Justin Smoak, Finally For Real?

Back in the spring, each of us here at RotoGraphs participated in a “Ten Bold Predictions” series for the upcoming season. As you can imagine, there’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek in all of those, because you don’t want to say something blatantly obvious like “Miguel Cabrera is going to be great”, for example, but you also want to stick with something that may vaguely be realistic, too.

We’ll probably recap those for everyone following the season, and I’m the first to admit I have some real clunkers in mine. But we can get into the rest another time, because for now, I want to focus on this one: my “bold prediction” that Justin Smoak would be a top-15 mixed league first baseman.

That was based on the combination of a scorching September (.428 wOBA in 101 plate appearances), the switch to a lighter bat which preceded it, and the move to bring in the fences in Seattle. Smoak’s not going to reach that threshold, so in that regard, the prediction is a bust, and for a while he wasn’t even rosterable — he hit just .237/.333/.309 with a single homer in April, and was still showing a sub-.700 OPS (.240/.350/.344) by late May when he injured his oblique and landed on the disabled list.

Smoak missed most of the next three weeks while Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse manned first base, but since returning on June 18, he’s started 24 of the team’s 28 games as Morales has returned to the designated hitter role and Morse has been injured himself. Since his return, believe it or not, he’s been excellent; he homered in his first game back and five more times since, hitting .306/.387/.551 through July 23. Over the last 30 days (again through July 23, as I write this on Wednesday afternoon) Smoak has a top-20 wOBA of .419, topped only among first basemen by Allen Craig, depending on whether or not you consider Buster Posey a first baseman.


But we’ve been teased by Smoak before, haven’t we? Is this just another hot month? In April of 2011, he hit .284/.393/.527, raising hope he was the real deal, then disappointed tremendously for most of the two seasons following that. That said, I’m starting to lean towards this being something approaching legitimate. Not only did Smoak tear up the league last September, he’s been steadily improving each month in 2013, as you can see in the table at right.

If anything, it’s the lousy April of this season that looks like the outlier, because over the last calendar year, Smoak is hitting .272/.366/.439 with 15 homers. That’s the #13 wOBA among first basemen in that span, and if that doesn’t seem especially exciting, know that it’s better than Albert Pujols, Nick Swisher, Adam LaRoche, and Anthony Rizzo have managed in that time.

So what’s changed? That lighter bat sure seems to have helped, as he’s putting up a career-high 23.8% line drive rate, up from 18.2% last year and a dismal 13.1% in 2011, and has seen a nearly commensurate decline in his ground ball rate. He’s also swinging at nearly 6% more pitches inside the zone while offering at fewer outside it, and if that seems like a pretty obvious way to success, it’s so very often easier said than done.

Smoak’s recent successes haven’t made him a star, and he’s still not likely to develop into everything the Mariners thought they were getting when they parted with Cliff Lee for him. But he’s finally showing signs that he might actually have a useful career, and that’s progress. It’s still possible to get in on the low end if you’re buying into Smoak, because he’s owned in just 27% of ESPN leagues (thanks in no small part due to an 18% boost in the last week) and 12% of Yahoo! leagues. If the price is a mere waiver claim, that seems like more than a reasonable opportunity cost.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Smoak’s July BABIP = .426