Anytime a professional baseball team is "rebuilding", a collective sigh of apathy rumbles from within a fan base. The Mariners rebuilding process might be moving slower than molasses, but at least they seem to be heading in the right direction, overall. Despite being a team of mostly young players, many of whom are struggling to adapt to the big leagues, several questions can still be asked. Which young Mariners will actually become franchise players and stick with the team? Conversely, which M's simply do not have the skill to succeed at the MLB level? These questions bring to mind two players for me, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley.
Simply put, Justin Smoak is a player that needs to produce soon, or he might be out of the big leagues before you know it. Meanwhile, despite his struggles this year, Dustin Ackley is a Mariners mainstay player and appears to be a future star.
As much as I want to root for Justin Smoak, I'm starting to believe he simply is not a big league player. He is 25-years-old and he is approaching 1,000 career at-bats (933). To put it delicately, Smoak is running out of time. Even though M's General Manager Jack Zduriencik insists that every player takes their own time to develop, Smoak is certainly up against the clock.
Smoak's swing is long and his hands are slow. He does flash glimpes when he uncorks on a fastball, but he also looks hopelessly fooled against off-speed pitches. Batting against curve balls, Smoak is hitting an atrocious .119 left-handed and .115 right-handed. Simply put, if you want to get Justin Smoak out, just give him a heavy dose of off-speed pitches. Being a career .224 hitter is unacceptable for someone who is supposed to be a franchise first basemen. At this point in his MLB career, Smoak has to produce results.
On to Ackley. Most Mariners fans, myself included, think that Dustin Ackley will be a mainstay in the lineup for years to come. Still, like many Mariners, Ackley has started slowly this season. He simply has not been the same hitter this year as he was in his rookie campaign, where he hit .273 for 90 games. Even though it is a smaller sample size, after 45 games in 2012, he is struggling at .247. Nonetheless, perhaps more than any other young Mariner, Ackley has shown keen awareness and talent in the batters box.
With his quick hands and surprising power for a second basemen, Ackley could become the type of player that develops into an all-star. He has been getting the job done defensively at second base and he has shown the ability to be a threat at the plate. While he is going through a slight sophomore slump, I'm betting Ackley will get it together for the remaining 75% of the season.
Ackley and Smoak are just two pieces of the M's woeful offensive output puzzle, and overall the team lacks discipline at the plate. Seattle's terrifyingly pedestrian at-bats can make ordinary, decent pitchers look like un-hittable legends- cue Philip Humber of the White Sox (who threw a perfect game against the M's). On Thursday night, the Mariners struck out 14 times to Angels pitcher Dan Haren- which was a career high in strikeouts for Haren. It's bigger than just these two young, possibly core players.
Now, obviously, I'm no professional hitting coach, but in my observance of the Mariners' season so far, I have a couple of theories on why these two young players could be struggling. Take them for what you will.
With Smoak, I'm not sure if he has a love-affair with the specific style of baseball bat that he uses, but he swings a long bat with a thin handle. Nearly all of the weight in Smoak's bat is concentrated at the top of the barrel. When a bat is top-heavy, this means it takes more time and power to throw the barrel forward and initiate the swing. Perhaps if Smoak experimented with a more evenly weighted bat, with a heavier, thicker handle, then he might discover a quicker swing that is not as painfully slow (think of the bat Albert Pujols or Adrain Beltre use).
My impression is that Ackley does seem to have one major fundamental, yet correctable flaw in his swing. When Ackley is in his stance, he stands with his feet close together in an open stance. Then as he starts his swing his feet spread drastically as he strides and his head drops down. This mid-swing change in eye level can significantly decrease the accuracy of a batters hand-eye coordination.
The drop in Ackley's eye level can cause him to consistently "top" the ball and hit grounders. It's not necessarily bad to be a ground ball hitter, but if Ackley widened his stance, which would cause his stride to shorten, and his head to stay at a constant level; then he might be able to make more consistent and square contact with the ball (to picture a batter swinging at the same eye-level throughout the entire swing picture Ken Griffey Jr.).
Ackley might just be going through a minor sophomore slump or maybe he is slightly burned out from starting the spring training and the regular season as a full-time bona fide big leaguer, but keeping a consistent eye-level throughout his swing could help Ackley find more success at the plate. Still, I think most fans here see a future star in Ackley, despite his recent struggles, and believe he'll be a staple for the team for years to come.
Yes, the Mariners are a young team with plenty of areas that need improvement, but despite the fact that both Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak are struggling this year, they could be two players who might be heading separate directions.