This is Justin smiling. He's happy, folks.
A little more than a year ago Dave Cameron posted an article over at USSMariner.com entitled, "Giving up on Justin Smoak." This depressingly titled article looked at current and former baseball players whose careers started on a similar (read "bad") path as Mr. Smoak-Bomb’s. Basically, Dave’s well-constructed point was that there really isn’t any precedence that warranted a continuing hope in our former "First Baseman of the Future." Many other writers, radio hosts and fans have also reached this conclusion during the last few seasons, and frankly I don’t blame them. Justin’s 2012 season was bad enough to knock just about everyone off the bandwagon.
But I think people may have given up just a tad too soon. Over his last 39 games and 156 plate appearances, Justin Smoak has gone 39-132 with 8 doubles, 6 homers and a slash line of .295/.404/.492. For those of you lacking sufficient addition skills that’s an .896 OPS dating back to April 22nd. On April 22nd, Kelly Shoppach had been the M’s best position player and was carrying a .993 OPS. That was a long time ago.
Now, you doubters out there are going to say in your whiney voices, "Well, this is just another example of Justin Smoak being a tease. He’s had hot streaks like this his whole career!"
But I don’t think it is. And he didn’t. He had a hot streak last May that lasted only 95 plate appearances. However, he still wasn’t showing the same plate discipline he’s shown throughout this season – drawing walks in only 9.5% of those appearances. Over his most recent 39 games, he’s earned a free pass in 15.4% of his PAs. He also finished the season in 2012 with an 18 game hot streak. But that one was less than half as long as this year’s.
And I don’t want to completely ignore Smoak’s first 20 games of 2013 either. It’s not fair to select the good without acknowledging the bad. Going into April 22nd of this year, Smoak had only a single extra base hit and an OPS of .485. That’s terrible. Perhaps Smoak will always be a streaky player, or perhaps his recent swing adjustments and discipline improvements will help mitigate this possibility.
But even if you include his godawful start to the season, Smoak has still been a relatively productive hitter! He currently has an OPS+ of 118. That’s better than Justin Upton, Billy Butler, Adam Jones and Nick Swisher. He also has a wRC+ of 119, which is sixth among AL first basemen. Do you all understand? This year, the Mariners have had a first baseman better than 9 of the 15 American League Teams!
So what has been the difference for Smoaky this year? Well, the answer is twofold. First of all, his BB rate has increased significantly from 9.2% last year to 13.7% this year. I’ve always heard that plate discipline is the most difficult offensive skill to improve upon, but I really think this change in walk rate could be sustainable. It stands up to the eye test. Last year, Justin struggled mightily with off-speed pitches below the strike zone. Opposing pitchers exploited this weakness to no end last season – that’s what major league hurlers are supposed to do! This year, I’ve seen him lay off that pitch numerous times, even when thrown consecutively. In 2012, Smoak swung at 28.1% of pitches thrown outside the strike zone and this year that number is down to 25.4%.
Besides improving his plate discipline, Smoak has also progressed in regards to the type of contact he makes when he does swing. In 2012, only 18.2% of Justin’s batted balls were line drives, while 14.6% were infield flies. This season Smoak has increased his line drive percentage to 22.3% while simultaneously reducing his infield fly rate to 10.5%.
Interestingly enough, when you draw more walks and hit line drives at a greater rate your result metrics (OPS+, wRC+, etc.) will improve proportionately.
The only numbers that are down this year from Justin are his power numbers – his 2013 ISO is a career low .134, andhis HR/FB rate is also at a career low 10.5%. However, if you examine his season more carefully you can see that these phenomena are cause entirely by his terrible start to the season. Since April 22nd, Smoak’s ISO is a more than respectable .197.
I’m not writing this to try to say, "Justin Smoak is permanently fixed and I knew all along that he would be an above average first baseman." There’s no guarantee that anything is permanently changed about Smoak as a baseball player. He could revert to 2012 form for the rest of the year and never play another major league game after this season. He could also continue on this more recent and encouraging pace and become the all-star caliber player the M’s thought they were getting in return for Cliff Lee.
It just seems to me that Smoak has been a little bit lost in the shuffle. I’ve seen some people on twitter commenting about how Justin’s been good since returning from the disabled list, but I want Mariner fans to realize that he been good for longer than just that. In fact, since April 22nd I’d say that he’s been great.
So smile while you can, you jerks.
Arrested Development: All You Need Is Smiles Song (via cottonswop)