Today In Mildly Unbelievable

Jeff Sullivan · May 20, 2013 at 6:57 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

So much of baseball writing, it seems to me, ends up being the act of finding new ways to say the same thing as before. I don’t know how many times I’ve prefaced a post by saying something along the lines of “you already know this.” There are a lot of people writing about baseball, and things in baseball tend not to change that quickly. So there’s a lot of repeat coverage, with the challenge being to keep people interested. It’s not always easy, but it’s fun to feel tested, and let’s get this out of the way: you already know the gist of what’s going to follow. But, a list, of four numbers:

  • 113
  • 81
  • 65
  • 62

Those are four wRC+ numbers, through today. In case you’re not aware, wRC+ is basically OPS+, for smarter, smugger people. Now, a list, of four names, to whom those wRC+ numbers belong:

  • Justin Smoak
  • Munenori Kawasaki
  • Jesus Montero
  • Dustin Ackley

I’ve jumbled everything up. Try to match the number to the name. When you’re ready, proceed, for the answers:

  • Justin Smoak
  • Munenori Kawasaki
  • Jesus Montero
  • Dustin Ackley

This is why I said you already know the gist. You already know that Ackley is a huge disappointment, and that Montero is a disappointment of some other but similar magnitude. Whenever the Mariners lose, people get to talking about the letdowns on the team, and Ackley and Montero are two of the bigger ones. It’s not just that Ackley and Montero are failing to establish themselves as members of the Mariners’ core — it’s that, when you watch them, it can be hard to believe they were thought to be core components in the first place. They play bad and look bad. It’s like the Mariners wanted to make enchiladas, so they bought Quikrete and fabric.

They’re both being out-hit by Munenori Kawasaki. Kawasaki is basically the starter in Toronto right now with Jose Reyes injured, and while Kawasaki hasn’t been good, he’s been passable, and he’s been better than Ackley and Montero. The team didn’t even give serious thought to retaining Kawasaki on a minor-league contract last offseason. This was justifiable, because based on the observations, he did not look good, or even mediocre. There’s a reason Kawasaki was considered something of a mascot last summer. His one skill was his personality. He looked like one of the weakest-hitting position players in Mariners history, and I found it impossible to believe he’d homered before in Japan. I saw video and still I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that Kawasaki possessed some sort of offensive competence.

He’s slugging .301. He’s Reggie Willits. He just hit maybe the deepest batted ball of his career, and it came down in front of the track. Kawasaki’s offense is funny, even when it isn’t absolutely dreadful. But, at varying points, Dustin Ackley was considered automatic, Jesus Montero was considered an elite-level future slugger, and Munenori Kawasaki was considered perhaps baseball’s least threatening bat. It’s May 20, 2013, and Kawasaki’s out-producing the other two. Maybe it isn’t going to last this way. But it shouldn’t be this way at all.

Thankfully, there’s Smoak, and Smoak’s improvement. Smoak’s improvement allows us to try to reconsider Smoak, and it also allows us to be a little more patient with Ackley and Montero, perhaps. For the first time all season, Smoak’s slugging percentage is ahead of his OBP, and his OBP is good. He’s been swinging at more strikes and fewer balls, and there are signs the power is coming along, trailing the improved command of the zone. If you arbitrarily select April 22 as a starting date, here’s Smoak since then, including Monday:

  • 86 plate appearances, .314/.442/.529, 16 BB, 17 K

That right there is a hell of a hitter. A better hitter, naturally, than Justin Smoak actually is, but if Smoak’s greatest ability is keeping people from completely giving up on him, then he’s putting on another classic display. Yes, we’ve all been tricked by Justin Smoak in the past, but stretches of trickiness are stretches of productivity, proofs of concept that Justin Smoak can be a legitimate major leaguer. Where Smoak once again looked dead, now Smoak once again looks promising, and because he’s in the midst of a hot streak, we get to daydream again, like we have so many times. Sure, he won’t actually bat .300. But Smoak, in the past, showed great command of the strike zone. He lost that, and now he might be getting it back, since part of the reason for his batting adjustments was allowing him to wait a little longer to commit. Drawing walks goes a long way toward making a hitter acceptable. Ask Munenori Kawasaki.

