The “New and Improved” Justin Smoak

Dave · April 21, 2013 at 10:53 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Last June, I publicly “gave up” on Justin Smoak. In that post, I presented a list of the first baseman in the last 30 years who had been given 1,000 Major League plate appearances before the end of their age-25 season. Justin Smoak was the worst hitter on that list when I published it. He is no longer the worst hitter on that list, because as you know, he had himself a pretty good September, and it was enough to push him to second worst on the list, passing Travis Lee so as to no longer be the least productive young first baseman of the last three decades.

You don’t need any reminders about Justin Smoak’s September. You might have seen it, if you were still paying attention to the Mariners last September, and if you didn’t, you certainly read about it all winter. The mechanical changes. The different approach. The adjustments. The confidence. Justin Smoak reinvented himself in September, you’ve been told.

Justin Smoak, September 1st of 2012 to April 21st of 2013:

179 11.7% 17.9% 0.146 0.336 0.275 0.363 0.421 0.342

Since the big change starting making itself manifest — remember, he didn’t come back up on September 1st, so it’s an arbitrary beginning point that simply eliminates a bunch of bad at-bats he had before he started hitting because they don’t fit the narrative, but that’s besides the point — Smoak has now racked up 179 plate appearances and has 12 extra base hits. Twelve. That projects out to 40 extra base hits per 600 plate appearances, or essentially a full season of regular playing time. To put that in context, Casey Kotchman has averaged 42 extra base hits per 600 plate appearances in his career. You remember Casey Kotchman, right? The underpowered first baseman who is in the big leagues for his contact rate and his glove?

That’s the kind of power that the revamped, new-and-improved Justin Smoak has shown since the beginning of last September. Overhauled Justin Smoak hits for about as much power as Casey Kotchman. You might look at the overall line and say “hey, a .342 wOBA, I’ll take that”, but note what’s driving that mark — a .336 BABIP which is simply not sustainable for a guy with Smoak’s profile. He’s extremely slow, he hits the ball in the air a decent amount, and he hits his fair share of pop-ups. That is not the profile of a guy who is going to post a high BABIP over any real length of time. Take the air out of those numbers, and you’re basically left with a guy who takes some walks and has gap power, but also strikes out at about an average rate, so he won’t hit for enough average to overcome the fact that he just doesn’t hit the ball very hard all that often.

This is, essentially, the inevitable conclusion that evidence forces us to draw: Justin Smoak is just not very strong. He’s never been very strong. He’s never really hit for power in any kind of extended sample. Even going back to the minors, he has a career .407 slugging percentage in Triple-A. That’s in 559 plate appearances, all of them in the PCL, which is the most hitter friendly league in organized baseball. In 50 games at Double-A as a 22-year-old, he had a whopping 16 extra base hits.

Justin Smoak has always been Casey Kotchman without the defense or the contact skills; it’s just taken us a while to realize it. But, at this point, there’s just no other conclusion to draw. If we look at the list of first baseman in the last 30 years that have been given 1,500 PAs through age-26, we find 49 names, and once again, Travis Lee is the worst hitter on the list. But he’s only going to be the worst hitter on that list for another day or two, because Justin Smoak has 1,495 career plate appearances, and he’s going to cross the 1,500 PA threshold at some point in Houston. And when he does, he’ll officially become the worst hitter on that list, as his start to the 2013 season has pushed his career wRC+ down to 88.

In fact, even if you double the time frame we’re looking at, and go back to 1953 so that we’re looking at 60 years of baseball history, you will find exactly two first baseman who received 1,500 PAs through their age-26 season and hit worse than Justin Smoak; Dan Meyer and Dalton Jones. They are two of the worst players to get substantial playing time in Major League history. Meyer finished with a career -5.6 WAR, while Jones finished with a career -3.6 WAR. They were artifacts of a time when talent evaluators weren’t so great at their jobs.

Now, Major League teams weed out players like Dan Meyer and Dalton Jones. They stop giving playing time to below replacement level players, because as the term suggests, there are equal or better players just hanging out in the minors, waiting for a shot at the big league level. Once it becomes fairly clear that a player is not substantially above replacement level, there’s no real reason to keep running him out there anymore.

Justin Smoak has 1,495 career plate appearances and is at -1.0 WAR. Maybe Justin Smoak made some real changes last September that he’ll be able to tap into occasionally, and maybe he’ll have a few more good months in the big leagues before his career is over. Guys develop at different paces. Baseball is weird, and bad players can become good players. It is not impossible for Justin Smoak to eventually become a decent Major League player.

But, at this point, there’s just no real reason for the Mariners to keep trying to squeeze blood out of this particular turnip. The mirage of hope that surrounds Justin Smoak is just that — a mirage. Until he magically develops some strength that he has never possessed before, nothing else he changes will really matter. There is a large mountain of evidence that Justin Smoak is just not strong enough to be a productive Major League first baseman.

