Smoak’s Defense

Dave · August 20, 2010 at 6:53 am · Filed Under Mariners 

When the Mariners traded Cliff Lee for Justin Smoak (and stuff), we summed him up as a switch-hitting first baseman with power, patience, and a good glove. That was the generally accepted scouting report on the Rangers top prospect, who had drawn comparisons to Mark Teixeira coming out of college. In their pre-draft write-up, Baseball America said the following about Smoak’s glove:

As a first baseman, Smoak has Gold Glove-caliber actions and soft hands. His footwork and instincts around the bag are advanced and his arm strength is adequate… He is thought to be the best combination of offense and defense at first base in this draft class.

Two days after the trade, I had a very interesting conversation with a scout who had seen Smoak extensively over the last year. He told me to watch Smoak play for a few weeks, then let him know what I thought of his defense. He’d heard all the glowing reports as well, but after watching him play regularly as a pro, he wasn’t buying it. He mentioned that Smoak was one of the slowest players in the league, and had no athleticism to speak of. Generally, he just wasn’t impressed at all with his defensive abilities.

I took his challenge, and tried to watch as much of Smoak’s defense at first base when he was in Seattle as I could. I grudgingly agreed with his assessment – he was slow, the footwork wasn’t great, and I didn’t see anything that made me think he was a good defender in the making. Since he got optioned back to Tacoma, I’ve talked with a few more people who have seen him play regularly who feel the same way – they’re shocked when they watch him play, because we’ve all heard the “future gold glover” talk.

Trying to figure out what’s going on, I sought out a few more scouts whose work I respect. Neither of the guys I talked to work for the Mariners, so they don’t have a stake in his future. I was hoping one of them would point out something I was missing. Nope – just more “that guy is slow” and “I don’t get it either” talk.

At this point, I’m struggling to find anyone who likes Justin Smoak’s defensive abilities, much less projects him as a high quality defender. Speed and athleticism aren’t everything at first base – after all, Casey Kotchman might be the slowest guy in baseball – but I’m scratching my head at the reports of him being a plus glove. In the time I’ve watched him play, I don’t see it, and neither do a variety of scouts I’ve talked with.

I still believe in the bat, as the power and patience are legitimate, and he’s got enough offensive potential to be a good player even without adding much in the way of defensive value. However, I’m a little less excited about the guy than I was when the Mariners made the deal. The Mark Teixeira comparisons seem like a bit of a pipe dream at this point. A switch-hitting Justin Morneau, pre-2010 crazy breakout, is probably more along what we should expect. That’s still a nice player, of course, but that’s more of +3 to +4 win guy than true superstar.


68 Responses to “Smoak’s Defense”

  1. firova2 on August 20th, 2010 1:54 pm

    Could Smoak possibly be as slow as Willie Horton? Jeff Burroughs? Bob Robertson? Ken Phelps? Paul Sorrento? Or the aforementioned Thomas and Zisk? Watching the Mariners trot out another elephant at 1b/dh every year, too often one on the wrong side of 30, used to be part of the “fun.”

  2. Typical Idiot Fan on August 20th, 2010 2:42 pm

    All this talk of slow Mariners and nobody mentions Ron Wright? I mean, the guy had a hell of an excuse (severed sciatic nerve causing his right leg to be numb for the rest of his life), but he was pretty damned slow.

  3. furlong on August 20th, 2010 2:47 pm

    Batista was deliberate off the mound, James Baldwin was the king of sloth off the mound.

  4. CWEST on August 20th, 2010 2:55 pm

    Edgar was as slow as 2009 Bill Hall even before the leg injuries. Don’t let those 14 SB in 1992 fool you – Edgar was not a fast man. Just a hitting machine.

    According to Baseball-Reference Edgar managed to leg out 110 infield hits between 1991-1992. Pretty impressive for a slow guy!

  5. philosofool on August 20th, 2010 3:53 pm

    Is there any team in baseball as adept as the M’s at amassing overrated DHs?