I think it’s easy to look at Smoak’s .320 BABIP, and compare it to his .263 career BABIP, and conclude he’s just riding a fluke. But on the contrary, I’m encouraged. Smoak’s actually hitting the ball harder, and better-hit balls are more difficult to turn into outs. Smoak’s always going to be slow and he’s probably always going to be shifted in the infield, but there could be some legitimacy to this. While I know I’ve been fooled before, at least he’s showing the potential progress that Ackley and Montero aren’t. And that makes me think that Ackley or Montero might still figure it out after they work through a few more kinks.

A month or so ago, Justin Smoak looked awful, Dustin Ackley looked awful, and Jesus Montero looked awful. Relative to March, the fact that one of them is showing signs of life is a great disappointment. Relative to April, I’ll take it. Munenori Kawasaki is presently out-hitting two presumed parts of the Mariners’ long-term core. But at least he’s not out-hitting Justin Smoak. It could always be worse. We know this, because it has been.


11 Responses to “Today In Mildly Unbelievable”

  1. Westside guy on May 20th, 2013 7:20 pm

    So, the takeaway from all this analysis is obviously…

    The Mariners should’ve retained Munenori Kawasaki.


  2. Liam on May 20th, 2013 7:25 pm

    The Mariners need to hurry up and send Ackley and Montero to AAA so they can get an extra year of service time.

  3. John Morgan on May 20th, 2013 8:32 pm

    I remember enduring this same agony, but that agony wore a 59.

    When we’ve enough years for perspective, what will be most remarkable, I think, is how long we held on. How long we grasped at straws, and cooked the numbers, and denied all reason for the sake of hope.

    Anyway, four dollars a pound.

  4. LanceWWU on May 20th, 2013 9:54 pm

    Jeff, you make being a Mariners fan bearable.

  5. The_Waco_Kid on May 20th, 2013 10:37 pm

    Maybe they should send Ackley down. Not that he’d learn anything, but just for a mental break or something. It seems to have worked for Smoak. This is totally unscientific, but I sense that Ackley’s lost his confidence.

    I don’t know what the plan is for Montero. Trade? DH? I guess he’s catching until Zunino’s ready.

  6. Ralph_Malph on May 20th, 2013 11:13 pm

    59? Mike Carp? Rene Rivera? Who are you talking about?

  7. mrakbaseball on May 20th, 2013 11:47 pm

    Carp wore #59 in ’09. Vasquez wore #59 in ’11

  8. bookbook on May 21st, 2013 3:18 am

    Maybe #51? Randy Johnson’s rookie card with Fleer was #59 in their series…

  9. Greeff on May 21st, 2013 9:27 am

    Some more time in AAA for Ackley and Montero is long overdue.
    Let them get their confidence back and earn a promotion.

    call up Triunfel and Sucre.

  10. PackBob on May 21st, 2013 11:24 am

    Munenori will never be a slugger, but maybe he is worse in a part-time role. He likely has to fight the urge to dance when he steps to the plate irregularly.

  11. DarkKnight1680 on May 21st, 2013 12:12 pm

    I’ve been beating the Smoak drum for a while now. Walks, line drives, and inconsistent power still gives you a very useful player in the Overbay/Nick Johnson/John Olerud mould. If the power starts to come a little more its just a bonus. His overall numbers are being hurt by terrible performance from the right side, but historically he’s been pretty even (he’s not Nick Franklin) – it should come up somewhat.

    Ackley needs some time at AAA to mash the ball and get his feel back. Montero needs to go to AA and relearn how to hit from the ground up.

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