Justin Smoak entered the season as the Mariner with the most to prove. He was the highly touted hitter received in the Cliff Lee trade that was going to be the M’s first baseman for decade. He was a switch hitter with power from both sides of the plate that would be a 30 home run guy. He’s failed to live up to that billing and his name is regularly trolled through the internet as a symbol for the failure of the Mariners’ rebuilding efforts. He’s often Exhibit A for why Jack Zdurencik should go.
I continue to hope Smoak can turn it around. I keep thinking he’s the kind of guy who is going to figure it out with somebody and be the 30 homer monster he was supposed to be. I may be whistling past the graveyard. But maybe not.
Smoak continues to struggle. Justin’s slash line thus far is .237/.357/.314. This is a definite conundrum. In the first 38 games of the season, he’s drawn 21 walks. In 2012 Smoak drew 49 walks in 535 plate appearances. In 2011 he drew 55 walks in 489 plate appearances. He’s getting on base at a rate about 37 points above league average. Smoak got off to a slow start and is slowly pulling his batting average out of the mire, but it’s not likely he’ll be a .280 hitter this year (which is 25 points above league average.) The most disturbing numbers to me are his power numbers and his runs scored.
Justin Smoak’s power shows up as being virtually non-existent. He has six doubles and one home run, well, well below his historical numbers. Due to this, and that he’s not hitting for much of an average, Smoak’s slugging percentage is ridiculously bad. Smoak has never had a particularly high slugging because he hits for a lousy average with too few extra-base hits . His slugging for the last three years (2010-12) is .371, .396, .364. However, though he has zero career triples and not a lot of doubles, he’s been in double figures for homers in each of those years. What’s happened this year? With six doubles on the year so far, he’s probably on a pace to break his career best of 24, but only one home run? Really?
Another oddity in Smoak’s numbers is his runs scored. He’s scored exactly ten runs this season. Yeah, he’s hitting lousy, but he leads the Mariners in walks with his 21 and his OBA is well above league average. Yet, his ten runs is fewer than Jason Bay’s eleven, and Bay has far fewer plate appearances. It is also fewer than Dustin Ackley’s 14 runs scored. Ackley has the same number of hits (28) as Smoak, but only four extra-base hits and has drawn only five walks for an OBA of only .268. Just to extend this a bit further, Smoak has been on base 50 times (hits + BB+HBP) more times than any other Mariner except for Kyle Seager (55) and Kendrys Morales (52.) What accounts for his inability to pass the pay station? There is the matter of the guys hitting behind him. Smoak usually hits fifth or sixth. The guys hitting behind him are Jesus Montero .200/.250/.341; Dustin Ackley .231/.268/.281; and the twin black holes Brendan Ryan .122/.198/.122 (!!!!), or; Robert Andino .159/.206/.221. Why would anybody give Smoak a pitch worth hitting ever? How could anyone expect to score in front of these guys? Smoak is slow and is a station to station guy, but the guys behind him hit rarely and with very little pop. The bottom third of the Mariners’ lineup is Death Valley.
I’m not sure I have any answers here. At least no more than anyone else. Dave Cameron pronounced Justin Smoak an irredeemable failure over on USS Mariner on April 21st. Cameron suggested Smoak was not strong enough to be a mashing first baseman, he’s simply Casey Kotchman without the contact or defensive skills. Logan Davis on Lookout Landing suggested this might not be the case, rather that Smoak was likely to never be the big hitter we want and need in Seattle with it’s cool weather and big park. But, if he went somplace like Texas . . . who knows. I’m reluctant to accept any of these explanations, but either could be correct. Certainly Smoak, in his 1,500+ plate appearances has produced disappointing results. It’s equally as clear to me that he’s doing something different. He hits to the opposite field better as a leftie. He’s walking a lot more than in the past and not whiffing on those pitches inside he had so much trouble with last year. One more thing. On April 21, as the M’s wrapped up their Texas road trip of death, Smoak was hitting .188. Today he’s hitting nearly 50 points higher. Something is going on. If Mike Zunino or Nick Franklin played first base I might be really antsy, but there isn’t anyone ready to step in and take his place. There is little question the clock is ticking on Justin Smoak, but I need to see the end of the story before I’m satisfied that it’s finished.