    The difference between a 1B and DH is usually a matter what position they played before they got to the show, and where the team has needs once they arrive.

    I’m all for valuing a guy’s defensive abilities. But defensive opportunities are highly variable, while a healthy 1B gets almost exactly 650 opportunities at the plate every season. Given that scouts have been confused by Smoak’s abilities at 1B so far, I’m not sure that I think grading out his defense should be the salient factor in evaluating him at this point in his career.

    I can’t help but feel like scouts succumb to using proxies for defensive abilities in their evaluations. Smooth, quick, athletic, easy, and confident are easy to confuse with getting to the ball and making outs. I also don’t trust scouts with the relative value of errors and range. I don’t care if after every routine play, Justin Smoak falls over without hurting himself, as long as he gets to the ball and makes outs.

  6. vertigoman on August 20th, 2010 6:04 pm

    Kind of funny that Dave is writing off Smoak based on a handful of games seen on TV. And sure, getting a few scouting folks that concur seems reasonable. But maybe that means he’s stiff right now. Sore. Hurt. Because this flies in the face of not only BA’s assessment, but both the Rangers and the Mariners as well.

    How about at least saying, “Small sample size alert” Dave?

  7. vertigoman on August 20th, 2010 6:23 pm

    Well, hopefully this is a question posed to Jack when you guys meet up.

  8. Dave on August 20th, 2010 7:07 pm

    You don’t know the Rangers and Mariners assessments of Smoak’s defense.

    And it’s not a small sample. The guys I talked to have watched Smoak play a lot, over a long period of time.

  9. Pete Livengood on August 20th, 2010 8:09 pm

    Vertigoman, you could go to Tacoma and watch him yourself. TV is fine, too, if you can’t get down there (CSN is hopefully available to you). Athleticism (or lack thereof) is pretty easy to spot, even over a small sample of games. The question is how much weight to give that observation, if it is seemingly contradicted by statistical analysis – which I am not sure this is, frankly (Smoak’s UZR does not support his reputation either) – but the defensive statistics here are SSS, too.

    And, with all due deference to philosofool, the problem with lack of athleticism, even when making the plays, is it raises a legitimate question about ability to make future plays. Statistical analysis is backward-looking; scouting, as imperfect as it may be, is forward-looking. I do believe that all scouting opinion should be tempered by knowledge/awareness of a player’s statistical trends, but don’t discount scouting opinion just because it contradicts the statistics – especially defensive statistics, and even more especially when dealing with a player who has less than two full years of pro experience.

  10. DanMsFan19 on August 21st, 2010 6:33 am

    How could there possibly be a discussion of slowest Mariner ever without any mention of Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni?


  11. vertigoman on August 21st, 2010 12:25 pm

    Thanks for your input Pete.
    You’re correct in that UZR does not support Smoak as a great defender. However, UZR also does not support Dave’s claim that he now to be considered a bad defender. Since I happen to live on the same coast as Dave I’m pretty sure I have access to the same TV and live games (which mean PCL is out of the picture). The same games that whomever evaluates UZR has access to. So maybe UZR is totally off base on their range assessment as well?
    And Dave, no I don’t have access to The M’s or the Rangers scouting reports of Smoak. I’m sure you could figure that out better than I can for sure. Maybe it would be prudent to do so before you write his defense off altogether.
    I am also not an amateur Scout by any means. I know that in my eyes, watching ST live I was surprised at how slow Kotchman looked at first. But there is no arguing his ability to make the plays this season, not in my mind. Whatever makes a good first basemen probably has more to do with skill than athleticism. Writing his defense off completely because of a small amount of of video footage seems to be jumping the gun. This kind of unsupported analysis is not typical of UssMariner. Using unnamed sources as the crux of an argument is something that you call other people out on.

    No disrespect intended.

  12. Dave on August 21st, 2010 1:31 pm

    Writing his defense off completely because of a small amount of of video footage seems to be jumping the gun.

