The Reality Of Justin Smoak

Jeff Sullivan · March 29, 2013 at 3:47 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Do you consider yourself more of an optimist or more of a pessimist? Do you even know, or are you curious now? Think about how you think about spring training. That’ll give you your answer, at least with regard to your thought processes concerning baseball and probably general sports. An optimist will celebrate the good in spring training while dismissing the bad as insignificant. A pessimist won’t do that. A realist won’t do that either, and realism sits in between optimism and pessimism, but I don’t recall asking if you consider yourself a realist. Today we’re going binary.

For the Mariners, this has been a hell of a spring. Particularly a hell of a spring for Mariners optimists, given all the good we’ve observed. The team isn’t playing today and they’ve still hit three dingers, and right at the core of it all is Justin Smoak, who some might say is breaking out. Smoak’s been so disappointing as a Mariner that a lot of us came into the offseason prepared to have him start 2013 in Triple-A. The team ruled that out, saying they wanted Smoak in the bigs, and he’s done nothing in spring to lose that opportunity.

Plenty has been written about Smoak over the past several weeks, as he’s simply been beating the crap out of the ball. Smoak has earned himself a lot of believers, or re-believers, and this has colored the way he’s been written about. What I’d like to do here is lay everything out, objectively, and then see how you guys feel. I’m not going to deny that I’m something of a baseball optimist, but I’m still burdened by critical thought. Sometimes it sucks. Onward, with a very reader-friendly format! You’re welcome, friends!

Reality: Justin Smoak has been one of baseball’s best hitters in spring training. He’s got eight doubles, four dingers, a 1.250 OPS, and any number of well-hit line drives. Even if Smoak had come to camp needing to earn a job, he would’ve earned it with his performance.

Reality: They’re spring-training numbers. Chris Getz has batted .450. Somebody named Shane Robinson has been as productive as Smoak has. According to Ben Lindbergh, Smoak has always been a strong spring-training hitter, to the tune of a career .999 OPS in north of 200 plate appearances. This isn’t the first time Smoak’s been hot in March.

Reality: Smoak’s really killed the ball batting left-handed. This was a weakness of his before. He’s worked specifically on improving his left-handed swing, and you couldn’t ask for much better results.

Reality: Carlos Peguero also killed the ball batting left-handed. Smoak killed the ball batting left-handed in spring training 2009. All splitting spring-training numbers does is give us an even smaller sample size of spring-training numbers.

Reality: Justin Smoak has changed his swing, beginning upon his demotion to the minors last summer. It’s different to the eye, in a variety of ways, and Smoak came back and had a hell of a September, before his torrid spring training. It’s not like this is the exact same guy generating different results — this is a different version of the same guy, generating different results, lending them more weight.

Reality: Guys are always tweaking their swings. Especially guys who struggled. Every adjustment sounds like the right thing to do, to the player and in the press, because if it weren’t the right thing to do, the player wouldn’t do it. Every adjustment is intended to make a player better. Most players don’t get that much better, if they get better at all. Every bad hitter has taken steps to try to not be a bad hitter anymore.

Reality: That Smoak changed his swing does make his spring-training numbers more interesting to look at.

Reality: Regardless of anything else, they’re all still spring-training numbers. Or, if you prefer, spring-training results of spring-training processes. I don’t know how many times we need to say “spring-training statistics really suck, in terms of predictiveness.” Not that we’ve ever used those specific words.

Reality: New-swing Smoak did have that awesome September before this awesome spring, increasing the sample size of post-adjustment success.

Reality: Smoak has had three pretty good Septembers. In September 2010 he posted a 1.001 OPS, just below 2012’s 1.005 OPS. In 2011, Smoak started strong and then disappointed, for reasons that aren’t as easily explained as hand injuries.

Reality: Smoak was a high draft pick and a highly-ranked prospect, and scouts loved his ability and approach. There’s obviously a lot of talent in there, which is one of the reasons he was the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade return. Smoak might now be tapping into what was always suspected to be present.

