This has not been a very good season for the Mariners' three most prized offensive prospects. Not one of them has a wRC+ over 50, more than one extra base hit, or a BABIP north of .250. So believe me when I say I understand why there's an aura of frustration around these three guys. I get it. These are probably the three most important players on the whole dang team, and they're completely faceplanting. It sucks.
But just because it sucks right now doesn't mean it's necessarily going to suck in the future. Or, uh, just because they suck right now doesn't mean... you get the point. There are reasons to believe in Smoak, Ackley, and Montero. They're not overwhelming - if you're not already on the Smackro bandwagons, now is probably not a good time to hop aboard - but they should be enough to stop you from abandoning hope completely.
Let's have a look.
Dustin Ackley is my personal favorite of this trio. He wears #13 and plays 2B, which may have something to do with it. Also I have his shirt. But there's a sound statistical case to be made for his future success, and it's one that's rather difficult to counter. See, his peripherals imply upwards regression. Lots of upwards regression.
Ackley has a rather unusual skillset: he posts very high contact rates to go with very low swing rates. A good hit tool and a good eye are a powerful plate discipline combination, and when you combine the two with even doubles power you get a pretty good hitter. But you don't have to take my word for it. Let's look at some historical comparisons.
Now, I've used this trick before with Jason Bay, but it's a good trick, so I'm going to repeat it. We're looking for hitters within the Pitch F/X era who have posted a contact rate of about 85% with a swing rate around 40%. Then we chop it down to a reasonable ISO range for Ackley (.100 to .170). Here's what we find.
Basically, these guys are all league average hitters. There's a little variation - some (like Utley) can produce big ISO years, and some (like Atkins) get BABIP screwed - but the theme is the same. Low swing rate plus high contact rate plus a little power equals average hitter. Almost all of the fluctuation is driven by BABIP, but the group shows a BABIP of .299, right on league average, so it's hard to believe that Ackley will always produce low BABIPs. By the way: in case you feel inclined to complain that my bottom ISO range is too high, it only removed six players, most of whom only played a half-season each.
This is what Dave Cameron means when he says that players like Ackley just don't fail the way he's failing. Ever. The only way to produce a wRC+ below 90 with this profile is to have very little power and get BABIP screwed. And even if you aim a little low, Ackley's positional adjustment helps him out: a good-fielding second baseman with a 90 wRC+ is right on league average.
Look, maybe Ackley never gets back the power that he had when he first came up in 2011. It doesn't matter. With contact and swing rates like his, even though his O-Swing% is fairly high for a high-contact guy, he won't sustain the strikeout rates he's posted so far in his career. He also won't sustain his 2012 BABIP. Or his 2013 BABIP. There's just no way. And even if the power doesn't come through, with the BABIP and K% of the guys from this comp list, he won't be a bad player.
My guess is that Ackley is going to eventually stabilize as a second baseman who can consistently put up league average offensive numbers and play better than league average defense. Then every once in a while he'll have a great BABIP or ISO year and produce really well, but it won't be sustainable and he'll eventually revert back down to league average hitting. Think Howie Kendrick level production. Perhaps not what you hope for from the #2 overall... but not bad either.
To get evidence of Ackley's bright future, we cast a wide net. To get evidence of Jesus', I'm going to stay just a little bit closer to home. Very close to home, in fact. With a current Mariner. Here is a table.
Jesus Montero, so far, has basically been Kendrys Morales without power. The contact and swing rates aren't in this table, but they line up pretty well too. Morales is a good enough hitter to be a productive DH/1B; that is to say, even if Montero's catcher defense is a total bust, all he has to do is develop the power he was always supposed to and he'll become a valuable player. Though it would be great if he did, he doesn't actually have to correct his plate discipline problems, and his batted ball profile is actually better than Morales'. It's all in the .ISO.
Maybe not. Maybe he is what he is. He isn't as sure of a thing as Ackley, because we're relying on him to develop a new skill (or, rather, consistently display an old one) rather than just maintain his current peripheral stats. But I'd peg the chances of him doing so as pretty good - eventually. Power takes time to develop. It make take a minor league stint to develop. It may take years to develop. But my bet is that Montero winds up as a productive major league DH.
I freely admit that Smoak has the longest odds of the trio. For one thing, he's a first baseman only and absolutely must hit well. At least Montero has the catcher thing to fall back on. For another thing, it's been a long time since he was good. In fact, despite his nice-looking new swing, I wouldn't tell you to get on the Smoak bandwagon right now. If you're already on, though... well then.
Now is not the time to give up on Smoak. For one thing, his walk rate is back where it was when he was good, and he's been showing much better plate discipline than he had last year. For another thing, he's making pretty good contact that's just not dropping in at all. Just like he always does. (Must've pissed off the RNG Goddess.)
Matthew Carruth developed a statistic called Qual+ that estimates the value of a player's batted balls to predict how well he should be hitting. Line drives good, fly balls OK, ground balls bad, popups terrible. It's not a precise statistic by any means, but it gives you an idea of what a hitter has been up to. Though Carruth doesn't maintain MLB-wide Qual+ spreadsheets that I can find, I created my own analog to the statistic... and sure enough, Smoak has the second best batted ball profile on the Mariners, behind only the Condor. In fact, Smoak's pretty far up among MLB in general. Not a single player in the top 10 by WAR this year has a batted ball profile better than his. Smoak has a better batted ball profile than Carlos Santana, and Carlos Santana has a wRC+ over 300. Luck matters!
Before you wonder if Smoak's contact has been predictable, here's a spray chart.
That's a pretty good-looking spray chart. He hasn't shown a huge amount of power, but ordinarily I feel like that would lead to solid production to all fields. Which also happens to be the impression that I've gotten from the games. Actually, the Mariners as a team are kind of in the same boat: they have very strong LD% and pulled FB% rates, but as per usual they have very little BABIP luck to show for it.
Like I said, I don't think you should jump on Smoak's bandwagon now. Last year, he displayed early skills with terrible results... and then the skills went away until his peripherals matched his production. That happens sometimes! So if you're not in on Smoak yet, I'd wait until he actually produces. But don't be too shocked if he does.
OK. Disclaimer. I don't think any of these guys are going to be stars. They all drew ridiculous player comparisons while they were prospects (Chase Utley, Miguel Cabrera, and Mark Teixeira respectively), but they're never going to live up to them, and it would've been absurd to expect them to. I think Ackley's going to be an above average regular with the occasional terrific season, Montero's going to be a ~league average DH who occasionally picks up extra value by filling in at catcher, and Smoak's going to... well, I have no idea. Probably he'll be bad. Hooray for Michael Morse?
A lot of people make a big deal of proclaiming that spring training doesn't matter. That's not true. If spring training didn't matter, we'd still have Casper Wells. What these people really mean, of course, is that spring statistics have no predictive value, and that's true. But if you're one of those people who was constantly repeating "it doesn't matter" all throughout the spring, I hope you understand that first-two-weeks-of-the-year numbers don't have much more predictive value than spring ones. Sure, pitchers aren't just experimenting any more, and the minor leaguers don't play, but it's still a puny sample size. So far this year, John Buck has twice as many home runs as Josh Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera, and Giancarlo Stanton combined. That means something - that's fucking hilarious - but it doesn't have any important future implications. Because, y'know, two weeks.
So Ackley, Smoak, and Montero are sucking. So what? It's two weeks. It's OK to be upset or frustrated that they aren't doing well, but it's not wise to let those emotions cloud your judgment. Instead, look around for all of the evidence before coming to any conclusions. I think you'll find yourself more encouraged than you were before you looked.