    Its a good thing thats not what I’m doing, then.

    Using unnamed sources as the crux of an argument is something that you call other people out on.

    You really don’t know the difference between using “unnamed sources” to report things like clubhouse friction and using “unnamed scouts” to talk about things like defensive ability?

  13. Conor on August 21st, 2010 2:26 pm

    But back on-topic – Keith Law reported that Smoak had a “plus glove”. He usually tries to see guys first-hand – does anyone know if this case was different (or maybe BA was just using his analysis)?

    Westside – Kidding or not, please don’t ever imply that Baseball America would steal another writer’s analysis. BA has been writing about Justin Smoak since 2004.

  14. vertigoman on August 21st, 2010 3:09 pm

    You really don’t know the difference between using “unnamed sources” to report things like clubhouse friction and using “unnamed scouts” to talk about things like defensive ability?

    If you can’t see the symmetry perhaps you’re too close to the subject. We’ve all read the rants about reporters making up stories to report about. And I agree. Hopefully you backup this post with something substantial. Like it or not, your opinion counts more than most.

    BTW, before you go snarky and deem me a troll or whatever it’s called just know that I’m a fan of your work and I read it regularly. Recommend it to family, friends and other fans where I live. Now when I’m talking baseball to some of the Yankee fans I know, we can actually refer to FIP and UZR instead of Jeter’s awesome play in the ALCS and moxie.

  15. Dave on August 21st, 2010 9:29 pm

    If you can’t see the symmetry perhaps you’re too close to the subject.

    Besides the fact that we’re not outing their identities, there is no similarity between using a scouts opinion in a piece like this and using “clubhouse sources” to report gossip about who gets along with who or whatever.

    Those stories are almost always presented as “Thing X happened”, a declarative statement of fact about an event that either did or did not occur. Griffey’s sleeping incident is the perfect example – LaRue quoted two unnamed players to relay a story as a factual event, even though the implicated party denied the charge. By using anonymous sources, we’re essentially left with a he said/she said. This is nothing like that.

    I’m not quoting the scout saying that Justin Smoak robbed a liquor store. I’m repeating a scouts opinion about a player’s abilities – nothing more, nothing less. It’s not something where I’m denying Smoak the ability to confront his accuser or set the record straight over something that he disputes.

    The situations are entirely different. Whether you want to decide that the scouts I’ve talked to have no credibility because I’m not revealing their identities, or whether you think I didn’t actually talk to them or something, that’s up to you. We’re not asserting anything as fact here. I’m simply reporting the opinions of several people who know what they’re talking about. It’s up to you to value that or not.

  16. Jeff Nye on August 21st, 2010 10:06 pm

    As Dave said, the motives for not naming names differ, and matter.

  17. vertigoman on August 23rd, 2010 2:14 pm

    I appreciate the explanation Dave. I see your point where it pertains to the source. It still however, turns into a he said she said since there are conflicting opinions about his defensive abilities. And they are dramatically different opinions at that. Your agreement with your scouts assessment is based on SSS even though the opinions of those scouts you are quoting are evidently not. Since UZR has him graded as league average defensively in his brief stint in the majors there’s no statistical evidence to support either claim. It seems to be jumping the gun a bit by notching him down from his potential franchise pillar status to that of a good everyday player based on this. Hopefully we’ll be reading more about this in some kind of follow up.

  18. Steve Nelson on August 24th, 2010 4:31 pm

    vertigoman, you said: “Because this flies in the face of not only BA’s assessment, but both the Rangers and the Mariners as well.”

    Since none of us have direct access to the Rangers and Mariners assessments of Smoak’s defense, and you have reported to us factually the gist of the Rangers and Mariners assessments are, I presume that you have some sources for those assessments that we don’t.

    Given all of the fuss you’ve raised about use of unnamed sources, I’m disappointed that you haven’t shared with us your sources.

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