He wasn’t strong enough before he made all those adjustments and he’s not strong enough now. At least with Jesus Montero we can point to his age and hope that maybe there’s some development time left that can make a difference. With Dustin Ackley, we can point to his contact skills, his speed, and his defense as reasons to think that he might still become a productive big league player.

With Justin Smoak, there’s nothing left to point to. He’s not young. He’s not improving. His mechanical adjustments haven’t made him any stronger, and he’s currently only making contact on 72% of his swings at pitches in the strike zone, about the same rate as guys like Mark Reynolds and Dan Uggla. This isn’t an approach issue. Justin Smoak can’t learn how to be strong. He simply lacks a physical skill necessary to make the rest of his physical skills worth playing.

I know a lot of people are questioning whether the Mariners have a developmental problem within the organization, given how the young core of hitters seem to be regressing and are nowhere close to living up to their minor league hype. And, I’m open to the idea that maybe the Mariners are doing something at the minor league level that is causing talented young players to underperform in the big leagues. But, with Justin Smoak, I think the reality is that we’re just seeing a physical flaw exposed. Scouts liked the swing, analysts liked the walks, and everyone — myself included — just ignored the fact that he was a bat-only player who lacked real power.

I don’t think the Mariners have failed to get the most out of Justin Smoak. I think we’ve seen the best Justin Smoak has to offer. It’s just not very good, and it’s time for the organization to move on and give someone else a chance. Or, at least, it would be if they had anyone at Triple-A or on the bench who deserved a promotion. They don’t, so we’ll get Justin Smoak a little while longer, maybe even for the rest of the year.

But, at this point, we can all give up on Justin Smoak now. He’s not part of the core. He’s not a long term answer to any question a Major League team should be asking.


70 Responses to “The “New and Improved” Justin Smoak”

  1. Badbadger on April 22nd, 2013 11:07 am

    I was high on Smoak after last September until I noticed that he always hits well in September and that’s never translated into anything permanent. I guess he feasts on September call up pitchers or something. Anyway, I’ve already given up on him. If I were manager I’d send him down to Tacoma, make Morales the starting first baseman, call up a catcher to back up Shoppach and make Montero the DH to see if he can do better if he just concentrates on hitting.

  2. sotteson on April 22nd, 2013 11:13 am

    I second Roosevelt’s suggestion. Pretty please, Dave?

    Right now I’m ready to give up on Wedge and Jack Z. Nothing they’ve done has worked. This far into it, it can’t just be bad luck.

  3. South Pacific on April 22nd, 2013 11:20 am

    Does Z have anyone working for him that sees and correctly interprets this data? It seems incredible how they try to “believe” someone into productivity (Smoak, Bay, Chavez, …).

  4. casey on April 22nd, 2013 11:21 am

    what I don’t understand is how the Mariners can take so many can’t miss hitting prospects and strike out every time. And maybe with exception of Seager seems like we never do an Altuve where we take a long shot and turn him into a star.

    1. is the player assessment flawed on these guys – are the tools the M’s use for hitters flawed
    2. do we screw them up once we get them to high minors or once they hit the majors
    3. are we really unlucky and equivalent of a guy leaking money at a craps table
    4. is the makeup all wrong for these guys and it really takes a Mike Saunders who hires is own coach and works all off season on his own to turn into a quality MLB hitter not named Trout or Harper
    5. be patient Ackley and Montero will turn out okay
    6. and of course probably some combination of above

  5. lesch2k on April 22nd, 2013 11:24 am

    you ask how dave would fix the mariners. start by looking at dave’s off-season plan, it lays out a framework of the types of players he values. just change the names. add in a caveat of trading players close to free agency to a contender at the deadline for prospects. be happy to finish ahead of the astros

  6. qwerty on April 22nd, 2013 11:48 am

    Exactly what dept/whom is responsible for the development plan of our hitters? It’s not the M’s hitting coach. That, to me , is a superfluous position. Window dressing.
    WE do not develop and improve hitters. They come to our organization to forget how to hit.
    Are we suppose to believe that Ackley’s college and lower level minor’s success was a mirage? Why does Ackley have to change a swing? Did the M’s ruin it in the first place?
    I suspect we are moving players up too fast. I also wonder if the NW weather affects them once they get out of TN. (I’m trying to think outside the box here….)
    Also, Smoak’s lack of power doesn’t bother me. It’s his low average and lack of a plan at the plate. If he batted .290 w/ a high OBS and only hit 10 HRs. I’d live with that.

  7. McExpos on April 22nd, 2013 12:29 pm

    While I appreciate your analysis, Dave, I do find it somewhat frustrating when you write these “Victory Lap” articles.

  8. MrZDevotee on April 22nd, 2013 12:29 pm

    Casper Wells and John Jaso… BFF’s again, down in Oakland.

    (I would usually write “sigh” here, but really… It’s more becoming “yawn” when the most obviously annoying thing happens, over and over again…)

    Go M’s. Please?

