Justin Smoak’s OTHER Problem
It was June, 27th of 2011. Justin Smoak stood in against Justin Verlander, and when the Tigers ace left a fastball out over the plate, the M’s 1B muscled it out to left center for a 421 foot home run. Smoak was on his way to a breakout season; he’d homered the day before, and at the end of play that day, he had an impressive .300/.412/.557 line. Smoak was hitting everything, but he was doing serious damage against fastballs. Verlander’s pitch was 96 mph, and fairly well located. He struggled in May, but still punished mistakes, like a HR off of 94 mph fastball from CC Sabathia and a double against Chicago closer Sergio Santos’ 96mph heat. By June, it seemed clear he wasn’t a .300 hitter, but he was still a solid contributor. He had a .264/.366/.488 line as late as June 24th – a line that showed solid patience and the kind of power the M’s expected when they traded for him.
After today’s loss, Justin Smoak’s slugging percentage hovers around .300. He’s been unlucky on balls in play, so some of that is the result of a putrid batting average, but his isolated power is around .100, near where Chone Figgins’ is this season, and around the level Ichiro hit early in his career. Forget BABIP – where’s his power? Dave laid out his struggles against offspeed stuff in this fine post, but Smoak’s still capable of hitting a hanging change-up, as Rick Porcello found out on this road trip. But as worrying as his whiffs on bendy pitches are, I’m worried that he’s not able to punish fastballs anymore. It’s barely May, so we don’t have anywhere near enough data at this point, but I’m finding it increasingly hard to believe he homered on a 96mph fastball. He’s managed four extra base hits on the year – three of them have come off of change-ups. Only one HR’s come off a fastball – his first, in the Tokyo Dome against Bartolo Colon. Colon put a FB on the outside corner and Smoak hit it the other way just over the fence in left. It was a nice piece of hitting, but it wouldn’t be a homer in any park here, and given the pitcher, it likely wasn’t exactly Verlander-level velocity.
Against pitches over 92mph (which is completely arbitrary, I know), Smoak is 1 for 13 this year, with only a single off of a reeling Yu Darvish. He singled sharply today on a fastball, but that brought his line against straight stuff to 4 for 26; three singles and the HR in Tokyo. The low BACON (Batting Average on Contact) is something that fans have mentioned as a possible cause for optimism with Smoak, but his problem isn’t his batting average. The M’s wouldn’t be happy with X more singles in his batting line. Smoak’s speed and issues with offspeed pitches mean that he HAS to crush mistakes to be an average player. He’s done it before, but it’s been so long that you have to wonder if we’ll see that version of Smoak again. A .100 ISO Smoak would have to hit like Ichiro at his peak to be a real asset and frankly that’s not terribly likely.
Below are two heatmaps comparing Smoak’s run values against fastballs to the league average against fastballs. Blue is below average, yellow/orange/red are better, and the run values are calculated on balls/strikes as well as balls in play. The first covers July 1, 2011 to May 2nd, 2012. There’s an awful lot of blue in the heart of the plate. But there’s not much data, and it’s colored (heh) by his awful batting average on contact that I mentioned above.
So let’s extend it out a bit and compare Smoak to league average on fastballs for his entire career, and let’s regress it by adding in some leage-average performance in some of the zones:
Hmmm. Better, but not great. And this includes his fleeting glory days (not a metaphor, I mean actual *days*) when he was hitting good fastballs.
The other day, Smoak turned around a 95mph fastball from Matt Moore, but his line drive was snagged at 1B. Then he hit a long fly ball on a 94mph fastball from Moore, but it died near the track in center. Optimists have plenty of ammunition here – his slugging percentage isn’t hurt solely by a lack of home runs, his .043 BABIP on fly balls is robbing him of doubles too. He’s been phenomenally unlucky against lefties, with a wOBA of .091, and a BABIP of .100. If/when he brings that back to his true talent level, he’s…well I won’t say ‘good,’ but something tolerable. They’d probably point out that his hand injury may still be bothering him, and that power’s often the last skill to return after an injury. But visually and statistically, he’s just not a potent bat right now. And while his whiffs are concerning, the most concerning thing of all’s what happens when he *does* square a ball up, like he did against Moore two days ago.
Luckily for Justin, the Minnesota Twins come to town tomorrow night, and for whatever reason, that organization seems to hate high-velocity fastballs almost as much as Smoak does. He’ll face Carl Pavano, Jason Marquis and Nick Blackburn, meaning there’s very little chance of seeing a 92mph fastball this series. When Nick Blackburn’s the flamethrower of the group, you’re dealing with some soft-tossers. Show us a sign, Justin.
Note: this post was spurred by a twitter conversation with former USSM mod Graham MacAree. The heatmaps come from Jeff Zimmerman’s great www.baseballheatmaps.com.