Having Patience with Justin Smoak

If you're here on Lookout Landing reading these words right now, odds are you've already read Dave Cameron's piece on USS Mariner entitled Giving Up on Justin Smoak. In that post, Dave provides a list of all first basemen over the last 30 years accumulating at least 1,000 PA through their age 25 season. At the bottom of that list, when you sort for wRC+, is Justin Smoak. Dave goes on to state that, given the arc of most of those guys and their contributions going forward from their age 25 seasons, it is time to pull the plug on the idea of Justin Smoak as a long-term solution at first. Amongst his alternatives are sending Smoak to the bench in favor of Mike Carp and transitioning Jesus Montero to playing first part time. I am here to disagree with the overall conclusions of that piece.

You'd be hard pressed at this point to find many within the Mariners blogosphere who have unwavering faith in Justin Smoak. He has struggled statistically for most of this season, looking lost for much of it. He struggled statistically for a good deal of last season, also looking lost for much of it. It is also true that Smoak did not dazzle after his promotion to the Rangers and in his debut session with the Mariners after the Cliff Lee trade. Were we to evaluate Justin Smoak solely on his MLB plate appearances thus far, the inclination would be to agree with the assessment made in Dave's piece, if not the conclusions (that's a different discussion). Justin Smoak does not look like a successful major league hitter thus far.

But it's more complicated than that. I made a comment a few days ago regarding prospect evaluation with the notion that we should be looking at scouting data, performance, relative performance, and pedigree. As Justin Smoak is no longer a minor leaguer, we should add into that his MLB performance, naturally weighting our opinion more heavily based upon the sample size and results put forward. So, again, his MLB performance has been poor in summation. Let's now look very briefly at the rest of his resumé, beginning with pedigree.

He raked in college.

Coming out of the draft in 2009, Lone Star Ball collected a few of the opinions on their newest draft pick.

Later in the year, here's what John Sickels had to say:

Justin Smoak: Smoak was the 11th overall pick in the draft, from the University of South Carolina. I thought this was a great bargain for the Rangers; I loved his bat and had him ranked ahead of all college hitters except Alvarez and Buster Posey before the draft. He got off to a great start at Double-A Frisco, hitting .328/.449/.481 with 39 walks and just 35 strikeouts in 183 at-bats. However, he strained an oblique muscle in June, and while he came back quickly he wasn't the same afterward. The Rangers promoted him aggressively to Triple-A Oklahoma City where he hit .244/.363/.360 in 54 games, continuing to show good plate discipline but lacking power. Overall he hit .290/.410/.443 with 12 homers, 75 walks, and 81 strikeouts in 386 at-bats. I still like Smoak a lot, and suspect that the oblique hampered his performance much of the summer. He retained command of the strike zone even when struggling. However, hopes that he would be ready in 2010 have to be tempered; he'll need more Triple-A time.

Baseball America also liked him, ranking him 23rd in 2009, and 13th in 2010.

How about minor league performance and early MLB performance? Justin Smoak was excellent in his first real stint in AA and acquitted himself well in his late-season callup to AAA Oklahoma, despite being 22. He then ripped up AAA for a few weeks, enticing Texas to call him up. Despite yet another aggressive promotion, Smoak performed reasonably in his first trial prior to being acquired by the Mariners, where he again was a slightly below average hitter despite being pulled quickly through the minors. He also had a nice stint in Tacoma, for those scoring at home. Justin performed quite well in the minors at each stop with a decent prospect-status look at the majors.

So here we have a guy who mauled college pitchers, scouted well in college and in his minor league career, and was considered one of the best hitting prospects in baseball at the time of the trade. He has now had just under two full seasons in the majors, split between some time around the trade, last year, and this year. We all know the story about last year. Smoak came out on fire for two months before a string of injuries and the death of his father. He admitted he was not healthy throughout the rest of the year. While that's not enough to fully explain away his second half of last season, it's certainly an asterisk.

Let's put it all together. Justin Smoak has an excellent pedigree, was beloved by scouts, performed admirably in the minors despite being rushed quickly to the majors, and has now been sub-par in the majors with part of that time potentially hampered by injury. Giving up on Smoak at this point is not only hasty, but irresponsible. It's important to see the ceiling a player can establish. I've seen the idea that a hitter must do roughly two of the following three things to succeed as a hitter: hit for contact, show patience and discipline, and hit for power. During his mini-breakout last season, Mike Carp hit for decent power while sacrificing plate discipline, patience, and contact. During Smoak's mini-breakout last season, Justin demonstrated power, plate discipline, and patience simultaneously. Yes, he is struggling. Not only statistically, but visibly. But before we strike the match and push the stone ship out to sea, perhaps it's worth granting the patience to Smoak that the team did with Saunders. Saunders had 635 major league plate appearances in which he demonstrated various skills in isolation but looked entirely lost. Just last year he put up a .418 OPS over 179 PA! That's horrible! But he also had a solid pedigree, good relative minor league performance, and had demonstrated a nice skill set.

Show patience. Put Smoak in a lower pressure environment where he can make adjustments. Give him the opportunity to succeed rather than declaring failure. The bulk of the information in his dossier suggests he should be given that much.

Edit: I did not provide a clear enough conclusion the first time around. My primary disagreement is with the notion that we have ample evaluation of Smoak with which to declare him finished.