There’s a lot to be wary about with Justin Smoak, but I think it’s still too soon to formulate an opinion on what kind of Major League hitter he’s going to be.
How much of last year’s struggles were due to what may or may not have been a thumb (or multiple thumb) injury(ies)? How much of last year’s struggles were due to problems in his personal life I’d rather not go into? How much of last year’s struggles were due the pressure of this being his first real, full season in the Majors? Or the pressure of him living up to the deal that brought him here (giving up Cliff Lee, spurning the Yankees and their offer of Jesus Montero)? Or the pressure of trying to lift up the worst offense in all of baseball?
I can’t really speak on the supposed injuries because I’m not exactly sure if he was injured or not (aside from, of course, that stint where he was on the DL). But, during those weeks/months where he was trying to play through some kind of hand ailment? I have no idea, because nobody’s talking about it. There’s speculation! There’s tons of speculation. But, since I don’t know the extent of whatever it was, I’m at a loss.
I’m also at a loss to say anything about his personal life because I’m not him, so I don’t know how he felt and how he worked to play through those issues.
But, the subject of Pressure … THAT’S something I find endlessly fascinating.
First up is the point that he’s a VERY young player. In 2010, he was up and down between Triple A and Texas, then he was up and down between Triple A and Seattle. He still managed to find his way into 100 games that year, but it’s by no means a full season. That kind of instability as you’re breaking into the Majors is a great way to fuck with your confidence.
In 2011, Smoak was given the starting first baseman’s job right out of the gate. He was placed at the #5 spot in the lineup – a nice, soft landing for a first-year starter. As a result, he batted .284 in April with a .920 OPS. Everything was looking rosy for a guy who’s supposed to be a cornerstone of this lineup.
Then, he was jerked around, being placed in the 3 and 4-holes in the lineup, being asked to lead this team pretty much single-handedly as everything else disintegrated around him. He went on to have a crappy May, June, and July before going on the DL for much of August. It wasn’t until September where he rebounded somewhat (but still nowhere near his April numbers).
In my opinion, you should never put more on a young player’s plate than he can handle. Eric Wedge – for all of the good he brought to this team in his mental toughness and his ability to communicate well with players – really screwed the pooch on Smoak last year. On the plus side, Smoak didn’t die. And, he can look at that September uptick as something to build on. He completed just about a full Major League season; and while it may not have been what he imagined going in, at least he has something to build on.
And his 2011 numbers weren’t TOTALLY worthless. It’s not something you’d want to see him repeat necessarily, but like I said, there’s something to build on. 15 homers and 24 doubles for a guy who missed almost a full month (and may or may not have been injured for up to half the season or more) is a pretty good start for a guy who’s only 25. Obviously, you’d like to see the batting average improve (.234), but you’re still looking at a guy who’s able to get on base (55 walks, adding almost 100 points to his on-base percentage, making it .323).
Of course, the elephant hanging over everyone’s head in this case is the guy we DIDN’T get. Jesus Montero. For both of these players’ careers, they will be forever compared to one another (especially among Mariners fans). Right now, it’s too early to call it, as Montero only played after the September Call-Ups for the Yankees. He batted .328 in 61 at-bats with 4 homers and 4 doubles (as a catcher to boot). Pretty promising, but let’s wait and see what he does over a full season before we start going crazy.
Nevertheless, with that lineup full of studs, one thing Montero won’t have to worry about is having a soft landing. I would expect him to bat 7th or 8th for the duration of next season.
As for Smoak, who knows WHERE he will be? Maybe he’s our starting first baseman. Maybe he’s a platoon 1B/DH. Maybe we sign Fielder and he’s off the team entirely. Whatever happens, I’m hoping for better things. I like Jackie Z and I want all of his moves to work out. So, by association, I like Justin Smoak and I hope his numbers end up dwarfing (or, at the very least equalling) Montero’s.
Smoak better have a work ethic, that’s all I’ve got to say. This ain’t 1998; you’re not going to HGH your way to a massive season.