The Matter With Justin Smoak

Yeah

As the Mariners have plummeted out of the race, I've seen it remarked in several places that the worst part has been the collapse of Justin Smoak. While I disagree with the statement - the worst part, I think, has been the fifteen consecutive losses - the sentiment is most certainly understandable. Smoak was supposed to be a centerpiece, a core building block along with Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda, and Dustin Ackley. But lately Smoak's been caught in a miserable slump that's showing no signs of slowing down, and the fan confidence in his bat has experienced a corresponding drop.

What's gone on is pretty evident in Smoak's monthly splits. Courtesy of Baseball-Reference, like most of my thoughts:

April: .920 OPS
May: .750 OPS
June: .737 OPS
July: .402 OPS

Smoak's July OPS is the fifth-worst in baseball for players who've batted at least 50 times, and Smoak's OPS over the past 30 calendar days is the second-worst in baseball, ahead only of a guy with mononucleosis. For a good long time now, Smoak's offense has been a disaster.

So what's the matter with him? In all cases like this, we have the same two options:

(1) Nothing
(2) Something

You can never disregard option #1. Humans love to try to find and analyze patterns, even in randomness. Sometimes extreme performances happen without any underlying cause other than statistical fluctuation. It's very possible that nothing is wrong with Justin Smoak at all.

But the opposite is also very possible, and suggested by the numbers. Between June 3rd - June 23rd, Smoak batted 75 times, posting a .969 OPS. On June 24th, he went 0-for-4. On June 25th, he was a late scratch. Why was he scratched? Depends who you ask. Mariners.com:

Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak was scratched from Saturday's lineup against the Marlins about an hour before game time because he was feeling ill.

Sports Network:

Randy Choate spelled Volstad and hit pinch-hitter Justin Smoak, who was scratched from the starting lineup with a sore thumb.

Smoak was back in the starting lineup the next day. Since then, he's batted 94 times, going 10-for-85 with zero home runs and a .334 OPS. Some splits:

Pre-scratch: .841 OPS
Post-scratch: .334 OPS

Pre-scratch: 46% groundballs
Post-scratch: 38% groundballs

That definitely doesn't look like a regular slump. It could be a regular slump, with nothing significant behind it, but it looks unusually bad, and it comes with a convenient starting point. Smoak was good, then something happened to knock him out of the lineup, then he was terrible.

Jason Churchill tweeted about the thumb thing just the other day. I was curious, because it was the first I'd heard of it, so I did a little digging. I was presented with supporting evidence beyond the blockquote above, and while I'm obviously not in position to confirm anything, I do think there's something to this. I think there's an excellent chance that Smoak has been playing through an injury that would obviously have an effect on his performance.

And that's what I'm hoping for. While it would be kind of stupid to keep Smoak in the lineup if he's fighting an injury that makes him this bad, players play through injuries all the time, because they and/or their superiors are stubborn. And it's highly preferable to have Smoak struggling because of an injury than to have Smoak struggling because of something else. "Something else" might not be fixed easily. An injury can usually be fixed easily, if given the chance.

I can't say for absolute certain whether or not Justin Smoak's slump is connected to a thumb injury. I do, however, think the chances are good, and it would definitely explain the sudden drop-off we've observed. Here's hoping.

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