I think we might have a problem
It's early enough that we can still have fun with sentences like: Justin Smoak is presently out-hitting Albert Pujols. Justin Smoak is presently out-homering Justin Upton and Joey Votto. Justin Smoak is presently out-slugging Ike Davis and Alfonso Soriano. Those are sentences that would've made us wet ourselves had we been told them in March. You guys get just as excited about the as I do, right? And sometimes when you're excited you accidentally wet yourself? Oh, huh, this is awkward for me now. I'm advancing to another paragraph.
Of course, those sentences are both truthful and deceptive. Justin Smoak is out-performing those guys in certain categories, but not because Justin Smoak has been performing well. Justin Smoak is sitting on the second-lowest OPS+ out of all Mariners regulars. He's just two points ahead of Brendan Ryan, and Brendan Ryan doesn't have a hit since April 20th. That wasn't last Friday. That was two Fridays ago. Today is Wednesday. What is the matter with Brendan Ryan!
But that's off the topic. What is the matter with Justin Smoak! is more the topic here. He does have three home runs, but he has one double, he's batting .190, and he has five walks against 22 strikeouts. Last April, he batted .284 with four home runs, six doubles, and 14 walks to 18 strikeouts. Last April, Justin Smoak looked like he was emerging as a force. Early 2011 Justin Smoak and Early 2012 Justin Smoak have very little in common. Genetically, they have literally everything in common, but phenotypically, it's night and day. Or, respectively, day and night.
We thought we had it figured out. At least I thought I had it figured out. I was so ready to believe that Smoak's struggles in 2011 were caused by the thumb injuries he elected to play through. The correlation was perfect. Smoak was a good hitter, then he got hurt, then he was a bad hitter, then he rested, then he was a good hitter again. Remove the injury window and Smoak's numbers were perfectly acceptable. Better than that, even. I was confident that a healthy Smoak would come into 2012 and hit.
He hasn't. And, you know, this doesn't disprove that his struggles were caused at least in part by his injuries. But now he's presumably healthy and struggling again. When Smoak was in a rut last summer, he explained it as the result of swinging at the wrong pitches and having his timing off. I believed more strongly in the injury hypothesis. Early in 2012, he's been swinging at some of the wrong pitches, and he's had his timing off.
Smoak, of course, isn't as bad as a .545 OPS. Few hitters are. Not enough of his balls in play have been dropping for hits. Just yesterday he hit, what, two balls on the screws that were hauled in for outs? He's hit too many unproductive line drives so far this season. His numbers should be higher.
But I'm by no means convinced that his numbers should be good. Keep in mind that Smoak's a first baseman, and he isn't Casey Kotchman with the glove. Smoak's supposed to be a middle-of-the-order hitter. That's not what he's been. I think most, if not all of us are starting to wonder, and that frame of mind causes one to look at him differently.
Smoak's batted a thousand times in the Majors. He has a 90 OPS+. In 500 trips to the plate in triple-A, he has a sub-.800 OPS. He tore up double-A over a third of a season in 2009, and he had more success in triple-A when he repeated, but Smoak doesn't have the statistical track record of a can't-miss prospect. What he has is the scouting track record of a can't-miss prospect. Baseball America ranked him #23 overall before 2009. They ranked him #13 overall before 2010. Smoak was big for his tools. There's a reason the Mariners wound up getting him over Jesus Montero in the Cliff Lee trade.
What I'm really, genuinely interested in is hearing what scouts would say about Justin Smoak today. Those same scouts that rated him so highly as a prospect. They'd be biased by his results, of course, but I want to know if the things they saw are still there. Did his skills go away? Did his skills fail to progress as expected? Are his skills very much still present, such that the lack of big-league success is confounding? The scouts, more than anything else, are what made Justin Smoak such a thing. What is the scouting opinion of Justin Smoak: 25-year-old Major Leaguer?
I'm not at all giving up on Justin Smoak, and you shouldn't give up on Justin Smoak either. He is still pretty young and pretty inexperienced. He is still making adjustments and he has the support of the organization. Eric Wedge keeps on hitting him in the middle. The front office kept him around and didn't acquire any potential competition. Smoak's featured in a 2012 team commercial, selling him as some sort of big, strong bat. In the commercial, Justin Smoak punches down a tree! He's so big and strong!
He has a career slugging percentage of .377. He has twice as many strikeouts as walks, a ratio which isn't showing signs of improvement, and he has a below-average contact rate. We have hope for Justin Smoak because of the scouting. The statistical evidence is...mixed. Mostly underwhelming.
Justin Smoak's still considered to be an important piece. His 2012 season is a month underway. Think about the first paragraph again - it's early, and lots of good hitters aren't yet hitting good. Hell, Dustin Ackley isn't yet hitting good, and does anybody believe that Dustin Ackley won't break out in time? Smoak deserves patience. He just deserves a little less patience than he used to. This is a very important season for Justin Smoak, and he's off to a lousy start. That Alex Liddi character? The guy who's talked about getting reps at first base? Maybe it's worth keeping an extra eye on that Alex Liddi character. He's got his own issues, but depending on how things shake out, maybe third base won't be his only option. As Smoak has demonstrated, with baseball, you just never know.