How Justin Smoak Is Ascending

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a FanPost about how Justin Smoak went from touted prospect to major-league bust. Right on cue, Smoak started mashing the ball, making me ponder whether I should write a similar article about Dustin Ackley. (Just kidding.)

Anyways, Smoak's little resurgence has some people back on the bandwagon, if the Game Threads are anything to go by. Cooler heads, like Jeff and Dave, insist that Smoak begin 2013 in AAA, and honestly that's where I am right now too. Ten games just isn't enough of a sample. But you know what they say--sabermetricians can't do anything with small samples, but scouts can. If you've watched video, any video, since Smoak came back up you know that things are pretty different now. Smoak's got a reworked swing, and it's helping him to great success.

Smoak has done this before. Twice, actually, each time in September: In 2010 and in 2011 he had late-season surges. The 2010 led into an amazing April 2011. The 2011 one was pretty much all luck and led to nothing. So what's up with this one? Can it sustain? Why is Justin Smoak so hot?

Credit where it's due: the following is in part built on ideas from a set of articles over at SeattleSportsInsider. The writer, unlike me, is a capable swing analyst. For what it's worth, he called and analyzed Condor's new swing right out of spring training, and then accurately predicted all of his slumps based on when he saw the swing deteriorating--not bad. However, many LLers have complained about his writing style, which may be why I'm the only one who ever seems to cite him around here. My knowledge of the swing change comes from Drayer articles, Stone articles, video highlights, and this guy.

Anyways, Smoak's big "swing change" comes in two parts.

First, he's seriously shortened his swing. Watch videos of his latest home runs, compare them to the old ones, and you'll see it. This was something Smoak did in AAA, with hitting coach Jeff Pentland; he came back up talking about how his swing had "gotten long" and how he needed to shorten it. Jason Churchill commented upon Smoak's reappearance that he almost didn't recognize him, the swing was so much shorter. Long story short, Pentland was right. Smoak used to be unable to catch up to fastballs, because his swing was too long. He generated really crappy contact on 94+ with alarming frequency. Offspeed pitches low were a glaring weakness, too, but the fastball thing was a bigger one because almost all major league pitchers can locate fastballs well enough not to walk a guy, while a decent hitter can sometimes draw a walk by just staring at uncommanded offspeed stuff. Anyways, the M.O. on Smoak had become "offspeed if you can control it, fastballs if you can't". With his new, way shorter swing, Smoak has crafted himself both the ability to catch up to fastballs and plenty of reaction time to track them. SSI notes that he's stalking pitches much longer before swinging, these days. As a result, he's mauling the pitch that used to be his most easily exploitable weakness. Hence the batting line. Tuesday's dingers were on a fastball and a sinker.

The second change is keeping both hands on the bat, full-time. Smoak credits this one to an old idea from his deceased dad; SSI credits the Mariners' hitting coaches for stealing the idea from John Jaso and Michael Saunders. Either way, it's working. Two hands on the bat has given Smoak more bat control without taking away from his power, so he's hitting more line drives. SSI notes that Smoak and Saunders have both actually hit the ball further with two hands on than with the longer one-handed follow-through. In Saunders' case its because he has long lever arms, literally, and he takes advantage of his natural power better when he's just using the levers rather than swinging like Seager. No idea why it's working for Smoak, since he doesn't have Saunders' unusual body type, but it is.

So, the swing changes took Smoak from a guy with a slider-speed bat who starts his swing way too early and can be K'd or popped up on located fastballs, to a guy who takes a good long look at a fastball... and then mashes it for a line drive. But the pitchers haven't caught up yet. He's still seeing way too many fastballs; hence the monstrous numbers. When pitchers feed you your favorite pitch for two weeks, this is what happens.

To demonstrate how much Smoak has improved at hitting fastballs, we can head over to TexasLeaguers and check out his pitch type splits. In September, Smoak has seen 146 combined fastballs and sinkers, swung on 73, and whiffed on a grand total of 7. That's a 4.7% whiff rate on pitches, 9.5% on swings. From March to August, Smoak saw 824 combined fastballs and sinkers, swung on 435, and whiffed on 54. That's a 6.6% whiff rate on pitches, 12.4% on swings. Marked improvement, just in terms of bat control and making contact with fastballs, and that's without addressing the improved quality of contact. Smoak is definitely better with his new swing at hitting fastballs than he was with the old swing. He is exploiting this to great effect.

