The “New and Improved” Justin Smoak
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:
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.