With the recall of everyone's favorite puncher of trees and my lack of anything productive to spend my time on, I decided to do some research and offer my amateur-league sub-Mendoza hitter's opinion on why Smoak has been frustrating us so much this year. Remember when it was all because of a thumb injury? That was fun.
Because the former 11th overall pick was obviously highly regarded before coming to the Mariners and is now not so highly regarded, my first guess was that he picked up some bad habits with his hitting mechanics while in Seattle. To test this, I decided to compare his swing this year to when he was first called up by the Rangers (go to about 35 seconds in on both videos for a good view).
The first thing I noticed, since it is, in fact, what is in the video, is that Smoak is able to turn on an inside fastball and crush it 409 feet into the upper deck. To do this, his swing has to be quicker and more powerful than what he has shown in 2012, where most of his dingers have been hit off low fastballs or off-speed pitches left up in the zone. Let's take a look at the differences at the point where he begins to transfer his weight and start the swing:
There's a big difference in the position of his hands and the bat before the swing. He's practically been pointing it at the pitcher this year, giving it a much longer path to travel to reach the strike zone. This is the issue that has gotten a lot of publicity this year: his swing is too long, leaving him vulnerable to good fastballs as well as off-speed pitches falling out of the strike zone. The good thing is that he has been putting in a lot of work at Tacoma to fix this, and hopefully we see the results now that he is again going to see the lineup regularly. But what I find interesting that I have never heard mention of before is what happens at the point of contact. To illustrate, let's take a look at Smoak past and present, using the same two highlights as before:
What I'm looking at here is what happens with his front leg. The 2012 version of Smoak noticeably bends his knee at the point of contact (consistently, not just because this particular pitch was low), while Prospect!Smoak keeps it straight and in a much stronger hitting position. Lest this sound like another one of the literally billions of meaningless or flat-out incorrect things (squash the bug!) hitting coaches say to players, let's take a look at some hitters generally agreed to have been pretty good:
This is admittedly still a small sample size, but it seems very significant that every one of these players (including Ichiro, the master of unorthodox hitting himself) follows the accepted wisdom here. Additionally, while Smoak didn't exactly set the world on fire in his rookie year, his home runs did average over 400 feet (even excluding the Arlington effect) where now, at an age where most young players are adding muscle and power, he has at times seemed incapable of hitting the ball out of Safeco. Smoak was never projected to be a 40-home run guy but this appears to be a mechanical flaw that is robbing him of what power potential he does have.
I'm guessing the coaches are working on this with him, because I noticed it appeared in late May of last year and then was gone when he returned in September. However, like all baseball fans, I think I'm a genius and smarter than the coaches so here I am, writing about this. Please do better, Smoak, so I don't decide to write about this again and waste another day.