The Thing Justin Smoak Has To Fix
Since it’s an off day, and Jeff decided to write about Jesus Montero, I figured I should tackle Justin Smoak. After all, heading into this season, he was really the make or break guy on offense. We’re pretty confident that Dustin Ackley is going to develop into a good player. We think Jesus Montero might, but we were pretty sure that he was going to have some struggles this year and probably wasn’t ready to be a major offensive force. If this offense was going to take a big step forward this year, though, it was probably going to be because Justin Smoak finally started to hit like the guy he was expected to be.
Instead of taking a step forward, he’s actually showing signs of going the wrong way. He’s hitting just .203/.242/.322, hasn’t shown any real signs of improving his weaknesses, and has stopped drawing walks as well. It’s only 62 plate appearances, and you shouldn’t read too much into any kind of early season performance, but Smoak’s the guy with the most to prove this year, and right now, he’s not proving to anyone that his previous struggles were a thing of the past.
In fact, Smoak hasn’t made any noticeable adjustments at the plate that I have been able to pick up on. Throughout his big league career, he’s essentially had one serious flaw; he doesn’t make nearly enough contact for a guy with average power. The walks and doubles first baseman can be a good player, but they generally have to compensate for their lack of home runs by hitting for a high average, and the only way for a slow guy with moderate power to keep his average up is to make an awful lot of contact. Smoak has always struggled to make enough contact to make this skillset work, and he’s been even worse than usual through the season’s first couple of weeks.
In his brief debut in 2010, Smoak made contact 77.6% of the time he swung the bat. Last year, that fell to 75.4%. This year, that’s down to 71.3%. You can be a good hitter with a contact rate that low (Josh Hamilton also has a 71.3% contact rate this year, for instance), but you better be able to hit the ball really, really far when you do make contact. Smoak just doesn’t have that kind of thump, so he needs to put the bat on the ball more often in order to be useful. He probably needs to be more in the 80-85% range in order to make his skillset work.
Of course, it’s not just as simple as to tell Smoak to stop swinging and missing so often. If it was simply a directive that he could follow, this would be easy to fix. The low contact rate, though, is a symptom of the problem – the real issue is that he simply hasn’t learned how to hit anything that isn’t a fastball.
Thanks to the magic of Pitch F/x data and the tools available from TexasLeaguers.com, we can look at how Smoak is faring against all different types of pitches. The classification system isn’t great at distinguishing between fastball types (four seam, two seam, cutter, etc…), but is generally pretty solid at identifying whether a pitch is a fastball, a slider, a curve, or a change. For this exercise, I’ve combined all the fastball types into one category. Here’s how Smoak is doing versus the four main pitch types:
Smoak has been thrown about a 50-50 mix of fastballs and off-speed stuff, and there’s not a ton of variance in how often he swings at them. But look at those whiff rates – 3% against fastballs, 16% against change-ups, and 24% each on sliders and curves. If you throw Smoak a fastball, he’s almost certainly going to hit it (though he also has a good chance of hitting it foul), but if you toss something soft up there, you stand a really good chance of having him swing right through it.
I mean, look at the slider break down. He’s seen 33 of them and put two of them in play. If you click through to the link, look at the two charts for pitch locations on swings versus takes – he’s swung at every low-but-down-the-middle slider he’s seen this year. He’s managed to lay off a lot of the ones down-and-in and several of the down-and-away sliders, but if you throw it over the plate but low, he’s chasing it. And he can’t hit that pitch.
It’s even worse with change-ups. Here’s the plot of change-ups he’s swung at so far this year.
Four times, a pitcher has thrown a change-up low enough to nearly hit the ground and Smoak has swung anyway. He did manage to lay off a low change-up once, so I guess we’ll give him credit for that, but this is still an area where he regularly swings at pitches he has no chance of touching.
Now, compare that to the chart of four seam fastballs he’s swung at this year.
It’s hard to believe this is the same guy – when a pitcher has thrown him a four seam fastball and he’s chosen to swing, it has almost always been in the strike zone. He’s not just passively staring at strikes, either, as he’s swung at a great majority of the four seam fastballs that have been thrown in the strike zone. And remember, he’s only swung and missed at two of the 55 four-seam fastballs (as categorized by Pitch F/x, anyway) he’s seen this year.
Against the fastball, Smoak has been able to correctly identify whether the pitch is a ball or strike, recognize whether or not he should swing, and almost always put the bat on the ball when he does. Against non-fastballs, though, Smoak is as lost as an eight-year-old. If you want to get him out, you just throw something over the plate but breaking down and out of the zone, and odds are good that he’s going to swing right over the top of it.
This kind of problem is generally referred to as plate discipline, but in this case, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it was more pitch recognition. Smoak doesn’t have the kind of swing-at-anything approach that suggests that he just doesn’t understand that getting into good hitters counts is the best way to get pitches to drive, but he simply seems unable to recognize that certain pitches that start off in the strike zone aren’t going to stay there after he starts to swing at them.
If I knew how to fix this, I’d be a Major League hitting coach and I’d make a lot of money. For all we know, it might not even be fixable. But if Smoak is ever going to turn into the hitter the Mariners are hoping for, they’re going to have to figure out how to mitigate his weaknesses against off-speed pitches down and out of the zone, because right now, he’s seeing a steady diet of sliders and change-ups down at his feet and he just can’t do anything with them. The easy answer is to stop swinging at those pitches, but the solution is almost certainly more complicated than that. The Mariners just have to hope they can figure out what it is and get Smoak to implement the changes. Right now, this version is just too easy to pitch to.