PEORIA, Ariz. - All rookies have to make adjustments in baseball, though few have had to deal with as many as Justin Smoak.
Consider the past 12 months.
“I went to camp with Texas knowing that in two or three weeks I was going to be in minor league camp, and I was,” said Smoak, now the Seattle Mariners’ prize first baseman.
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He began the 2010 season with the coaching staff of the Oklahoma City Triple-A team until April 20, when he joined the Rangers and their coaching staff. On July 9, Smoak was traded to Seattle with Josh Lueke, Blake Beavan and Matthew Lawson for Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe.
For three weeks, he was with manager Don Wakamatsu and his coaching staff – then was sent to Tacoma for a month, where he played for two managers, Daren Brown and Jose Castro.
“Then I came up to Seattle again in September – and there was an all-new coaching staff,” Smoak said.
After a rookie season in which he batted a combined .218 with 13 home runs and 48 RBI in 100 games, Smoak went home and tried to relax and look back at what he’d learned in 2010.
A month in, he read the Seattle Mariners had hired a new manager and coaching staff.
In a 12-month run, Smoak has played for six managers, counting Eric Wedge this spring and Brown twice (Tacoma, Seattle).
“I play hard for all managers,” Smoak said. “That’s the least you owe them. That, and respect.”
Now 24, Smoak is a switch-hitter with power, a player the Mariners coveted last summer and one who admits to being overwhelmed at times during a season that became a blur.
When he batted third Monday, someone asked if he was comfortable hitting in the middle of the lineup – and Smoak blinked back surprise.
“I’ve hit in the middle of the lineup my whole life, so I’m comfortable there. It would be strange not to be there,” he said. “Pressure comes with batting there. We have to score more runs and we should – you know Ichiro (Suzuki) and (Chone) Figgins are going to be on base a lot. We have to get them in to win games.”
Smoak can tell you all about pushing runs home from the heart of a lineup.
“You’ve got to get the guy in from third base with less than two outs. I came up in that situation (Sunday) and got a change-up I should have done more with, and I flied out to center,” he said. “It got the guy in, but I wasn’t happy with the at-bat. I was happy I got the guy in.”
After contemplating the 2010 season, Smoak can see what he did and didn’t do, and knows what he wants to change in 2011.
“I’d never had a year like that. I had highs and lows, and what I’d like to do this year is not have the lows go so low,” he said. “I finished strong, that gave me a lot of confidence.”
Smoak finished the year on a 10-game hitting streak – a career best – batting .441 with three home runs and nine RBI. What changed?
“The key was I stopped trying to do too much every at-bat, every swing. I focused on making good contact,” he said.
Simple. Something several of his six managers might have mentioned to him. Smoak admits he liked most of them but never got to know any of them well, with the exception of Brown, who he’d played for in the Arizona Fall League.
When he needed to talk, Smoak would call home.
“I’ll call my dad when I need to. He watches almost every game and knows me better than anyone,” Smoak said. “He can be hard on me, but he picked me up when I needed it, too. He had to pick me up a lot last year.”
It was his father who talked Smoak into trying switch-hitting.
“I started when I was 12. My natural swing is right-handed, and I didn’t really feel comfortable switch-hitting until my freshman year in high school,” he said.
“When I was younger, I hit better right-handed. In college, I hit better left-handed. As a professional, it’s gone back and forth. What I’ve learned is I have to do the same amount of work – every day – from each side,” he said.
Now he works with batting coach Chris Chambliss who is either the fifth or sixth hitting coach Smoak has had in 12 months (he’s not sure how many he’s had).
Even for a Mariner, that’s a lot.