SEATTLE -- For Justin Smoak, late is undoubtedly better than never.
The 26-year-old first baseman from Goose Creek, S.C., was the key return in Seattle's 2010 trade that sent ace Cliff Lee to division-rival Rangers. After two years of promising months followed by periods of struggle, the switch-hitter is finally rounding into the type of middle-of-the-order bat that the Mariners envisioned.
"He's starting to figure it out from both sides, so that's really good," acting manager Robby Thompson said. "He's putting up better at-bats from the right side than he was earlier, he's swinging the bat with a lot of confidence. I think he's been really aggressive in the [strike] zone."
During Smoak's first two full seasons with the Mariners, he finished with batting averages of .234 and .217, respectively. Now he's all the way up to .270, hitting .301 with a .941 OPS over 42 games since returning from the disabled list on June 18.
With the hits has come a marked improvement in plate discipline. Smoak has forced opposing hurlers to throw him pitches in the strike zone, already drawing 45 walks this year in 88 games, compared to 49 total walks in 132 games a season ago. That patience has caused Smoak's pitches per plate appearance to jump from 3.76 last year to a career-high 4.05 in 2013.
"I think what's helped him, too, is in two-strike situations, he's really learned to foul off the pitch," Thompson said. "A lot of our guys have. I think in the past, we've left it up to the umpire too much with two strikes and had them called for strikeouts. Now I think guys are battling for hits, and Smoak's one of them."
One player who Smoak has been able to lean on as he comes into his own as a hitter is Raul Ibanez. Like Smoak, the 41-year-old Ibanez needed some time in the big leagues before he was truly comfortable at the plate, breaking out with Kansas City in his age-29 season.
Many of Seattle's young players consider Ibanez to be more mentor than teammate, and Smoak is no exception. But while some players may ask the veteran -- who leads the team with 24 home runs this season -- for advice on their footwork, swing or other mechanics, for Smoak, it's a bit different.
"It's more mentality-wise," Smoak said. "We talk a lot about swings and what you're trying to do and how you feel, this and that. But once you get in the box, it's all mentality, you've got to throw everything you worked on in the cage and batting practice out the window. It's all the mentality of me vs. that guy on the mound."
But while the two may confer often on approach and mindset at the plate, Ibanez clarifies that motivation is never an issue. Smoak has impressed people throughout the organization with his work ethic; when he was sent to Triple-A last season briefly to retool his swing, coaches eventually had to tell him to stop working out for so long after games to avoid developing blisters.
"We don't have to have those talks, because he's always wanting to learn and willing to learn and he's always trying to get better," Ibanez said. "Always working to get better, so you don't necessarily have to have those conversations like that for somebody that's always striving for excellence, and he does -- he strives for excellence in his work in the cage and the way that he thinks about the game. He's always trying to find ways to improve."
With 25-year-old Kyle Seager at third base, rookie catcher Mike Zunino indicating that he can be the team's everyday catcher when he returns from the disabled list, and rookies Brad Miller and Nick Franklin manning shortstop and second base, Smoak is in some ways the grizzled veteran of the Mariners' youth movement.
Now that Smoak is proving to be a certified slugger, he can lead by example. And when some of the other young players' bats fail them, as they invariably will, Smoak will be able to speak from experience, like Ibanez, when he tells them that things will turn around if they work at it. Even if getting better involves a trip to Tacoma.
"Going down, of course, is never easy, but at the same time, it's something I needed," Smoak said. "I needed to work on the things I needed to work on, and I put the time in ... I feel like I did that."
Jacob Thorpe is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.