The Reality Of Justin Smoak
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.