Who Is Justin Smoak?

We're coming up on the official beginning of the 2011/2012 baseball offseason, during which the Mariners' front office is expected to make a number of moves in an effort to make the team better. If there's one thing that became abundantly clear over the course of the year, it's that the Mariners could stand to add some talent from outside the organization.

But the Mariners can't hope to improve only by adding new blood. I guess all blood is new, save for blood that's been stored in a baggie, but whatever. They could also really use some steps forward from players already on the roster, and when I think of Mariners I'd like to see improve, Justin Smoak is right at the top of the list. There are also guys like Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez and pretty much everybody, but Smoak's the hands-down #1.

And he's the #1 because, a year and a half ago, he was the centerpiece in the Cliff Lee trade return. Smoak was Baseball America's #23 overall prospect before 2009. He was their #13 overall prospect before 2010. Smoak was always supposed to become a big deal, and, so far, he hasn't become a big deal.

Which isn't to say that he's been some kind of disaster. As a regular who played most of last season, he finished with a 104 OPS+ and 15 home runs. He was equally productive from both sides of the plate. His defense was fine. Over the year, Smoak was a decent player, and he was just 24 years old.

But we want him to be more than that, and he ought to be more than that. What are his odds of becoming more than that?

Unsurprisingly, the answer depends on how you interpret Smoak's 2011 season performance. If you take the whole thing overall, it isn't particularly impressive for a one-time top prospect. It represented little progression from his debut 2010, and while it in no way suggests that Smoak has already plateaued, it tells you that his stock has dropped. A player with Smoak's background and Smoak's numbers would be expected to get better, but it wouldn't be a guarantee, nor would it be a guarantee that improvement would be sufficient to turn him into an impact bat.

But, of course, the injury. Or injuries. I don't need to remind you of what was going on with Smoak's hands, and I don't need to remind you that Smoak went through an offensive slump of borderline historic proportions right around the same time that talk of a thumb problem began to circulate. The team never confirmed that the injury was behind Smoak's struggles, and Smoak continued to play, but the timing of it all was very curious.

One report said that Smoak was a late scratch on June 25th because of a sore thumb. We don't know when the thumb thing happened, but that sounds like as good a date as any. Smoak continued to play after that for more than a month before he was sidelined by one injury, and then another injury. When he came back in early September, everything was more or less fine.

Watch what happens when you exclude Smoak's 6/25 - 8/12 batting line from his final numbers:

Smoak, overall: .234/.323/.396
Smoak, adjusted: .270/.360/.470

So pretty, so round, so productive. Over 367 plate appearances in the second, adjusted sample, Smoak hit all 15 of his home runs, posting an isolated slugging percentage of exactly .200. Lest you think his numbers are inflated by good luck, his BABIP in that sample is a fairly standard .309. Maybe a little high, but not so high that it's a mirage.

We can't just exclude slumps whenever we want to. If we made a habit of excluding slumps, we could make every player look better than he is. But we can exclude slumps if we have compelling reason to believe that the poor performance was caused by a non-chronic injury. There is evidence to suggest that Smoak's poor performance was caused, at least in large part, by a non-chronic injury, and attempts to compensate for it.

So how you feel about Justin Smoak going forward really depends on how you feel about Smoak's most recent season. If you don't buy the thumb excuse, your opinion is probably more...(/checks dictionary)...bearish, whereas, if you do buy the thumb excuse, your opinion is probably more...(/checks dictionary)...bullish. Outside of the time during which he played with at least one bad hand, Smoak was a switch-hitter with an .830 OPS. In Safeco. That's not Mark Teixeira, but it's good, and it could conceivably become Mark Teixeira down the road.

Because I'm a Mariners fan who isn't nearly as negative at heart as the character I play on the internet, I choose to believe that Smoak was hurt by his injury. I put more stock in that explanation than an objective, outside fan might, because I have a bias. I admit to this, and Smoak certainly never made excuses for himself. He did keep playing, after all. It could be that Smoak just had hot streaks and cold streaks and an overall average year.

But I believe in the story. And I believe that a healthy Smoak could do pretty big things in 2012. Not huge things, not playoff-berthing things, but things more in line with what we thought he could provide. Call me a hopeless optimist. Anything's better than calling me Shitlips. I hated that nickname. Stupid picture.

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