The Mariners' September offense has not been very good, as the team overall has posted just a .681 OPS. As it happens, at present that is also the Mariners' highest month OPS of the year. The unproductive hitters have been pretty predictable -- Brendan Ryan, Trayvon Robinson, Mike Carp, Casper Wells, and so on. The more productive hitters have been pretty predictable -- Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders, and John Jaso. But leading all of them is Justin Smoak. Single-month splits aren't very significant, especially when there's still another third of the month left to go, but Justin Smoak has posted the highest September OPS on the team. This catches your eye, because it's Justin Smoak, and we're accustomed to Justin Smoak being terrible at hitting.
You might be wondering, then, whether Justin Smoak has figured it out. In July he was demoted to triple-A Tacoma to work on his swing. He was recalled in August sooner than the team would've liked, and he was down for so little time that the emergence of a brand-new hitter seemed unlikely. Major adjustments take time to implement, and Smoak had to make some major adjustments. His triple-A hitting coach did, for whatever it's worth, receive a September promotion, just like some of his players.
To focus just on Smoak's successful September would be to ignore Smoak's unsuccessful August, and that isn't the right thing to do. While it stands to reason that Smoak would be getting more comfortable with adjustments over time, we can't ignore August entirely, and since being recalled Smoak has OPS'd .742. Before getting demoted, he'd OPS'd .573. It's definitely more encouraging that Smoak has had a strong September after a weak August, as opposed to the other way around. This way we get to imagine it's a trend.
The easiest way of handling this sort of thing is with a table, so let's all look at a table I copied over from Excel. I don't know why I included that last detail.
Things in there look better. Smoak has cut down on his strikeouts and increased his contact without sacrificing walks. He's hit more balls in the air, and if you care at all about line-drive rate, Smoak's hit a lot more line drives. He's swung at fewer balls out of the zone and he's swung at more balls in the zone, which are two good things to do. This is a promising table.
Even more promising, perhaps, is that Smoak struck out 22 percent of the time in August, but has struck out just 13 percent of the time in September. Again, better this way than the other way around. The samples we're working with are ever so limited, but with a guy like Justin Smoak, you take what hope you can get.
It's also worth pointing out that, on back-to-back days about a week ago, Smoak hit two fairly impressive home runs. Smoak, I think, is still waiting to smash his first big-league jaw-dropper, but it's good to see him getting closer.
So has Justin Smoak figured it out? No, of course not, it never works out that simply or quickly. He's still working on his swing, getting comfortable with it from both sides, and one of his offseason missions is to get stronger because that whole timber commercial is just embarrassing. Smoak has managed to shorten his swings, better allowing him to get the bat to the ball, and better allowing him to wait on pitches a split-second longer. He still has to get used to that, and get better at that. And even if he becomes the adjusted hitter he's trying to become, he might not be that good. As always, there are no guarantees; only indications that things are changing into maybe other things.
Justin Smoak is a work in progress, and it's better to see him having a good September than a shitty September. He had a shitty August, and he's got plenty of work in front of him. I still don't see any way the Mariners can give him a starting job out of the gate in 2013, not if they want their fans to take them seriously, but if Smoak feels like hitting well in Tacoma and knocking on the big-league door, I'd be just fine with that. I would encourage Justin Smoak to please make that happen. We knew that Smoak needed to change his two swings, and so far the changes he's made aren't discouraging.