It's fair to say that Justin Smoak has been an absolute disaster in 2012, just miserable, to the point that most of us are talking about giving up on him and putting someone else at first base in the major leagues next season. The power isn't there. The plate discipline isn't there, the line drives aren't there. He hits nothing but singles. In short, Smoak is a complete mess, and at this point in his career if he wants to stay in the major leagues he'll have to execute a complete overhaul.
But Smoak wasn't always a mess. In fact, Smoak was one of the highest-ranked prospects in baseball. John Sickels had him at #2 in the Rangers system pre-2010 and the #10 hitting prospect in all of baseball in 2009. Kevin Goldstein ranked him #17 in all of baseball pre-2010. Keith Law was more aggressive, putting him at #9. At the time, the Cliff Lee deal was supposed to be a big win for the Mariners.
The thing is, most of Smoak's biggest weaknesses now were supposed to be his biggest strengths in the minors. He was supposed to have power, for doubles and for home runs. He was supposed to be able to take a walk, and not strike out too much. He was supposed to hit a lot of line drives. What limited minor league data we have backs this all up: 14% or more walks at every stop, except the Rookie League. More than 20% line drives everywhere before he came to Seattle. Actual power.
So what in God's name happened to Smoak? In order to help answer this question, I've collected his month-by-month statistics every season since he's been in the major leagues. Monthly splits are small sample, of course, but they're useful for examining the progression of a player. One month a player will have three problems, the next two, then one, then another one pops up. Note that the post is titled "How Justin Smoak Declined", not "Why Justin Smoak Declined". I'm not a swing analyst. I wouldn't be able to find the mechanical flaws that spurred his downwards spiral even if I looked. But here's what happened.
31 PA, .120/.323/.348, 73 wRC+, 22.6% BB, 19.4% K, 16.7% LD, 44.4% GB, .118 BABIP, 1 HR, 2 2B
Average HR distance: 409 ft, Average HR Speed Off Bat: 104 MPH
Smoak's first month in the majors, with Texas, was loaded with walks and not much else. Notably, his line drive rate was bad, and it all dumped into ground balls. This led to a precipitously low BABIP. .118 is really ridiculous, though; it should have been higher based on his line drives. His home run at least showed that the power was still there, since it was well above league average in both distance and speed off the bat.
103 PA, .187/.282/.308, 56 wRC+, 11.7% BB, 17.5% K, 22.4% LD, 31.5% GB, .200 BABIP, 3 HR, 2 2B
Average HR Distance: 407.7 ft, Average HR Speed Off Bat: 107.6 mph
The second month featured the first appearance of Smoak's BABIP curse. Despite him putting up decent batted ball splits, his BABIP stayed way down low, wrecking his overall line. These BABIP problems were seemingly fueled by a giant 26.7% IFFB rate. The walks didn't stay ridiculous, but 11.7% is still definitely a respectable number, especially when it comes with only 17.5% strikeouts. The power was still around, his home runs were both crushed. At this point the lack of doubles was a little worrying, but it seemed like that might resolve itself given some upwards BABIP regression. Smoak looked like a young hitter getting unlucky who would soon be on the upswing.
103 PA, .266/.375/.457, 122 wRC+, 15.2% BB, 25.0% K, 22.4% LD, 47.8% GB, .333 BABIP, 4 HR, 6 2B
Average HR Distance: 395.5 ft, Average HR Speed Off Bat: 103.2 mph
There we go. Smoak broke out in June as his BABIP finally came up to where it was supposed to be. The strikeouts were a little excessive, but he still had ridiculous walks, and the line drive rate was still above average at this point. The doubles showed up as expected when the BABIP went back up. The month was not without its warning signs: his HR distance and speed were both below average for the first time, but only just. The bigger concern was his seeming lack of fly balls; his groundball rate spiked, which wasn't good. Still, he looked very good, like a young hitter about to become a solid major league regular.
94 PA, .156/.181/.233, 1 wRC+, 3.2% BB, 29.8% K, 19.0% LD, 38.1% GB, .197 BABIP, 2 HR, 1 2B
Average HR Distance: 394.5 ft, Average HR Speed Off Bat: 104.1 mph
Suddenly, everything went wrong at once. The walks completely vanished and the strikeouts skyrocketed. BABIP plummeted. Line drives went back below league average. Power stayed below average. Smoak looked like a disaster at the plate for an entire month, and after he was traded to the Mariners for Cliff Lee he struck out a whopping 23 times in 63 at bats. Something was clearly wrong. Still, it was a pathetically tiny sample size, and he was still young. Smoak's star had definitely fallen a little, but the Mariners at least were still counting on it to rise again.
