Justin Smoak’s OTHER Problem

marc w · May 3, 2012 at 6:16 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.

Smoak versus League Ave. vs. Fastballs, 2012.

Not good.

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:
Smoak versus League Average vs. FB
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.


21 Responses to “Justin Smoak’s OTHER Problem”

  1. shortbus on May 3rd, 2012 6:44 pm

    Reports in the offseason explained that Smoak lost 15 pounds but “got stronger.” In the short term weight loss can take a certain amount of muscle, from what I have read on the subject. I just wonder if he really is back to the level of strength he had prior to dropping the weight.

  2. Westside guy on May 3rd, 2012 6:50 pm

    I remember early 2011 – several of us were hanging around in the game threads, openly comparing our switch-hitting first baseman to Mickey Mantle…


  3. IwearMsHats on May 3rd, 2012 6:57 pm

    I used to stop what I was doing to watch a Smoak at bat. Not anymore 🙁

  4. jwise224 on May 3rd, 2012 7:22 pm

    So, if the realistic best case scenario for Smoak is somewhere in the neighborhood of .235/.330/.380 (adjusted from his ZIPS projection) for 2012, what is the worst case scenario? Even if he significantly improves, he’ll be hard pressed to be worth more than 3/4 of a win. What is it going to take for the organization to decide to stick with him? If he’s hitting, say, .195/.255/.315 by the All-Star Break, will they keep him in there? Liddi’s defense at 1st looked suspect yesterday, but at least he’s hitting the ball a little. Plan B, whatever that is, is becoming a more real possibility every day, especially if the power doesn’t return in a hurry.

  5. opiate82 on May 3rd, 2012 9:08 pm

    So wait, just so I’m up to date on what Smoak can and can’t do… we have determined he can’t hit off speed pitches, he can’t hit above average fastballs, and the (very few) pitches he can hit, he can’t hit very hard?

  6. marc w on May 3rd, 2012 10:26 pm

    opiate –

    It seems to me, and this is just a guess based on not a lot of data, that he’s able to hit BAD offspeed stuff out of the park. He’s struggling to hit good anything, and the bad FBs he gets, he’s hitting without loft. What does that get you? I don’t really know.
    I’m wondering if Chambliss shouldn’t tell him to forget about K’s, and to open his swing up on FBs. That is, I wonder if the new, more level swing was a reaction to his struggles in May/June of last year when he K’d a lot and had BABIP problems. He so often looks, at least to this untrained eye, like he’s trying to make contact. On FBs, he can make contact fairly regularly, but the contact is so weak that it doesn’t really help him.
    On change-ups, he frequently swings and misses, but if he connects, he’s still capable of driving a ball. I’m perfectly fine accepting a low average in exchange for power. The power might bring back the walks that have gone missing as nobody’s afraid to pound the zone on him any more.

  7. marc w on May 3rd, 2012 10:27 pm

    Or, in summary, I think you nailed it, Opiate. He’s traded power for contact, and he got a bad deal.

  8. CapSea on May 4th, 2012 1:37 am

    Marc, I was looking at his hittracker data, and even his home runs the power hasn’t been there in years. In fact, he hasn’t hit a “no doubt” home run since 2010, and he’s nowhere near any of the Mariner leaderboards when it comes to distance. He’s being beat by Kyle Seager, Ackley, and even Ichiro. I think Brendan Ryan has a home run with more distance.

    I’m starting to think he’s simply lost his strength, even before his supposed injury. Power hitters shouldn’t have weaker home runs than shortstops.

  9. bookbook on May 4th, 2012 5:08 am

    This is very good analysis, but…. I think every player seems less capable than he is, when slumping. Smoak has work to do, but I don’t think he’s as incapable as he’s been looking.

  10. Coach24 on May 4th, 2012 9:20 am

    I remember being really impressed by Smoak against Cliff Lee before we swapped them. Cliff Lee was of course awesome that game but Smoak hit a couple of balls really well. His bat speed was fantastic and he seemed to have a great approach to hitting. I was worried he was going to hurt the Mariners for years to come.

    Fast forward to today. I do not see the same bat speed or aggressiveness. He doesn’t drive his hands through the ball and appears to finish his swing much lower. All of this results in a lot less backspin, meaning less line drives and not as much loft.

