Smoak never became the player many had hoped for in Seattle, but a change in thinking on the field and off has helped him blossom in 2017.
MIAMI — Back on a sun-drenched day early in 2014 spring training, Robinson Cano and Justin Smoak stayed on the field following a long team workout. With then-hitting coach Howard Johnson tossing them short pitches, the two men took swing after swing in Cano’s net drill, working to keep their hands inside the baseball while driving it to right field. Smoak had asked for Cano’s help and the veteran in his first weeks with the team happily obliged.
Following the workout, Cano gushed about Smoak’s potential and said, “He has the talent to be an All-Star.”
It seemed like a preposterous and naive statement from a player who clearly didn’t know Smoak’s history of unachieved potential and un-met expectations with the organization.
In the end, Cano was right.
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On Tuesday night at Marlins Park, Smoak will start at first base for the American League All-Star team, having won the fan vote.
But even if he hadn’t been the most popular pick, his first half of the season was good enough to merit him a selection as a reserve.
In 87 games with the Blue Jays, Smoak is hitting .294 with a .936 on-base plus slugging percentage, 13 doubles, a triple, 23 homers and 56 RBI. Among American League first baseman he’s second to only ex-Mariner and current Ray Logan Morrison with a 2.2 Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs.
Reminded of his comments about Smoak having All-Star talent, Cano broke into his trademark grin.
“Maybe I should be a GM,” he said. “I liked his swing and the guy worked so hard. I’m really happy for him.”
The same might not be said about Mariners’ fans. The reaction to his selection on social media wasn’t pretty. To many, Smoak’s failures were the epitome of the losing and dysfunction of the organization under former general manager Jack Zduriencik.
Smoak was the centerpiece of the return from the Rangers in the 2010 trade that sent Cliff Lee to Texas. A first-round pick out of South Carolina in 2008, Smoak was thought to be the power-hitting first baseman that Seattle had long coveted to be part of the middle of their batting order of the future.
Only 23 at the time and in the big leagues for less than two months at the time of the trade, Smoak was immediately slated to be part of the new foundation being built.
Was he ready for that kind of pressure?
“Honestly, I wasn’t ready to be traded,” he said. “I was on a team that went to the World Series. It caught me off guard. I heard things, but at the same time they had a trade with New York. I remember being in the clubhouse that day and seeing they had traded for (Jesus) Montero and then something fell through.”
So he went about his normal preparation for that night’s game.
“We had a rain delay game that night. I was in the cage getting ready and they came and got me and told me I was going to Seattle,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting it. I had just got called up two months before that. And then I was traded. I never thought it would be me.”
Smoak’s tenure in Seattle was non-descript and frustrating for him, the organization and the fans. He would show flashes of brilliance and tantalize fans with his switch-hitting, power potential. And then he would maim that optimism and goodwill with extended periods of poor at-bats, rolled over ground balls and strikeouts upon strikeouts.
In four and a half seasons and 496 games with Seattle, Smoak hit .226 with a .692 OPS. He hit 66 total homers, drove in 200 runs and struck out 435 times. He hit 20 homers in is best season in 2013. But it was hardly what the fans were promised or expected.
“As well they should have,” he said of the fans frustrations. “I expected what they expected. It’s just one of those things where it didn’t work out. I wish it had. I loved Seattle. It’s part of baseball. If you don’t perform, you are going to hear it. The good thing for me is I’m not on social media.”
And yet no amount of criticism from fans could match his own self-criticism. Affable and easy-going, Smoak’s friendly personality hid how much he dreaded coming to the park and failing in front of them again.
“It was really tough for me,” he said. “I expected myself to perform. I didn’t do it. It was not easy for me. I was hard on myself. I didn’t really take failing well. It’s a game of failure but I never looked at it that way because I’d never failed in my whole life in baseball until I got to the big leagues. It was hard for me to understand.”
Over the past few years, Smoak has been able to reflect on why it didn’t work in Seattle.
“I’m not going to make excuses,” he said. “I’ve never been a guy that does that. I just felt like at times I tried too hard to be ‘The Guy’ instead of just going out and being myself. You want to be The Guy, but to be The Guy you have to do it on the field. And I felt like I was just trying too hard. I wanted to be it and I didn’t know how. And I was too hard on myself. I took it home every night. I wasn’t a happy person. I’d have a good day and it didn’t mean anything to me. I just grinded so hard on myself.”
Then came an epiphany in Toronto — a place so different than his hometown of Goose Creek, S.C. With his wife and daughter there with him each night, he came to an awareness that gave him peace.
“I think it’s when I decided that baseball isn’t the end of the world for me,” he said. “If it ended today, then I’ve got a great family to go home to and I can do whatever I want to do. At that point, I think that’s when things started to turn for me.”
But success wasn’t all about mental peace. Smoak still needed to have a breakthrough with his approach at the plate and self-realization of who he was as a hitter.
It started with the battle of his right-handed swing vs. left-handed swing. Always in conflict with the other, he let both sides win.
“It’s taken me awhile, but I feel I’ve finally learned that you got different swings from both sides of the plate,” he said. “I feel like forever there I tried to make the left side feel like the right side and the right side feel like the left side, you know what I mean? I finally got to a point where it’s like, you’re not going to feel the same no matter what. They’re two totally different swings.”
But there was more. The problems weren’t just with the two swings but the misses that often followed.
“Honestly for me, I think I just got tired of swinging and missing,” he said. “You’re going to swing and miss in a game, right, but I was tired of it, tired of swinging at the curveball in the dirt.”
So he dialed back his thinking about power and trying to hit for it, opting for more consistent contact.
“I’ve stopped trying to hit home runs and now I’m hitting them,” he said. “Before in BP I would just try and launch homer after homer, now if I hit a homer in BP I’m not even trying to do it.”
Smoak works a mature batting practice, focusing on slashing the ball to all fields with a controlled swing.
“It took me awhile to figure out that I’m big enough, I’m strong enough and if I square it up, it’s going to go,” he said. “I’m not going to up there and try to hit it 500 feet every time, but I feel like for awhile there, it’s what I was doing with every swing. I was going up there trying to generate power and I didn’t need do that. I want to be a hitter not a power hitter.”
Smoak is cautiously optimistic about this first half and the All-Star selection. He knows how far he’s come and how easy it can be to fall back there.
“You saw me early in my career, this is very gratifying,” he said. “It feels like the work is finally paying off. I’m not saying I’ve made it. Yeah, I’ve accomplished making the all-star team and starting in the game, but you want to keep it going. You just want it to be more than a good half of a year. If I can keep this going for the whole year, then I’ll look back on this as part of a good season.”