Immediately, I have to wonder about the headline I've selected. Is anyone really worried about Justin Smoak anymore? I mean, anyone among us? There are people who ought to be worried about Justin Smoak, most of all Justin Smoak, but my sense is that the fans have pretty much moved on and accepted that Smoak isn't going to work out. If he does, great, but if he doesn't, duh. So maybe a better headline would've been The Other Justin Smoak Problem That Exists. Yeah, that hits it.
The big problem with Justin Smoak is that he isn't good. Not statistically, which is the way that we measure good. He might have very good natural talent, and that would explain why he used to be so highly touted, but he's had a devil of a time turning that alleged talent into results that aren't results you'd expect from a glove-first shortstop. I'd say the most disappointing thing about Smoak has been his limited power. There are a number of problems, but Smoak was supposed to be able to hit an impressive home run at least occasionally, instead of never. The commercial with Justin Smoak punching over a tree is going to go down as this year's mini-Believe Big. "Whoops," the marketing department will say. "We probably shouldn't have done that." Smoak was billed as a first baseman with thump and instead he's been a first baseman with...plop? Fluff? Swish? I don't know what word to use. Instead he's been a first baseman with something bad.
But let's move beyond the power. That gives us a choice. Do we talk about Smoak's poor footspeed or only acceptable defense? No, those aren't major enough. Do we talk about his pedestrian ratio of strikeouts to walks? We could, we totally could. But earlier today my eyes again caught sight of Smoak's career batting average on balls in play. This is a problem, and we need to talk about it.
You're familiar with batting average on balls in play -- BABIP -- because you read Lookout Landing, and we use statistics, and BABIP is one of those statistics. It tends to hover around .290 - .310. There are variations, and there's more true-talent variation with hitters than with pitchers. Justin Smoak's career BABIP is horrifyingly low.
I am not the first person to point this out, and this probably isn't even the first time I've pointed it out. Smoak had a low BABIP in 2010, and he had a pretty low BABIP in 2011. I wasn't ready to call it anything but a fluke, because these things need some time to even out. It was like Brandon League's trouble with home runs. League strung together some seasons with high home-run rates, but those rates bounce around, especially for relievers, and I wanted League to get more time for the rates to calm down. League's home-run problems haven't shown up lately.
Smoak's batted 450 times in 2012, though, and his BABIP is low again. It's actually the lowest mark of his three-year career, by a wide margin. There was no single point at which I started to believe this was a legitimate issue, no single Smoak pop-up that turned my opinion, but now we have a sample of more than 856 balls in play, and Smoak's gotten hits on about a quarter of them.
Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference put Smoak's career BABIP at .249, as they should, because that's the correct number and it would be strange if they disagreed. The AL average BABIP since 2010 is .294. Smoak's FanGraphs page also shows a low rate of line drives, which isn't surprising but which also isn't necessarily reliable, given the problems with ball-in-play data collection. Let's just use it though, because we've watched Smoak, and we have developed mental impressions of his hitting. He hasn't hit many line drives, and so he hasn't recorded enough hits.
It's not impossible for a hitter to succeed with a low BABIP. Carlos Quentin actually has a career BABIP of .254 and the just signed him to a pretty big contract. Hell, Mark McGwire had a career BABIP of .255. It's difficult, though, and Quentin and McGwire have good power. You might've heard of this McGwire fellow. Many of their hard-hit balls left the yard completely, and dingers don't count in BABIP. Smoak hasn't hit for that sort of power, and he's struck out too often, and he's walked too little. Basically, there are ways to compensate for a low BABIP, but Smoak doesn't do any of them.
Smoak didn't hit for a low BABIP in the minors, although minor-league BABIPs are poorly studied and we don't know how much to make of them. Smoak produced in the minors and he hasn't produced in the Majors, and it's the Majors that we care about. We don't know if a low BABIP is something that would follow Smoak even if he became more successful, or if this is a symptom of what the main problem is.
Smoak just doesn't square the ball up very often. There could be any number of reasons for that, from poor eyesight to suboptimal swing mechanics to a huge casserole of things. It might be that Smoak's swing is too slow or long and he ends up just missing pitches. They tried to give Smoak a more compact swing in Tacoma, but he was promoted before the team wanted to promote him. Maybe that would've helped solve things, or maybe it wouldn't have.
What we have in Smoak is a near-26-year-old first baseman who doesn't walk enough, doesn't generate enough hits, and doesn't generate enough power. It might all be connected, and there might be some tweak that functions like an on/off switch. Smoak might be that tweak away from becoming what he was supposed to become. But there's no evidence that he's been making any progress, and I trust pretty much every other Mariner to hit a line drive more than I trust Smoak to hit a line drive. I've never been less confident in Justin Smoak, and he just can't be a part of the 2013' plans. I disagree with my own headline; I'm definitely not worried, not anymore. I'm over it, and I'm ready for alternatives. It's hard to know how things could've gone worse than they've gone.