Justin Smoak is mired in an awful slump. One that shows no signs of letting up.
The Seattle Mariners' first basemen is hitting .171 over his last 10 games, and with the team's offense being extra anemic lately, he must shoulder much of the blame.
It's been an eventful time for the switch-hitter since he came over as the centrepiece of the Cliff Lee trade. He struggled in his first stint with the club and ended up being sent down to Tacoma to finish the season.
At the start of this year, he got off to another slow start when he was faced with the tragic death of his father.
Upon his return to the team something happened. He just looked different. He carried himself like a young man who knew that he belonged.
Perhaps the loss of his father gave him some perspective about his struggles at the plate, who really knows? What we do know however is that Smoak caught fire immediately upon his return, and before we knew it he was the big stick this lineup had been searching for.
So what has happened to Smoak since then? Well, not as much as you may think. There are multiple factors behind his current struggles. Some he can control and some he can't.
Firstly, have you noticed who else is struggling? Pretty much everybody. Ichiro has found his stroke again, and Olivo has had some late inning heroics—but in reality, everyone around Smoak has been lousy.
After his early success, it makes sense that Smoak feels like all the responsibility to score runs is on him. But there is more to it than just the mental side of things.
Take a close look next time Smoak is up to bat. He's on a steady diet of low and away stuff— nothing whatsoever in the strike zone.
Why? Well, two reasons.
Firstly because pitchers have no fear about pitching around Smoak and going after whoever is behind him (see previous paragraph about everyone else being terrible). He's rarely up in a position where guys have to pitch to him—two on, none out—so him taking a walk isn't a major concern to opponents.
And secondly, because he's swinging at those pitches (see previous paragraph about feeling pressure). The first sign that Smoak is making mental adjustments will be when he starts to walk more. He will learn to forget about the guy behind him and only swing at pitches he can handle.
I'm expecting Dustin Ackley to be a huge influence on Smoak's performance from here on. If Ichiro and Ackley are getting on base, all of a sudden pitchers are going to be forced to challenge Smoak.
If the M's make a roster move for a LF or DH or if suddenly Cust, Carp or Halman start hitting, all of a sudden, Smoak has some protection behind him.
This is a crucial time in the development of Justin Smoak as a hitter. His current struggles are more involved than a simple slump. For him to succeed with the bat, his teammates are going to have to step up to the plate.