Smoak spent August in AAA Tacoma after coming over in the Cliff Lee trade, as the Mariners were seemingly worried by his atrocious July. For the record, he put up a nice line, with a 121 wRC+, 15% walks, 7 dingers and 7 doubles in 159 plate appearances. However, Smoak had previously established his ability to hit minor league pitching, and the line drives weren't really there in this particular stint, so you could argue it wasn't incredibly encouraging. Still, not bad, and it earned him a September callup.
57 PA, .340/.421/.580, 178 wRC+, 12.3% BB, 19.3% K, 25.6% LD, 28.2% GB, .389 BABIP, 3 HR, 3 2B
Average HR Distance: 417.3 ft, Average HR Speed Off Bat: 103.3 mph
Smoak was called up to the Mariners in mid-September of 2010, and made one hell of a debut. Looking like the first coming of Mike Trout, Smoak walked at a good 12.3% clip with a below-average strikeout rate. He hit line drives galore, and if it wasn't a line drive, it was a fly ball, contributing to his ISO. The power was massive, as his home run distances destroyed league average. He was on a 30-HR/30-2B pace, and while the BABIP was unsustainable he looked like a man among boys on the hitting-deficient Mariners. It was a tiny sample, but initial returns on the trade were glorious. Sweetest of all were his three home runs--on three consecutive days, all against the Rangers. Smoak went into the 2010 offseason riding on cloud nine, a highly touted prospect that most scouts thought was about to spend several years destroying MLB pitching.
2010 In Summary
On a whole, Smoak's rookie year wasn't so different from Montero's. Sure, he didn't live up to the hype of his top billing, but then very few prospects immediately do. Smoak was inconsistent at times (his atrocious, awful July being one of the more notable), but the most important thing to draw from his 2010 season was that the tools were all there and that he could use them all at the major league level. Smoak did indeed have 30+ home run power, and he could walk at a good clip without striking out too much, and he could hit a lot of line drives. He was still very young and he'd have plenty of time in the future to become more consistent. Sure, there were some problems. He didn't walk as well from the right side as from the left. Sometimes he popped out too much. He ran a very low BABIP for much of the early part of the season, despite a decent batted ball profile. But when Smoak ended the 2010 season, he was still a top-tier prospect with a very good chance of success at the major league level.
89 PA, .284/.393/.587, 154 wRC+, 15.7% BB, 20.2% K, 12.3% LD, 47.4% GB, .321 BABIP, 4 HR, 6 2B
Average HR Distance: 399.8 ft, Average HR Speed Off Bat: 105.1 mph
Smoak immediately validated the offseason hype with an opening to the season that met, if not exceeded, expectations. If Smoak had been able to keep up this level of production, he would have been the fourth-best hitting first baseman in baseball, behind only Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Joey Votto. As it turned out, of course, he couldn't, but even with only a 120ish wRC+ a first baseman who plays defense as well as Smoak does is worth at least 3 WAR (see: Carlos Lee, Mark Teixeira. However, despite the great overall numbers, there's one huge warning sign: the line drives are gone. That's right, when he showed up on Opening Day 2011 Justin Smoak's line drives had vanished. They have yet to come back. Smoak had turned into an extreme fly ball hitter, perhaps in the interest of boosting power. This isn't necessarily disastrous: Smoak's neighbors at the bottom of the major league LD% list include Mark Trumbo, Mike Moustakas, Edwin Encarnacion and Cameron Maybin. Not all of them run tiny BABIPs (Trumbo and Maybin are immune, apparently). But it's bad. On the optimistic side, however, Smoak still retained his other two tools: walking and hitting for power. 15% walks is Jaso territory, and the home runs are well above average in terms of both velocity and distance. He still had the tools to be a very good major league first baseman. No, he probably wasn't as good as his wRC+ from this month, but anyone who tells you that they had a good reason to think in March and April 2011 that Smoak would bust is lying. This was still a very encouraging month that indicated Smoak would be a good major league starter.
