Updated Thoughts on Justin Smoak
It’s an off day, so let’s talk about Justin Smoak again. Last summer, I gave up on Justin Smoak as a core building block for the future, noting that his performance put him in the company of a bunch of guys who represented a pretty mediocre upside. Then Smoak came back from Tacoma and had a monster September, earning him One Last Chance (TM), but his slow April start resulted in yet another post pointing out his lack of power for a first baseman, and why it was going to be hard for him to produce without that skill. Even a month ago, when Jeff wrote about Smoak’s latest hot streak, I remained skeptical.
But he hasn’t really cooled off since that post, and now, Justin Smoak’s productive sample size is more than a hot month here and a hot month there. You’ve always been able to selectively pick dates based on his hot streaks that made him look decent, but it was never intellectually honest. It was always based on creating constraints specifically designed to exclude his bad performances while including all of his good ones. You can make anyone look good by doing that, and it’s a lousy way to project future performance.
At this point, though, we can look back at non-arbitrary cutoffs, like “past 365 days”, that do not require us to bias things in Smoak’s favor. And over those last 365 days, Smoak has 503 plate appearances and a 132 wRC+, putting himself just ahead of Prince Fielder. During that stretch, his .172 ISO is a match for Adrian Gonzalez. His 12.7% BB% puts him right there with Paul Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks 2013 MVP candidate. His strikeout rate is basically league average. This is what Justin Smoak was supposed to be. He’s only hit 17 home runs, but everything else has been good enough that the overall production level has made him an above average player.
If Smoak’s last 365 day line was Smoak’s projection, then the Mariners should have no problem penciling him in as their first baseman for the next several years, at least while he’s under team control through arbitration. It’s not star performance, but good teams have useful average players instead of gaping holes, and it’s especially helpful when those average players make hardly any money.
So, yeah, thumbs up for the current version of Justin Smoak. He finally looks like what we thought he’d turn into, and is justifying the Mariners continued faith in his abilities. Their patience has paid off, and now Smoak looks like he might have played himself back into the discussion of the team’s young core, especially since there aren’t any other first baseman in the organization pushing for playing time.
That said, I’m still a bit of a Smoak pessimist going forward. It is always tempting to look at a player’s recent performance and judge him only on that and not everything that came before it, but it is almost never better to make a projection of future performance by throwing out older data. You should not weigh it as heavily as recent performance, but it’s still useful data, and forecasts based on a larger sample almost always trounce forecasts based on recent performance only. There are exceptions to the rule — Danny Farquhar is probably a good one right now, given that he’s throwing 96 over-the-top rather than 91 side-arm — but those exceptions are best identified by some kind of drastic physical change rather than just a performance fluctuation.
Smoak’s made some changes to his swing, but these are tweaks, not a total overhaul. He’s still basically the same guy who had 1,250 lousy plate appearances before his monster September last year. We now have 1,250 PAs of bad performance and 500 PAs of good performance. The fact that those 500 PAs are the most recent matters, as does the fact that Smoak is 26 and headed into what should be his peak years. But we can’t just ignore the older data now that we have more recent data that we like more.
If we look at the projections for Smoak’s future performance based on the entirety of his data — with recent data weighted more heavily — we see that ZIPS is projecting Smoak to post a 106 wRC+ for the rest of the year, while Steamer comes in at 104. In both cases, ZIPS and Steamer look at Smoak’s walk rates, strikeout rates, and isolated slugging and think that his current performance is almost exactly what he’s going to keep doing going forward. These core skills are not expected to regress much if at all.
Instead, the entirety of the drop in performance comes from a big projected drop in Smoak’s BABIP. His 2013 BABIP is .335, while ZIPS is projecting .291 and Steamer is at .273. I think Steamer’s probably too low, and would side more towards ZIPS projection, but even with a .291 BABIP, a lot of Smoak’s offensive value goes away. Over the past year, here are the first baseman that posted a wRC+ close to the 106 that ZIPS is projecting: Adam Dunn (109), James Loney (108), Chris Carter (107), Mark Reynolds (107), Eric Hosmer (105), Adam LaRoche (105), Ryan Howard (102). That isn’t exactly great company, and of that group, Loney is the only one who has been an above average player, as his defense is legitimately excellent.
ZIPS and Steamer aren’t infallible. That they both are somewhat pessimistic about Smoak’s rest-of-season production doesn’t mean that he can’t keep proving them wrong. Players improve at different rates, and Smoak may very well be an outlier who took a big leap forward, where it will take the projections a while to catch up. But I’d be more sold on this idea if there was a clear and obvious core skill where Smoak had shown a drastic change.
On one hand, you can argue that he’s just hitting the ball harder, except his HR/FB ratio is 12%, exactly in line with his career numbers, and his .165 ISO is just barely above his career .156 mark. His contact rate is 79.5%, almost exactly what it was last year, and his contact rate on pitches in the strike zone — generally the ones that get whacked the hardest — is right in line with his career averages. He’s swinging at the same rate he always has, and at the same proportion of pitches in and out of the strike zone.
The results are better, but it’s not immediately obvious as to why. The “he’s hitting the ball harder” argument is a bit circular, as the evidence for the harder hit balls is that his BABIP is higher, which is the thing we’re trying to explain to begin with. You can go round and round in that circle all day without actually proving anything. His line drive rate is up, but line drive rate is highly variable from year to year, and it might just be that his balls are being labeled as line drives because they’re going for hits rather than outs. It’s not clear where the causation lies, basically.
So right now, Justin Smoak is better, but he’s better almost entirely due to the one variable that fluctuates the most. And that’s a little scary. It’s the same reason James Loney is having a career year in Tampa Bay, and I’d imagine we’re probably all a little skeptical of Loney as a high quality first baseman going forward. The Rays got Loney for $2 million as a free agent, by the way. Underpowered first baseman who are average or slightly above average when their BABIP spikes aren’t all that highly valued in the market.
I’m glad to see Smoak hitting, and I hope he keeps hitting. He’s hit well enough for long enough that he’s earned a job in 2014, barring some kind of huge late season collapse anyway. But I still think the Mariners should be looking for an alternate first baseman of the future. Smoak has moved himself out of the high priority replacement list, and the Mariners should keep riding his success as long as it lasts, but at the same time, they should at least prepare for the fact that this might not last much longer.
Justin Smoak has earned himself a longer leash. He’s played himself back into the team’s plans, and should be penciled in as the starting first baseman on the 2014 team. But we should not yet be convinced that he’s going to keep this up. It’s great that he’s done it for 500 plate appearances, but bad players have 500 PA stretches of good performance. I’m not saying Smoak is definitely still a bad player, but we don’t yet know that he’s a good one.
Be encouraged. The fact that he’s hitting is good news. But be cautiously encouraged, and don’t be too shocked if this doesn’t last. Smoak would hardly be the first player to ride a BABIP wave to an unsustainable performance, only to have it end out of nowhere. If you need an example, Michael Morse is right over there.