    There is a hitter buried inside of Smoak somewhere, we just need him to dig, even if he starts digging at Cheney Stadium.

  11. aengland51 on May 4th, 2012 9:33 am

    Smoak simply looks like a guy that is caught in between pitches. He doesn’t want to look silly on the soft stuff so he isn’t ready for the heat. He needs help mentally more than physically.

  12. make_dave_proud on May 4th, 2012 10:31 am

    Wow, this is eye-opening. My observation this year was that Justin seemed to have lost some pop on his swing; not anything validated, just the naked eye test.

    In thinking back to a few years ago and the Cliff Lee deal. I have to imagine the Rangers are counting that trade as one where they didn’t give up quite the player they thought.

  13. Mariners35 on May 4th, 2012 10:45 am

    So, what should the M’s do about it? DH him more? Platoon somehow? Send down to AAA? Let him stay the everyday 1b and just find his way through it?

  14. msfanmike on May 4th, 2012 10:46 am

    “He doesn’t drive his hands through the ball and appears to finish his swing much lower”

    Spot on … exactly. Too much “lag” and not enough “snap.”

  15. msfanmike on May 4th, 2012 11:17 am

    In regard to another struggling hitter who may someday take a roster spot vacated by any number of current struggling hitters:

    Vinny Catricala had 4 hits (including his first home run) last night. Though his line is still awful, his pursuit remains strong. And I wish him well.

  16. mca on May 4th, 2012 11:38 am

    I’ve seen at least two references in this discussion to sending Smoak back to Tacoma. I’m not suggesting this, but is it even an option (i.e. does Smoak have options left)? If so, is it now or at any point a good option for the team and for Smoak? Are there things he could work on in AAA that might allow him to regain some of the lost luster?

  17. bookbook on May 4th, 2012 11:40 am

    For Corner hope-for-the-future guys, After Seager, Smoak, Wells, Liddi, there’s Catricala then a big gap down to high A. Romero and Proscia may look promisingish, but I guess they’re at least a couple years away.

    As noted above, Catricala still shows a slugging percentage below .300 for now. So Smoak probably gets plenty of chances to right himself in the Majors.

  18. Barron on May 4th, 2012 12:46 pm

    All signs, from my perspective, are that Smoak’s leash is this entire season. Any thoughts of him being sent to AAA or being platooned seem premature. This is a guy that has enough raw talent that we traded Cliff Lee to get him. Baseball is a long season… Look at Dan Uggla last year.

  19. SonOfZavaras on May 4th, 2012 2:18 pm

    I’ve seen at least two references in this discussion to sending Smoak back to Tacoma. I’m not suggesting this, but is it even an option (i.e. does Smoak have options left)? If so, is it now or at any point a good option for the team and for Smoak? Are there things he could work on in AAA that might allow him to regain some of the lost luster?

    I think he’s still not 100%. His upper body looks nowhere near as strong as what it was last June, and the bat speed doesn’t seem there, either. But he DOES have options left- his minor league career was by no means extensive.

    It’s a long season, and I won’t forget the lesson of Paul Konerko. Go ahead and go through these struggles, Smoakamotive. Get them out of the way. We ARE going to win with you.

  20. marc w on May 4th, 2012 3:14 pm

    The “no-doubt” hr power’s been iffy for a while, but part of that’s been where he’s hit them. I mean, the 420′ shot off of Verlander I talked about is technically “just enough” or whatever because Comerica is a cavern. But it’s still a good point – where’s his PULL power? His most impressive shots are to center or center/opposite field. That in itself is somewhat concerning.

  21. marc w on May 4th, 2012 3:19 pm

    bookbook –
    You’re absolutely right. Every player looks worse when they’re slumping, and there’s no way Smoak’s true-talent is near his current wOBA or whatever. But it’s been nearly a full year since he was a league average hitter. A year filled with injury, a death in the family, etc., but the sample’s getting bigger.

    His struggles with breaking balls are serious, and could condemn him to being a “mistake” hitter, which would cap his value. But to do that he’s going to need to show he can consistently punish mistakes. That’s what’s been missing, and while it’s unlikely that he lost a ton of batspeed between May ’11 and May ’12, I think it’s about time he proves he hasn’t.

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