111 PA, .228/.333/.417, 110 wRC+, 12.6% BB, 24.3% K, 11.6% LD, 50.7% GB, .277 BABIP, 4 HR, 6 2B
Average HR Distance: 395.5 ft, Average HR Speed Off Bat: 102.0 mph
Right on cue, Smoak showed us what an unastounding month from his new batted ball profile would look like. The Mariners could live with this. This is essentially Mark Teixeira 2011 production, and he was well above league average in 2011. The concern, of course, is Smoak's ludicrously ludicrous ground ball rate, which was dwarfing his pathetic line drive rate. His BABIP should actually have been quite a bit lower, based on the standard LD% + 100 rough estimate formula. Still, the walks were still there at an elite level, and the power was still above average. May 2011 Justin Smoak was still a good major league regular.
107 PA, .226/.318/.419, 101 wRC+, 11.2% BB, 15.0% K, 12.8% LD, 43.6% GB, .230 BABIP, 4 HR, 6 2B
Average HR Distance: 383 ft, Average HR Speed Off Bat: 104.7 mph
And then the wheels came off. Not in the surface numbers, not really, though his BABIP did finally drop to where it should have been based on his line drive rate, which was the main culprit for his worsening performance even though he had gotten the strikeouts well under control again. No, the reason June 2011 was when the wheels came off for Smoak was because he lost another tool. Starting in mid-June 2011, Justin Smoak's power disappeared and has not come back since. Yes, he hit four home runs, but all of them were hit in the first half of the month, and none of them were particularly long. So what happened to the power? We don't know for sure. Perhaps there was a swing change, but I'm not a swing analyst. Suspiciously, right around this time is when Smoak injured his hand. Hand injuries have always been known to sap power, and are slow to heal. Perhaps this is what happened to Smoak. In any event, with only one of his three tools left to him, Smoak was in big trouble.
95 PA, .141/.211/.188, 12 wRC+, 8.4% BB, 25.3% K, 15.9% LD, 34.9% GB, .190 BABIP, 0 HR, 4 2B
And here it is, Smoak's second consecutive godawful July. This was the perfect storm of everything that had been wrong with Smoak: no home runs, no line drives, tiny BABIP. To make things even worse, the strikeouts spiked as the walks fell below 10% for the first time. You can argue that his walks stopped this month due to some change in approach aimed at reclaiming his power, or that the change came in September, but it came. At any rate, this is the worst possible month for a Smoak with only one tool left, and it's pretty freakin' atrocious. It was pretty evident that he needed to get his old tools back: hit line drives, hit big home runs. Instead he hit the DL.
The Mariners clued in to Smoak's thumb injuries and DL'd him. Whether he was still playing and practicing in this time period is unknown. He came back on August 13th and immediately fractured his nose on a one-hopper to first, extra-effectively ending his month. When he went to rehab, he played four games in Tacoma, in which he did not get a hit. Not a particularly encouraging showing.
79 PA, .301/.354/.438, 124 wRC+, 6.3% BB, 25.3% K, 17% LD, 43.4% GB, .380 BABIP, 3 HR, 1 2B
Average HR Distance: 397 ft, Average HR Speed Off Bat: 103.8 mph
This month was encouraging at the time, since Smoak's surface numbers were totally fine. But in retrospect, it should have been a huge warning sign. Whether you want to say it happened because he was trying to lengthen his swing to bring back the power or because he took a ground ball to the face, by September 2011 Justin Smoak's walks were gone. Over the course of the year, he had lost the line drives, then the power, and finally the walks, leaving him a first baseman with zero offensive tools. Sure, his surface numbers were fine, but that was just due to an unsustainably high BABIP. All of Smoak's September 2011 peripherals should have been extremely worrying. Smoak had lost all three tools, and he needs at least two of them to survive at the major league level. The 2012 stormclouds were forming on the horizon.
2011 In Review
2011 was basically the ultimate disaster year for baseball's most highly touted first base prospect. By the end of 2012, the wheels had fallen off the Smoakamotive. He had lost all three of the tools that made him interesting as a hitter: his line drives, power and walks were all MIA. He'd been hit with injuries, and a challenger to his position had appeared in the resurgent Mike Carp. Even worse, his father had tragically passed away in April. Though the surface numbers looked OK and his end-of-season resurgence seemed promising, Smoak's 2011 planted the seeds for his atrocious 2012.
