In an effort to receive some kind of consistent production out of one of the corner outfield spots this year, the Seattle Mariners picked up a pair of players who, if utilized to their strengths, could do exactly that. Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith, acquired in seperate trades this winter, were the heirs to the right field throne to start the year. Fast forward to June and things have changed some.
Ruggiano, to his credit produced a 135 wRC+ in 43 plate appearances against left-handed pitching. He was exposed to right-handers frequently, though, and thus owned a .214/.321/.357 slash line before being designated for assignment at the beginning of the month. Many argued that Ruggiano never really got a fair shake with Rickie Weeks and Willie Bloomquist regularly seeing at-bats against lefties. He was outrighted to Triple-A but has yet to appear with the Tacoma Rainiers.
Ruggiano’s better half, Smith, has faired much better this year. In fact, he’s been one of the Mariners best hitters.
In 213 plate appearances Smith owns a .258/.329/.474 slash line with a 126 wRC+ entering play on Sunday. He’s hit six home runs, 17 doubles and owns strikeout and walk rates along the lines of his career marks. The 32-year old has also played reasonably good defence in the corner spots and is credited with 1.6 fWAR two weeks before the season’s numerical midpoint.
The 32-year old has given the Mariners a solid option in the No. 2 spot in the batting order as well as behind the heart of the order in the No. 6 spot.
A closer look into Smith’s splits will reveal that he’s been used almost exclusively against right-handed pitching. Only 14 of those 213 plate appearances have come against left-handers. In those 14 at-bats he’s collected five hits including two doubles and a home run off Houston Astros starter Dallas Keuchel. The question has been asked as to why Smith hasn’t had more opportunities against southpaws if he’s having some success.
Well, the 14 at-bat sample size is hardly enough to draw any conclusions from — unless you’re manager Lloyd McClendon looking at player vs. pitcher numbers. Add in that, for his career, Smith has struggled against lefties to the tune of a 67 wRC+. Compare that to a 122 wRC+ against right-handed pitching and there’s a reason why Smith has seen 84 percent of his career plate appearances against righties.
So, long story short, Smith hasn’t had success against left-handed pitching in the big picture and McClendon has done everything to protect him — and it’s worked. The question then points to Ruggiano and why he wasn’t utilized in a similar fashion.
The former Chicago Cub actually has less of a career split than Smith does — a 128 wRC+ against lefties compared to a 93 wRC+ against righties. That 93 mark would be more relevant if his 55 wRC+ against right-handers this year wasn’t equal to what Dustin Ackley also has produced against right-handers in 2015. But, hitting right-handers wasn’t what Ruggiano was brought in for. The puzzle appears to be missing a few pieces.
Back to Smith. It appears that the Mariners are extracting something close to the maximum value that the outfielder can provide. He’s spending about one quarter of his at-bats at designated hitter and doesn’t appear to be overworked in the field, and most importantly, not seeing left-handed pitching.
There is some thought that Smith should be used more frequently against southpaws given the small sample of success from this year. The short-answer to that is no, he shouldn’t be. But the truth is that he probably could stand to receive some time in the box against lefties.
It goes back to the concept of overexposure. Nelson Cruz is a capable outfielder if he’s used in the field sparingly. Whether or not that’s currently the case is a different debate. Smith is probably capable of seeing a few starts against left-handed pitching.
However, the need to do so was made less dire with the acquisition of Mark Trumbo and resulting dismissal of Rickie Weeks. For the time being, Seattle should continue to do what they’re doing with Smith and maximize his platoon advantage. This is what’s working right now, and we see what will likely happen when the sample size is increased.
Bloomquist has a 27 wRC+ against left-handed pitching this year despite a 90 wRC+ for his career. You can’t tell me that giving a few of those at-bats to Smith instead would result in a net loss.