Many Mariner fans have given up on Justin Smoak. He was supposed to be great. He was the centerpiece in a deal that sent out Cliff Lee. The Rangers loved him. Scouts loved him. We were poised to love him.
Then that thing happened that seems to happen to every Mariner youngster not named Seager. Around flashes of solid play, Smoak was generally terrible. High expectations became high hopes, which became low hopes, which for many became the hope that we'd never have to see him again.
Then something else happened. There was a "swing change", which every slumping hitter seems to try. Then he mashed through September. Then he mashed through spring training. And some hope was restored, for a few people. Then he started the season with three weeks of .188/.282/.203 ball. And all was right with the world again. Smoak was done.
Funny thing about that. Since those miserable three weeks: .284/.394/.491. There's some injury time in there, so the sample size isn't what we'd like, but still. That's an .886 OPS. For a guy who can't hit. Who plays at Safeco. That's... intriguing. Let's investigate further.
Even including those terrible 3 weeks, the "new" Justin Smoak has actually been very good. The issue is that the "new" Justin Smoak only exists from the left side of the plate. That's where his swing adjustments were largely made. Thats' where he was terrible in the past. And in 2013, 3-bad-weeks and all, he is hitting .293/.397/.474 from the left side. For context, among AL players with at least 150 PAs versus RHPs, he places 8th in wRC+ and 9th in wOBA. That's pretty impressive. "Old" Justin Smoak, who hits from the right side against lefties, is spinning a less than sparkling web of .135/.237/.154. On the bright side: this is only in 59 PAs, and his historic numbers on the right side are .223/.294/.366. This is still bad, but if coupled with the LH hitter we've seen thus far in 2013 still produces a valuable hitter. We can hope for (and probably expect) some regression in his RH line, provided some additional PAs.
There's more! Smoak's recent performance (everything after those terrible first 3 weeks) comes on a BABIP of .338. This is a little higher than league average, but not so far out as to be entirely unsustainable. His K% is an acceptable 22% while his BB% is a sterling 15%. 36% of his hits have gone for extra bases. If we want a bigger sample size, we can stretch things back all the way to his promotion from the minors in 2012. From August 14, 2012 until June 29, 2013, Smoak has come to the plate 375 times - not an ideal sample but a reasonable one. This time frame included a slow start on his return in 2012 and a very slow start to the 2013 campaign, as well as a couple of hot streaks in September 2012 and June 2013 - pretty much how any hitter's sample should be. For these 375 PAs, Smoak has a line of .265/.363/.423. Not stellar, but really not bad at all.
He plays half the time at Safeco, he's had injuries to deal with, he's got no "lineup protection," and his performance against lefties has been abysmal. But a 26 year old 1B who plays decent defence and seems very capable of an OPS around .800, on a Safeco team? That seems like an asset to me. As it has for the last few years, time will continue to tell with Justin. But the numbers seem to say that hope is back, and that's something to smile about.