So Smoak is exploiting the outdated information other teams have about his swing, i.e. that he can't pummel fastballs, which apparently now he can. Note that the Angels, on Tuesday, were using the old M.O. Greinke, who can control his offspeed stuff, threw almost all offspeed pitches. It might've worked, except he didn't have his A game command, and walked Smoak once after allowing a dinger on a fastball. (The 20 K's were a product of great stuff and a generous strike zone more than amazing game-calling or good command.) Downs came in, a lesser pitcher with lesser command, and the pitch sequence went: sinker sinker sinker curveball sinker sinker, except the last sinker was hit really hard and really far.

Eventually teams will update their information. It might not happen before the end of the season, but it almost certainly will before the next season starts. They'll have to stop trying to exploit the fastball thing, and start trying to exploit something else.

See, as great of a little resurgence as Smoak has had, this isn't going to last until he fixes some more of his problems. The "new" giant problem is offspeed stuff. Smoak can identify curveballs just fine--he's never liked to swing at them, at all, but he can tell when they're coming. See his first bat against Greinke on Tuesday. He stared at three curveballs, two for balls because Greinke didn't have his command. Same with fastballs; he can identify them fine, except those he swings on. On changeups and sliders, though, he's been hopeless. 17% whiffs on sliders and changeups in September. That's on thrown sliders and changeups. Not the ones he swings at. Smoak has whiffed on 30% of all his swings on changeups, and a whopping 50% whiffs on sliders, in September. He has yet to put a slider in play this month. This is a huge weakness.

However! It's not an unfixable weakness. Smoak's career run values on this offspeed stuff are positive. He used to like hitting these pitches, back when he had a slower bat. He used to be able to do it, he just needs to reclaim the tool.

From a sabermetric perspective, Smoak's September don't mean much. It's a tiny, arbitrarily chosen sample size, and he's been hot in tiny sample sizes before. From a scouting perspective, Smoak's September has been freaking awesome. He made a couple of swing changes, and boom: line drives, walks, and power are all back in a big way. Smoak's 2012 September showcases all three of his offensive tools, while his "good" 2011 September showcased zero. That's good news part one. It appears that the physical skills Smoak had as a top prospect, the ones that indicated he had a good shot of becoming an excellent offensive contributor, are all still there and were just waiting for the right swing tweaks to unveil themselves. The bad news to go with good news part one is that this September performance should, by all indicators, have exactly zero chance of sustaining unless Smoak improves his recognition of sliders and changeups. September 2012 Smoak is still a massively flawed player, as soon as big league teams stop using old outdated approaches to pitching him and start using new good approaches. His hot streak may last the rest of the season--that doesn't mean he's fixed. Smoak should still probably start 2012 in AAA, just so he can relearn sliders and changes.

But good news part two is that Smoak's new problem is a lot easier to address than his old problem. With his old disappearing walks, power, and line drives, who even knew? It seemed like it would take a miracle to fix him. Hooray, Jeff Pentland! You are a miracle! Smoak's problems have essentially gone from three to one: instead of reclaiming his short swing, his line drives, and his power all at the same time, he now just has to see more pitches so that he can learn to better identify the offspeed stuff. "Just" implies that this is easy, and it isn't, but it's easier than reworking his swing and then relearning offspeed stuff anyways. If he never does figure it out? Well, then he's probably a bust. But he's done it before, to some extent. Again, career positive run values. Hope is not unreasonable. It is certainly more reasonable than it was two weeks ago.

So, the final prognosis: Don't get too excited, but Smoak's return from the grave appears to be real and based on actual performance tweaks rather than just luck like last September's. His current success will not sustain unless he improves, but that "unless" isn't as daunting as it was earlier in the season. He's still not a guy to hand the starting 1B job to next spring... but he's looking a lot better than he used to. In this godawful season for Smoak, that's something.

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