By: Michael DiStefano
Canadian Baseball Network
After failing to find consistency throughout his first eight years in the big leagues, Justin Smoak appears to finally be meeting the expectations baseball had of him when he went 11th overall in the 2008 MLB Draft.
The switch-hitter struggled in his 341 at bats last season, but Smoak credits his recent success to a changed mindset in the batter’s box. He’s focused on getting back to the basics of squaring up the baseball instead of being fixated on the long ball.
The Jays slugger had a .217 batting average in 2016 and struck out in 32.8 per cent of his at bats, which was well above his 23.5 per cent career strikeout rate.
“Over the last couple years since I’ve been in the big leagues I’ve been trying to hit homers,” Smoak said. “My whole life growing up—my whole life in the minor leagues, college, whatever it was—I was never a guy that tried [to hit homers].”
The Goose Creek, S.C., native may not be trying to hit homers anymore, but Smoak is enjoying hitting again with his improved production at the plate early in the 2017 campaign.
Smoak’s strikeout rate has dropped 14.6 per cent from last season and he’s already surpassed his RBI totals and has 15 homers, which is one more than he hit in all of 2016.
“It’s just a matter of trying to have quality at bats,” he said.
Smoak’s changed approach allows him to focus on just hitting the ball rather than mashing it, which is paying dividends for the slugger who has a much improved .287 batting average through 57 games this season.
“I’m just trying to square the ball up and try to play pepper,” Smoak said after spraying the baseball all over the field during batting practice. “If I square the ball up [it’s] going to have a chance to go out of the ball park.”
Smoak is on pace for career highs in every offensive category and he attributes a lot of his success to playing daily and getting the necessary at bats.
“I’ve gotten consistent playing time,” Smoak said. “I knew I was going to be playing a little more and [I spent the offseason] getting my body ready to do that.”
The Jays hitter has been rewarded for his strong offensive play by being placed in the middle of Toronto’s star-studded lineup, often slotted between Kendrys Morales and all-star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
Smoak is making the most of his opportunity while batting in the five hole this season, and knows he must continue to think positively to maintain this level of production for a full 162-game season.
“I was so hard on myself,” Smoak said of his previous seasons. “[Now I’m] trying to enjoy the game again.”
And now baseball has the pleasure of enjoying the Justin Smoak we’ve envisioned and have been waiting on for nearly a decade.
- Follow Michael DiStefano on Twitter @mickey_canuck