Amid Seattle’s disappointing first half, the subsequent prospect promotions and the complete flame out by Dustin Ackley, another former top prospect that’s flailed away at big league pitching for several seasons has had a coming out party of sorts.
Justin Smoak, the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee deal with Texas and twice named among game’s top 25 prospects, looked all but dead over the past three seasons, hitting a combined .223/.306/.377. Offensive production so poor, in fact, that it’s rivaled by the likes of Skip Schumaker, Casey McGehee, and Orlando Hudson.
Give the Mariners credit, regardless of whether it was due to a lack of better options or just seeing something in the 26-year-old switch-hitting first baseman, but Smoak has seemingly turned the corner — finally.
Through 68 games (269 PA) this season, he’s hitting a more than respectable .272/.372/.431. And while the overall power has never taken that expected step forward (.159 ISO and only 21 extra-base knocks), he’s been 24% better than league average on offense this year (according to Weighted Runs Created Plus), ahead of several bigger names including: Prince Fielder, Jay Bruce, and wunderkind Manny Machado.
And, believe it or not, the uptick in production looks sustainable.
Smoak’s walk rate, 13.0%, is within reason of his career mark that’s nearly 11%; his season and career K-rates are identical at 21.6%, and his Isolated Power is basically the same too. So what’s the difference?
Batting average on balls in play, or BABIP.
During his first three seasons, Smoak posted totals of .255, .273, and .242; all of which are significantly under the league average that hovers near .300. This season it’s at .331, which screams fluky. But it’s not. His line drive rate is up noticeably, nearly six percentage points, and his groundball numbers are lower as well. He’s simply having better at bats, squaring up the ball more consistently. So the rise in BABIP could very well be a repeatable skill, maybe not as high as it is now, but it should be greatly improved over his first few seasons.
Assuming he can continue this approach, then there’s no reason to suspect that he couldn’t peak as a 2.5- to 3.0-win player.
Good for Justin Smoak. And good for the Mariners for sticking by him.
Photo of Justin Smoak Courtesy of Jamie Squire via LookOutLanding