Reality: Smoak has a career .683 OPS in the majors. He owns a .788 OPS in Triple-A, and his minor-league ISO is a reasonable but hardly earth-shattering .170. He’s hit one minor-league dinger per 36 plate appearances. He’s hit one major-league dinger per 30 plate appearances. Over 700 plate appearances, that’s a 23-dinger pace. Jose Lopez hit 25 dingers in 2009.

The bottom line is that Smoak’s numbers, post-adjustment, are very encouraging. He’s shortened his swing, and he keeps both hands on the bat throughout, and it’s better for post-adjustment Smoak to be good than for post-adjustment Smoak to be bad. But all he’s actually done is had a good September and a good March, and he’s done those things before. If you believe Smoak’s spring numbers because he has a different swing, you’re still only believing in spring numbers. Sometimes, as with Michael Saunders, spring predicts a breakout. Other times it most certainly does not.

So I’m curious about your level of optimism. Hence the poll below, and if you’re unfamiliar with wRC+, it’s just OPS+ with a better statistic. If you’re unfamiliar with OPS+, it’s basically park-adjusted OPS compared to the league average, where better than 100 is good. If you’re unfamiliar with OPS, how did you get here? Why are you still reading this post? May I study you? May a few of us study you?

There’s lots to like about the new Justin Smoak. We figured there was lots to like about the Justin Smoak the Mariners originally traded for. Behold the complexities of the human brain. And then vote in the poll. Smoak’s wRC+ last year was 85. For his career, it’s 90.


16 Responses to “The Reality Of Justin Smoak”

  1. RaoulDuke37 on March 29th, 2013 4:03 pm

    I think we have a very good ‘transition’ team. If Morse/Morales can consistently provide middle-of-the-order production, that takes some of the burden off of the younger guys. I’m not saying this is the ideal team, but for what we have, I think it might work out well.

  2. ThundaPC on March 29th, 2013 4:20 pm

    I’m down for 130 wRC+ (~2012 Torii Hunter).

    Being Robinson Cano means Smoak would have to hit like April 2011 every month. Being Josh Hamilton means that he’s superman in some months (200 wRC+) and crap some other months (sub 100 wRC+). Producing like Torii Hunter seems like the best fit for my optimism!

  3. MrZDevotee on March 29th, 2013 4:22 pm

    I consider it optimism just to be able to debate whether or not he’s improved. I wouldn’t have suspected “optimism” being part of the conversation after Spring Training. And I’m pretty darn optimistic (and also look swell in rose colored glasses!).

    NOT CHANGING his swing and sucking this Spring Training would have been way worse.

    So yeah, optimism rules– no matter if the plane is out of gas, sputtering, and coasting on fumes, or not. Go M’s!

    (And for the record, I voted 110… And see Montero rising to about that level too through these fancy glasses!)

  4. erik.randall on March 29th, 2013 4:32 pm

    I voted 110wRC+. The numbers go together, but I can see Smoak becoming Ike Davis with slightly less power and more BB.

    I suppose that makes me an optimist, but I expect Smoak to be slightly better than his 2011 numbers. I think the days of thinking he will ever be .300/.400/.500 are over.

  5. spuuky on March 29th, 2013 4:46 pm

    I was going to say 100, but then I see that his 2011 season was actually 106, and I think he’ll be marginally better than that, so 110.

    The thing for me is that 8 doubles is something that he’s never really demonstrated at the Major League level. He occasionally hits a home run, yes, but he never seems to drive the ball for doubles like someone with power should. So hitting them is a good sign (to my untrained eye) that something is actually different.

  6. 300ZXNA on March 29th, 2013 4:57 pm

    I will be very curious to track how his contact rate and discipline stats play out this year. While I am optimistic that he will be able to ‘break out’ breaking out may simply mean that he becomes a serviceable 1 WAR player as compared to being the mountain of suck he has been thus far. So even if he goes from a negative asset to nice filler, while that will still be a good outcome for the team, it still means he is most likely going to be a huge letdown compared to the expectations at the time of the Lee trade.

