The Tacoma first baseman's swing is shorter, more compact and doesn't start so far behind his head. It's supposed to help him react quicker to pitches.
This is Jeff Pentland's doings, and Pentland says he's seeing consistent improvement in the cage, even though he hasn't yet seen consistent improvement in the games. That article was published August 10. Between August 11 and August 13, Smoak went 5-for-10 with three doubles. Generally we dismiss such small samples and perhaps this one should be dismissed as well, but those are the spurts you look for when a guy is changing things up. Those spurts can be indicators that something is beginning to click.
We've have a good idea for a while that Smoak needed to have his swing(s) revamped. That's a challenging thing to do in the majors, and so Smoak got started on the process in the minors. It would be silly to assume the work is complete and now Smoak has to try hard not to revert to his old ways under the pressure of major-league competition. He has to see this through and find out if it makes him a better hitter. It would be hard for him to be a worse hitter.
Every player who struggles and underachieves attempts to make adjustments to improve so Smoak might never turn into anything worth starting even a few times a week. The track record of players with Smoak's early-career performance is not encouraging, and all of those disappointments tried to stop being disappointments. But at least we have reason to believe it won't be the same old Justin Smoak. If this version of Justin Smoak keeps making outs, at least he might make different outs, in different ways. Smoak's trying something new, so we might as well give him the time to try to produce a new batting line. One has every right to be pessimistic, but there's no downside to giving a chance. You have a virtually limitless supply of chances to give, and if not Smoak now, then what? We'll see. We'll just see what happens here.