  9. MrZDevotee on April 22nd, 2013 12:36 pm

    I was just thinking the other day about the “shadow” effect of sticking with Smoak for too long. Not sure if Kendrys has shown he’s different or not, but how much of an improvement would Morales see in his stats if he was playing the field everyday.

    There have been plenty of studies that show when position players ride the bench and play DH only, their offensive numbers decline.

    So not only are we dinging our lineup by sticking with Smoak too long, but we’re also dinging our lineup by making his replacement play DH 90% of the time, and dinging our defense by having Morales play DH, which pushes Ibanez/Bay into the outfield if we want to play them against a certain pitching matchup.

    Smoak is a cornerstone of problems in the lineup currently. Move him out of the picture and a whole bunch of pieces snap into a better place (and Casper Wells is still a MARINER, not an A).

  10. amnizu on April 22nd, 2013 12:38 pm

    You don’t have to swing a heavy bat to hit drive the ball, F = M(V^2) bat speed and good contact (eye hand coordination) are king when it comes to driving a baseball. Swinging a heavier bat helps, but only if you can maintain the same velocity and acceleration to the baseball.

    I suspect most players who swing heavier bats do so to slow their hands from rolling over more than the very marginal gain in power they gain.

    In Smoak’s case its good contact that is the problem and you cant really “tweak” hand eye coordination.

  11. ppl on April 22nd, 2013 12:47 pm

    It is time for a change. Smoak plays first and is good for little else beyond hitting. He also arrived in 2010. He should be the first one out the door.

  12. LongDistance on April 22nd, 2013 1:11 pm

    I agree completely. I posted that line about lumber too quickly, and didn’t have time to correct my thought.

    When I spoke about heavier bats, it was meant to be an analogy to extremely muscular hitters such as (er) McGwire, who added sheer power to technique, and so elevated the percentage of HR.

    Ruth was an example of sheer technique, but without blimpoid musculature. Smoak impresses people as being a stud bull who, by simple muscle mass, should have a percentage tweak.

    But it just doesn’t matter, as you pointed out. His bat doesn’t go through the zone in a way that guarantees a good percentage of contact.

    I’m betting his contact zone is pretty dinky.

  13. groundzero55 on April 22nd, 2013 1:44 pm

    Good Bob and Groz today – I’m in Montana so I listen through the ESPN Radio app – they specifically brought up the possibility of some kind of organizational flaw that results in can’t miss prospects coming up and flailing. They even mentioned that the only “good” hitter who has come out of our organization in the past near-decade was Adam Jones, and he didn’t even really develop until after he left.

    Maybe the M’s are just really good at drafting pitching but not much else?

  14. MrZDevotee on April 22nd, 2013 2:04 pm

    “Maybe the M’s are just really good at drafting pitching but not much else?”

    Not saying that can’t be the case, but just speechless that supposed “can’t miss” guys, who have always been the top hitting prospects where they played (specifically- Ackley, Montero, Smoak) come to Seattle and become not just below average, but off the charts bad.

    This far into a season, for Ackley’s entire career of playing baseball, has he ever still been at .150? After presuming that LAST year was the worst year he’s ever had… And last year was Smoak’s worst (or tied for worst) and yet, he’s not as good as that this year, either?

    It’s dumbfounding.

    The pendulum is swinging from (the past two season) “this HAS to be a fluke… these guys are better than this…” to “what are we doing to screw these guys up.” And it’s swinging hard.

    And there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

  15. The_Waco_Kid on April 22nd, 2013 2:19 pm

    Part of me wants to look at the excuses. The M’s always have a way tougher travel schedule. Maybe some of these kids were promoted too fast. Maybe our awful offense has put too much pressure on them. Another part of me says, so what? All teams and players have struggles and the great ones overcome. Whatever Smoak’s problem is, he doesn’t deserve much more time to figure it out here. I assume the FO agrees, except as long as he’s out-hitting Ackley and Montero, he might get more time.

  16. 300ZXNA on April 22nd, 2013 6:31 pm

    So how do we go about trying to lobby the M’s to hire Dave as the next GM? I am dead serious. Well, serious in that if I were king of the universe I would give Dave the job, and that I think he would bring some great ideas into the organization, though I’m sure that Howard/Lincoln would never consider it unfortunately.

  17. 300ZXNA on April 22nd, 2013 6:33 pm

    And Guti just got hurt. No F’ing way.

  18. Jinbo on April 22nd, 2013 8:31 pm


    right after A’s claimed Casper Wells off waiver

  19. downwarddog on April 23rd, 2013 4:36 pm

    Beyond being terrible, Smoak should be DFA’d so the fans at Safeco never has to be subjected his stupid hillbilly theme song … which begs the question: why is a guy who can’t hit .200 even allowed to have a theme song?

  20. 300ZXNA on April 23rd, 2013 4:41 pm

    One last question: given that Josh Daniels is a very astute GM, do we think that perhaps he had picked up on the warning signs and was thus more than happy to flip him our way as the showcase piece for the Lee trade?

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