Not The Last Word On Justin Smoak
Yesterday was a decent day for Justin Smoak, against the Red Sox. Yeah, he finished just 1-for-4 with a line-drive single, but he also drew a walk, and in the seventh inning he flew out to the track in center, and in the fourth inning he hit a bullet that Dustin Pedroia somehow managed to pick, and in the second inning he took Jonny Gomes to the fence the other way. Smoak, basically, walked, and made solid contact four times out of four tries. He didn’t leave the yard, but he easily could’ve.
The big problem with arbitrary endpoints is that they’re arbitrary. It’s right there in the term. You can hand-select various endpoints to try to make whatever argument it is that you’re making. It’s not that they’re necessarily completely without substance, but they’re misleading and it’s just a bad practice, if you can avoid it. Now, I want to look at Justin Smoak since last August 14. That reads as an arbitrary endpoint, but it’s not, and here’s why: that’s when Smoak came back last season from a stint in Tacoma. During that stint in Tacoma, Smoak worked on changing his swing mechanics, and if I were doing this to try to make a biased case in favor of Smoak, I’d probably leave out that Smoak’s half-August was terrible. But it counts, because that’s when Smoak returned, and it seems reasonable to look at numbers since a point at which a given player changed.
- .322 BABIP
- 100 starts
How about the stats from the window right before the above stat window? From 9/13/2011 – 7/23/2012:
- .222 BABIP
- 100 starts
People have asked what’s different about Justin Smoak. Well, his swing is visibly different, at least and especially from the left side. Since being recalled, Smoak’s numbers are virtually identical from both sides of the plate, even though I’ll grant that only shaves the samples even further. Between the two stat windows above, Smoak’s home runs stayed the same, but his double power has increased, his walks have increased, and his strikeouts have decreased. And, of course, there’s the 100-point leap in batting average on balls in play.
If you’re familiar with stats, you’re immediately skeptical of anything related to a BABIP boost, and that’s perfectly fair. But over Smoak’s career until his 2012 demotion, his BABIP was .248. That was over a significant sample, and it seemed to be a problem of his, stemming from inadequate quality of contact. Smoak didn’t really seem to make a habit of barreling up, as it were. Now, it subjectively feels as if the quality of his contact has improved, and the numbers support the assertion. With better contact quality, you get more hits, and Smoak’s registered a lot more hits.
Line-drive percentage is a thing that’s available, but I don’t like it, because I don’t like how line drives are scored. There’s way too much subjectivity and way too little year-to-year consistency. But line drives are important, because line drives are good contact, and I personally feel like the best measure we have available is BABIP. A guy will get more hits if he’s hitting the ball better, and Smoak’s been hitting the ball better, hence all the hits. And, whatever, his line-drive rate is up too, rather substantially, if that’s your jam. Before, it seemed like there was a flaw in Smoak’s process, and he didn’t quite have the right timing. He hit too many lazy fly balls. That was an issue that he most certainly had. He still hits lazy fly balls, but in between those, he’s hitting more rockets.
This is getting to be interesting. Smoak’s probably never going to reach the 30-dinger plateau, but his other improvements have made him look like an actually reasonable starter. Just as a reminder, here’s Smoak’s slash line since coming back:
And here’s Nick Swisher since the start of 2011:
Swisher, of course, adds value from his defensive versatility, but he also spent a lot of time in Yankee Stadium instead of Safeco Field, so. Swisher and Smoak are looking like similar offensive players, but where Swisher is 32 and Smoak’s 26. Maybe Smoak will grow into a little more power. Maybe Smoak will get only more comfortable with his new swing mechanics. Maybe Smoak won’t hit a whole bunch of dingers, but maybe he’ll still be all right anyway, because he gets on base and adequately fields his position.
Over the last calendar year, Chris Davis has a .367 OBP. Edwin Encarnacion, .367. Allen Craig, .358. Adrian Gonzalez, .357. Smoak is never going to match Davis’ inconceivable power, but getting on base is the best thing you can do consistently, and this is how Smoak’s made himself into a contributor. His swing has allowed him to drill the ball more often, while also allowing him to get a better look at the pitches. So there’s been an effect on both discipline and contact.
Ultimately, what we don’t have is a superstar first baseman. Smoak’s not a great fielder, he’s not a good runner, and he’s not a great slugger. Power would be great. Lots of first basemen have power. Smoak would be better with more power. But, a lot of us, on many occasions, have gotten close to just giving up on Smoak completely. There were times he looked absolutely, utterly hopeless. He’s showing now why it’s so hard to deal with struggling young players, because sometimes they never come out of it, but sometimes they do, and you can always look back and say “well he was still young.” Smoak doesn’t look like a star, but he looks like a guy a good team can play at first base, and he looks like he’s not a problem. We don’t know for sure whether that’s actually true, at this point, but we can at least have the discussion. Justin Smoak doesn’t suck. All right.