  7. vertigoman on March 29th, 2013 5:02 pm

    I voted Buster Posey just to be different and it didn’t show up.
    This obviously triggered some kind of laugh box hidden somewhere in the interweb and everyone is having a laugh at vertigoman’s expense. Have your laugh closet optimists, I am brave….hiding behind my tiny mobile screen.
    Ok it’s not small for a mobile, it’s actually on the largish size for phones. Not tablets of coarse. Not phablets either.

    Man, I think I’m a realist after all.

  8. vztaxes on March 29th, 2013 5:02 pm

    Sweet bell curve, skewing to optimism. I like it. Must be an M’s blog. Go M’s.

  9. Westside guy on March 29th, 2013 5:07 pm

    When it comes to baseball I start out an optimist; but once something makes me swing the other way I find it hard to budge out of persistent pessimism.

    I picked 100. Thing is, I don’t really know WHAT to expect. The spring training numbers of most of these guys are so obviously not anywhere near what their regular season numbers will be, I just can’t put any weight behind them at all.

    People keep bringing up Michael Saunders, but – Condor’s turn-around was fantastic mainly because it was so unusual! And, on top of that, he had luck on his side… if Guti hadn’t gone down with an injury, Condor probably would’ve been cut loose – and none of us would’ve faulted the team for that (and I say that as a guy who has consistently been a Saunders fan, too).

    There’s no way on God’s green earth Jason Bay is going to hit .327 this year. Ibañez is more likely to have an OPS of 1.037/2 than of 1.037. Morse will be a good hitter… but an average of .370 won’t even be within smelling distance. So Smoak’s spring performance doesn’t really tell us much of anything regarding how he’ll end up producing in games that count.

    So given I don’t think we have any statistical evidence to draw on in this case, I’m going to go with my gut. And my gut expects Justin Smoak will lose his starting 1B job to Kendrys Morales by July 1.

  10. opiate82 on March 29th, 2013 5:30 pm

    When Dave wrote to put a fork in Smoak, I was on board with it, and I still am. For Smoak to be anything other than what Smoak has been to this point would be the exception, not the rule. Put me down for more of the same, a month or two to give you hope followed by mostly terribleness.

  11. DarkKnight1680 on March 29th, 2013 6:16 pm

    I gotta say, I’m Smoaking the optimism pipe here. When I used to watch him hit, I’d think “man, that’s a long swing. You’d have to be lighting quick and have great pitch recognition to be good with that swing.” When I watch him hit now, I think “he’s pretty quick through the ball. If he has any sort of pitch recognition or power, he’d be a useful hitter.”

    I’m on board for a .285/.350/.500 slash line.

  12. californiamariner on March 29th, 2013 7:29 pm

    Well I think the answer to the first question is pretty clear by looking at the poll results.

    I’d consider myself an optimist when it comes to the Mariners. For the record I voted 100

  13. PackBob on March 30th, 2013 12:11 am

    Although Smoak has been mostly bad, when he’s been good he’s looked very good. Like it’s easy, which makes the bad even worse. Teased with the good.

    This spring Smoak has looked even better, driving the ball with authority. His timing has looked great, his swing nice and short. He looks like he has figured it out. He looks like his new swing and approach is working.

    He has the confidence of his manager, and while that has to be taken with a grain of salt because Wedge never lacks for confidence, it can’t hurt Smoak to have that support. He has proven dinger-hitters in Morse and Morales that also hit for average and will likely do so no matter what Smoak does. He watched Saunders turn it around.

    The fences have been moved in and the hitters are excited about what that might mean. Ackley, Montero, and even Ryan (comparatively to 2012) have hit great this spring, so Smoak has company in the war against poor performance.

    Smoak could hardly have everything more aligned in his favor to break out in 2013 and show that statistical outliers exist. The reality is that no one knows what the hell might happen.

  14. maqman on March 30th, 2013 3:02 am

    I think Smoak is going to become what Z saw in him initially and last September and spring training do actually reflect this. I see a 3 WAR player in 2013, getting better as his career continues.

  15. Paul B on March 30th, 2013 2:11 pm

    Smoak reminds me of Craig Kusic.

  16. alan smithee on March 31st, 2013 1:29 pm

    Baseball caveman say smoak is new Greg brock.

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