Justin Smoak Complicating Matters
For the first 5 1/2 months of 2012, Justin Smoak was awful. In a make-or-break year, Smoak put up his worst numbers in nearly every meaningful category and lost his spot on the roster, ending up back in Triple-A to try and fix his swing. He only got recalled to the Majors because Mike Carp got injured and they didn’t have any other alternatives at first base in the organization, so despite the fact that he was lousy in Tacoma too, he came back up before he had really gotten his act together. And then he continued to be lousy against Major League pitching.
On September 12th, Smoak was hitting .190/.260/.312 and had been worth -1.4 WAR. He was in the running for worst player of 2012. And then, out of nowhere, Smoak started hitting.
Over the last 10 games, Justin Smoak has come to the plate 38 times, and he’s reached base in 20 of them. He’s only struck out five times. He even has three doubles, which is as many as he had in the first three months of the season put together, and he’s hit the ball over the wall twice.
Five extra base hits in 10 games isn’t anything special for a first baseman, but for Smoak, it’s a pretty big step forward from what he’d done previously. And, it’s come at the same time that he’s making contact and stinging singles all over the plate, so the total package has resulted in a crazy .455/.526/.727 line that is second best in baseball over the last 14 days – only Ichiro Suzuki has been better. I wonder what the odds in June would have been for Ichiro and Smoak being the two best hitters in baseball down the stretch. Baseball is weird.
So, after 5 1/2 months of being hopeless, Smoak has given us 10 days of being amazing, and is threatening to leave a lasting positive memory of his performance on the organization going into the off-season. An off-season in which one of the main priorities is to figure out what they’re going to do at first base, because they simply can’t go into 2013 with Justin Smoak penciled in as a starter. But, now, all of the sudden, having him around to at least fight for a job in spring training doesn’t seem all that crazy, given his shorter swing and the results its producing. It’s worth figuring out if this is for real, right?
Well, maybe. Keep in mind, Smoak has done this before, and even put together a run like this earlier in the season. From May 25 to June 2nd, Smoak hit .394/.459/.879 over 37 plate appearances. He hit five home runs in eight games while only striking out six times. He won AL Player of the Week. And then it all disappeared in an instant – from June 3rd to June 17th, he hit .137/.241/.137, failing to even knock a single extra base in 14 games. Smoak’s crazy hot streak didn’t have any predictive value then, and we should be careful assuming that this one does simply because we might not have enough time left in the season to actually see the regression take place.
I hope Justin Smoak has figured something out. It doesn’t make sense that he’s truly one of the worst hitters in baseball, and it’s nice to see that he is still capable of hitting the ball hard for short bursts of time. But, I don’t think our opinion of what the team should do with Justin Smoak next year should have changed much over the last 10 days.
Because he was never optioned to the minors in 2011, he still one option year remaining, meaning the Mariners can have him start 2013 in Tacoma if they want. And they should want to. If he’s really retooled his swing in a way that will lead to long term success, starting out in the hitter’s heaven of the PCL should allow him to prove it in an environment where hitting the ball hard is often rewarded. While I’m sure these last 10 days have been a confidence boost, sustained success with his new swing can’t hurt, and he’s more likely to get that kind of confidence-inspiring success in the minors than he is in the Majors. And, to be honest, the Mariners need more proof that he really is a changed hitter, capable of racking up doubles in bunches and avoiding all those weak pop-ups he hit this year.
Back in June, I wrote that I was ready to give up on Justin Smoak. My feelings from that post still haven’t changed – the Mariners have to do better at first base next year than simply giving Smoak another opportunity. But, now, instead of shipping him off as a change-of-scenery guy, keeping him around as depth in Tacoma doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. If these changes are real, and he’s going to keep hitting in the future, having him start 2013 in the minors to earn his way back to the big leagues isn’t a terrible idea. If he lights up the PCL next April, I’m sure the Mariners won’t have a problem finding room for him on the roster, and if he doesn’t, then they’ll be happy they didn’t waste another year hoping that this is the season Justin Smoak gets hot for more than a week or two at a time.
10 days ago, it was fairly safe to write Smoak out of the team’s plans for next year. Now, he’s forced himself back into the discussion, but 10 good games shouldn’t be enough to overwhelm the months and years of failure that he’s put up previously. While I’m happy to see Smoak doing well, the M’s need to view his recent run of success with some skepticism, at least when it comes to planning for who is getting playing time in 2013. He’s hit well enough to avoid being a write-off, but he shouldn’t yet be given any kind of starring role in the team’s future plans. Now, you keep around as a curiosity and depth, but you still can’t go into next year with Smoak as the scheduled starter at first base. He hasn’t earned that, even with a really strong finish to the year.