Any upside left for Smoak?

 Seattle Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak hasn’t lived up to the high expectations M’s fans had for him after he was acquired from the Texas Rangers in 2010 as the main piece in the Cliff Lee trade. In the first half of 2013 it looked like the 26 year-old first baseman might have turned a corner, as he was hitting .272/.372/.431 before the All-Star break. But, in the second half, his lofty .331 in-play batting average dropped to .220, and his strikeout rate climbed to 24.2 percent. By season’s end, his numbers were .238/.334/.412, very pedestrian marks for a first baseman. Smoak compiled an awful .192/.274/.274 line from the right side of the plate, suggesting he’s more of a platoon bat.

Over four big-league seasons, Smoak has a career .227/.314/.386 line, good for a 97 OPS+ and -0.1 fWAR. He’s received 1942 plate appearances, a hefty sum for what has been essentially a replacement level player. Fangraphs’ Steamer projection system calls for a .231/.328/.404 line with 0.8 fWAR for Smoak in 2014. A slight improvement, but hardly the stuff of an everyday player.

Does Justin Smoak have any upside, or should the Mariners move on once they can find another warm body to fill his spot? After all, 2013 first-round pick D.J. Peterson looks like the kind of quick mover that could challenge for a starting job as early as 2015.

To help answer this question, I used the Baseball Reference Play Index to look into all first basemen since 1961 that had produced similar numbers to Smoak at a similar point in their careers. I went up to a player’s age-28 season, and set a minimum of 1500 plate appearances.

The results weren’t pretty. Of the thirteen players other than Soak that met the criteria, J.T. Snow had the most career fWAR with 12.6. David Segui and his 11.7 fWAR was the only other player to reach double digits. Both Snow and Segui were mediocre players that had long careers. They each averaged less than 1.3 fWAR per 600 plate appearances. Segui was the only player on the list to have a career OPS+ of 110 or higher. The list also featured failed top prospects. Casey Kotchman and Travis Lee were each ranked in Baseball America’s top ten prospects. Between them, they totaled less than 10 fWAR.

In summary, history is not on the side of Justin Smoak. He’s almost 27, and with four big league seasons under his belt, the top prospect pedigree doesn’t do much for him anymore. Sometimes he’ll do things like hitting this home run, and you’ll get your hopes up, but then he’ll hit .203 in the second half. With D.J. Peterson waiting in the wings, 2014 may be Smoak’s last chance to show he can be an everyday player, if he even gets that chance. The numbers and history both show he may not have earned it.

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Chris Moran

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15 Comments

  1. Same Choi with no experience at AAA?

  2. Edman its called sarcasm….

    Smoak by the numbers is a part time 1B/DH and that is it. To hope for a call it anything else is not looking at it with your blue tinted glasses off. The time has more than come to move on. He may have 1-2 above par years in his 26-28 age range if you are lucky.

    The M’s need to give Choi a solid full time shot….

    Also Armstrong has announced he will retire Jan 31st 2014 Thanks for the memories but this should have happened a long time ago.

  3. Robo I agree he has been given more then a fair chance it hasn’t worked out. We have read this same article two years in a row he isn’t the first our the last player to struggle and not be good enough to be a player. But if anyone says he didn’t get a fair shake then there just blind sometimes you just have to move chairs around on the deck of the ship..

  4. rotoenquire, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Useless impatience from fans who have no idea if his ability is coach-able or not. All this signs of a emotion-based rant, all because you wish to apply your believe system, ahead of coaching evaluations.

    However he grades out will determine his fate, not because you are ‘fed up” with him. You have a background in player development?

  5. Being to emotional on Smoak? Not to early to write him off.

    Tired, fed up, done, move on, lacking all have been said among many other things about players who have stats like Smaok over a similar time frame.

    486 MLB games, 1712 AB’s, .227 AVG, 314 OBP, .386 SLG, .700 OPS, 71 DBL’s, 67 HR’s. Above board D. He is a part time player at best and the M’s should move on that is not emotion that is what the stats say.

  6. I am jaded on Smoak’s ups and downs. But as long as he is their choice at 1B I hope he does well, really well.

  7. A little too early to write him off. The rope is much shorter, but stupid mistakes are made when letting emotions dictate.

  8. I still have some hope that Smoak will make it, but not a lot anymore. He’s another good reason to sign Morales. At least we would have one 1B who can mash. 2015 is definitely his last chance to show value, if he makes it out of spring training. Maybe McClendon can help straighten him out.

  9. He throws a moment or two of brilliance at you. Just enough to keep you hoping. He was a 1st round draft choice,so he’ll come around, just send him out there until he gets his swing straight. He was traded for Cliff Lee. Shows just enough to keep you hoping. If we get rid of him, we lost the trade. Heck, Carp out played him and was tossed away like trash. The front office ego can’t take the bruise. Coach McClendon recently said something to the effect that he thought Smoak is going to be a real good hitter. He has showed he can hit for a week or two at a time. Just enough to keep you hoping. I want Justin to be good. I keep hoping. And so it goes and goes…….

  10. “Any upside left for Smoak?” Sure. Smoak will probably have 1 to 2 “breakout” seasons or part of seasons when Smoak is in his prime years of 27-29. Just like Kotchman in 2011 in Tampa Bay (age 28; OPS+ 127), Travis Lee in 2003 in Tampa Bay (age 28, OPS+ 116) or Bryan LaHair with Chicago in 2011/2012 (age 28/29; OPS+ 140/110). So, I expect one to two good seasons somewhere from 2014-2016 from Smoak. If one were to go with age 28, 2015 will be Smoak’s good year. But he has certainly gone from a guy that will be good over a number of years to a guy that may have a couple of good years here or there.

    Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of value in 1 to 2 randomly good years. There is more value in being predictably good for several years (bold statement, I know). That is what has changed with Smoak.

    So, there is a very good chance that if one of those good years isn’t 2014, we jettison Smoak for someone else in 2015 and he has one of his good years in the prime of his career with someone else and we all complain about the curse of the Mariners and articles are written about how our coaching staff can’t get the most out of our players.

    When it is just a breed of player that has talent but it tends to only manifest itself in the historic prime of their careers.

  11. I really like DJ. It looks like 1B/DH Ji-Man Choi will get his chance this Spring and could make Smoak expendable if he hits well.

  12. Author

    Maybe he can be a platoon player. His wRC+ against righties was 134 in 2013, but for his career it’s only 101. Probably has to be at least 120 to be worth platooning at 1B. UZR says he’s a below-average first baseman, and he’s an awful baserunner.

  13. Author

    Thanks

  14. Nice article. You make some great points.

  15. Nope. If I’m the manager and he’s on my team he only plays against RHP. Platoon player and possibly a good one, from here on out.

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