2012 In Review
I was going to do a 2012 month-by-month, but then I thought about it for a while, and you know what? We know what's happened to Smoak in 2012. We've all watched it. I don't need to relive it by copy/pasting statistics. So, to briefly summarize: Smoak's three tools are still, for the most part, MIA. His BABIP has been ridiculously, absurdly low, even relative to his poor rate of line drives, but we can't even say that's a huge surprise, because he's just looked totally awful. The 2011/2012 offseason was incredibly important for Smoak, though in retrospect maybe no one knew that at the time. Unfortunately, the Mariners decided what he needed to do was lost some body fat. This didn't fix Smoak, far from it; his bigger problems remained. Worse, it seems that, perhaps trying to regain some lost power, Smoak lengthened his swing. It was a terrible, awful move. In April he came out of the gate hitting his old 27.4% line drives, but he had absolutely no BABIP to show for it (BABIP < LD% is a remarkable feat). His power was still missing, and the home runs were weak. Worse, the walks were in the basement. There was reason to think he might improve (the line drives being a reason), but batted ball profiles are notoriously fickle, and Smoak's unlucky BABIP sustained much longer than his lucky LD%. His May was actually decent, as his BABIP approached .280 and he put up a 110 wRC+, but this was fueled by an unsustainable 20% HR/FB and six fairly weak home runs. In June he just wilted, despite the return of his walks, as a .160 BABIP and terrible power drove him into a massive slump that continued into his awful July, when literally nothing looked good. Then he was demoted, to AAA. He shortened his swing, and while the walks have returned and the line drives have ticked back up a bit, he's still terrible. His plate discipline numbers have totally devolved: O-swing up, Z-swing down.
Smoak's problems are beyond evident. Lengthening his swing has given him less time to recognize pitches, and he now regularly whiffs on low breaking balls over the plate. He looks like he has no power whatsoever: he squares up balls and they go nowhere. His only home runs come on hilariously terrible pitches. Everything is a groundout, a popup, or a warning track shot. Nothing drops. 2012 Justin Smoak is not a major league caliber player.
When Smoak got here, he had easy power, 400 foot blasts to the opposite field, a history of spraying line drives for doubles and a terrific batter's eye. Justin Smoak, with all of his tools working, would have been an exceedingly rare combination of skills into one incredible hitter. The Mariners practically built their lefty-heavy lineup around the idea of Justin Smoak. Great power. Switch hitting. Elite walks. Line drives. Smoak has shown, in the past, that he has--or had--the physical talent necessary to succeed in the major leagues. His failure is shocking, and awful for the franchise.
There is still some hope. Since his all-too-brief stint in AAA, Smoak's walks have been much improved. When he's managed to hit a home run, lately, it's been crushed. His line drives have ticked back up since his return after the AAA stint, though they're still terrible. The BABIP is probably unsustainable (since 1960, only 48 non-pitchers have had a worse career BABIP than Smoak). He's only 26. It's not like he's gotten smaller, physically. I think It's unfair to compare Smoak, as Dave did, to other first basemen with equal amount of major league at bats, because Smoak was rushed to the majors way too fast and didn't get the minor league at bats that many of those guys did. But there's noa rguing the point: Smoak without at least two of his tools is just not worth major league playing time.
So what should the organization do? Well... tough luck for Smoak, but unless he shows up to spring training next year breathing fire and hitting 500-foot line drive home runs out of 3-0 counts, he should start the year in AAA. Mike Carp is a far more tenable player at the major league level right now, and he's shown some interesting skills of his own. Should the Mariners give up on Smoak? Of course not. He isn't a free agent until 2017. There's room in Tacoma for a former top-10 prospect. But it's my opinion that Smoak should start next year with the Rainiers, and not come back until he's shown that he's brought back at least two of his tools and used them to maul AAA pitching for a month. Anything else would just be rushing him more.
In a season full of pleasant minor surprises and unpleasant major surprises, Smoak has been firmly in the latter category. It's a testament to the excellence of the minor surprises that they can probably compete next year without him. But these were supposed to be the Dustin and Justin M's. It's looking more and more like that may never be.
It's a shame.