Giving Up on Justin Smoak
A month ago, Justin Smoak was on fire, hitting home runs left and right and reminding everyone that there was a reason he was once a first round pick. Since then, though, Smoak has gone right back to being the massive disappointment that we’re all familiar with, and his June has actually been even worse than his lousy April. May now seems like a distant memory. And, unfortunately, it’s getting close to the time where we might just have to admit that Justin Smoak is a bust.
Yes, he’s only 25-years-old. There is talent there, and it’s tempting to just keep rolling him out there hoping that it starts to turn into production. But, at this point, history suggests that those hopes are probably not well founded.
In the last 30 years, there have been 55 first baseman (including Smoak) who have been given 1,000+ plate appearances through their age 25 season. Every single one of them hit better than Smoak has, and we’re not just talking raw numbers that can be explained away by Safeco Field or the change in run environments. By wRC+, which accounts for both a player’s home park and the average performance of the league at the time, Smoak’s 87 is the worst of the 55 players on the list.
Yes, there are examples of guys who sucked early and then developed later. Erik Karros was lousy through age 26, then put together a nice five year run from 27-31, including two years where he was a legitimate all-star. Tino Martinez didn’t have his first really good year until he was 27, and then he had a nice little peak for a few years after that. Carlos Pena bounced around the league until he was 29 before turning into a monster. So, it’s not impossible that Justin Smoak will eventually become a fairly useful player.
There’s a few problems, though. The obvious one is the point we’ve already made – all of those guys were better through age 25 than Smoak, and they all produced at around an average clip before turning into above average hitters. Smoak hasn’t done that for more than a few weeks at a time. Here and there, he gives glimpses of being good, but over a consistent period of time, he’s never been more than just okay. All of those guys improved substantially, but they had long stretches earlier in their career where they were actually good. Smoak has never had a long stretch of being a good Major League hitter.
Beyond that, though, it’s worth noting that even the peaks of the guys who did improve weren’t all that great. Karros had +5 win seasons at 27 and 31, but from 28-30, he was basically an average player. Martinez had two +5 win seasons at 27 and 29, but was more of a +3 win player at 28, 30, and 31. These are the best case scenarios, and they were more solid players than stars. You wouldn’t mind having their peak years, but they weren’t franchise first baseman, and they didn’t have very long peaks even after they took a step forward.
How long does the organization want to commit to letting Smoak develop on the hope that he might be an outlier that turns into a slightly above average player in a couple of years? I mean, really, at this point, that’s the upside. That’s what you’re investing your playing time into hoping he becomes, but it’s more likely that he’s just the new Travis Lee – an underpowered first baseman who is good enough at everything to keep getting jobs but not good enough at anything to actually help anyone win. Lee hung around in the Majors through age 31, and actually had one good year himself at age 28, but his overall career was essentially a failure.
And through age 25, Lee had outhit Smoak. He walked more, struck out less, and showed about the same amount of power. Yes, the ball flew further back then, and Lee didn’t have to contend with Safeco Field, but Smoak’s a switch hitter and is supposed to have gap power that can play in a bigger ballpark. Instead, he has just three doubles all season, the lowest total of any regular in Major League Baseball. Stephen Strasburg has more doubles than Justin Smoak this year. Stephen Strasburg is a pitcher.
I’m not advocating benching Smoak just to bench him, but the team should probably start planning for alternatives at first base next year. Barring a monstrous second half, it’s probably fair to say that Smoak has played himself out of a job. The Mariners probably shouldn’t bring Justin Smoak to camp as a guy in the mix for regular playing time next year. If they think he fits as a bench guy who might work hard enough to salvage his career, then there’s probably a role for him as a pinch-hitter. If they don’t think he fits in that spot, then you make him a change-of-scenery guy and wish someone good luck in getting more out of him than the Mariners have.
For the rest of the year, what does that do to the roster from a practical standpoint? Well, if you’re taking Smoak out of the guys-who-need-to-play-everyday role, that opens up some playing time for Mike Carp once he comes back from the DL. I’m still not sold on Carp as an everyday guy in the big leagues either, but he’s shown more at the Major League level than Smoak has at least. There’s also the reality that Jesus Montero is not a catcher long term, and he’d provide more value as a guy who could play first base than if he was strictly limited to DH duties. Even if you just pitch it to him as the Mike Napoli role, rotating between C/1B/DH, that gives the team another chance to get Montero and Jaso in the line-up more regularly even if the team isn’t comfortable with them behind the plate. If the organization really believes that Mike Zunino is their catcher of the future, then getting Montero ready to play first base isn’t a bad idea. You don’t have to make him an everyday 1B, but just getting his feet wet at the position when the games don’t count will help make the conversion easier in a year or two.
For Smoak, this was a make or break year. He either needed to figure out how to make more contact or hit for more power. He’s not doing either. We’re nearly 1,200 plate appearances into the Justin Smoak experience, and at this point, I’ve lost hope that it’s going to pay off in a significant way. He can still improve, and he probably will, but is he going to improve into something that’s worth keeping around through his arbitration years? The Dodgers have been hanging onto James Loney for years, waiting for a similar breakout, and now he’s dragging down a contending offense because they’ve never bothered to go get someone better.
The Mariners should look for a better first baseman than Justin Smoak.