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Justin Smoak And Acknowledgment

A couple weeks ago, when we were recording a podcast, Matthew and I were talking about all the reasons Mariners fans have to be pretty optimistic about the season ahead. This might've been before we actually pressed "record" so I don't know if you heard this conversation, but I remarked to Matthew that I wanted to write a post about Justin Smoak. Then some time after the podcast I went through the Lookout Landing archives and found out that I wrote the post I wanted to write about Smoak last October. For many writers, this would be a deterrent. I'm going back to the well anyway. Who remembers shit from last October? Obviously I do not. So let's talk about Justin Smoak.

I've had Smoak on my mind ever since the podcast. Then I read this article from Larry Stone a few days ago. Remember, Smoak started strong last year before slipping into a ghastly slump, and we heard talk about thumb injuries. At the time, Smoak and the Mariners downplayed the significance, suggesting that Smoak was just caught in-between, or something. They all but said the injuries weren't a big deal. Now, in Stone's article, we have what I think is the first acknowledgment that the injuries were a big deal. As we figured. Some quotes:

"Yeah, it was bad," [Smoak] said. "I get jammed and my right thumb was messed up. Then I take a bad hop off the left thumb, and it was that big around (making a wide circle gesture) and I couldn't move it. It's hard to hit when you don't have your hands."

"I still felt I could play," [Smoak] said. "I knew I had one swing every time I went up to bat. I knew I wasn't going to swing three or four times. One swing is all I had."

Smoak didn't want to say too much, because he didn't want to go on the DL. The Mariners didn't want to say too much, because they didn't want opposing teams to try to take advantage. So we wound up with Smoak and the Mariners sticking it out, and Smoak not contributing at all. I mean that. I mean that Justin Smoak barely contributed at all while he was playing hurt.

It seems so obvious now that Smoak should've gone on the disabled list. I recall it being pretty obvious back then. He couldn't do anything. What makes it tricky is that we don't know how Smoak actually felt. The quote above is pretty grim, but if Smoak thought that he could play and help out, I guess he should've gotten some time to battle. He shouldn't have gotten as much time as he did. Once it became clear that Smoak couldn't drive the ball, he should've gotten a rest.

But what's important now isn't how Smoak was managed last season. That's last season's issue. What's important is figuring out what he is as a player. I put this in the last post about Smoak, but the numbers below say so much. Assuming an accurate injury window:

2011, Healthy: .270/.360/.470 (367 plate appearances)
2011, Injured: .130/.213/.176 (122 plate appearances)

The 2011, Healthy line comes with a .309 batting average on balls in play. That's probably a little high for a player like Smoak, but not significantly so. It's well within the expected range.

You take away the time that Smoak was playing with bad thumbs - the time that he had "one swing" every time he went to the plate - and he was a very good hitter. He wasn't a great hitter, even when you account for the ballpark, but he was a solid one, and at the age of 24. That's solid, with upside. That's more like the guy the Mariners thought they were getting when they traded Cliff Lee.

Because I'm a Mariners fan who wants the Mariners to be good, I might be a little too ready to accept the thumb injuries as an explanation. Maybe it wasn't about the thumbs. Maybe it was about something else. Maybe it was about something mental. Maybe it wasn't about anything. But then, doesn't it just make so much sense? If Smoak's thumbs hurt, wouldn't that affect his swing? If we know that Smoak's swing was affected by thumb injuries, isn't it fair to assume that his performance while hurt isn't representative of his true talent?

It's kind of like the Franklin Gutierrez situation. Gutierrez is, apparently, oodles better than he was last year, physically. He has his weight, strength and endurance back. His problems in 2011 had to do with his reduced strength and endurance. If he's back, am I really getting ahead of myself if I assume that Gutierrez will be way more productive? Felix is in better shape, but I don't really care. Mike Carp is in better shape, but I don't really care. I don't see how those things could have a significant effect on performance. It's really easy to see how a healthy Smoak and a healthy Gutierrez could take a statistical leap forward.

I don't mean to ignore or downplay the significance of Justin Smoak losing his father early in the season, by the way. That, obviously, is far more important than anything else from a lot of perspectives. But from an insensitive "how are the baseball players going to perform?" perspective, I don't know what to make of that. I don't know how losing a loved one might change one's performance. I do have a pretty good idea of how having hurt thumbs might change one's performance.

In Justin Smoak, I don't think the Mariners have a blossoming superstar. I doubt that Smoak ever bats .300. I doubt that Smoak ever slugs .550, or gets on base 40 percent of the time. But in Justin Smoak, I think the Mariners have a far better hitter than his 2011 numbers would suggest. He doesn't even necessary have to improve in 2012 to be good. I think he just needs to be healthy. And if he does improve further, well, terrific. He's young. He's recently been a top prospect. Young, recent top prospects frequently improve.

I have fewer questions going forward about Justin Smoak as a hitter than I have about Mike Carp as a hitter. Carp's coming off a season in which he struck out a lot and posted a higher BABIP than he's going to continue to post. I don't know quite what to make of Carp. I think I know more of what to make of Smoak. I think he's good. I think he's good, now. And I think he could get better. Smoak's a guy you should be excited about, and hopefully a year from now people will be over wanting the Mariners to bring in a slugging first baseman, because they'll already have one.