It’s just one of those things. I feel good at the plate, but I hit it right at them.
You can’t just hit the ball hard and not get any luck…. Justin is holding his own, and we’ll just leave it at that.
— Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, to the Star Telegram
In late April, the Texas Rangers called up first baseman Justin Smoak from Triple-A Oklahoma City. The club hoped that the switch hitter’s keen strike-zone awareness and power would provide an upgrade over the scuffling Chris Davis. Smoak’s first taste of the majors has been bitter — he’s batting .207/.318/.364 in 255 plate appearances. His wOBA is .306, and his park-and-league-adjusted wOBA is 16 percent below average (84 wRC+). That’s not quite what the Rangers thought they’d get from the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft. However, both the South Carolina product and his manager are correct in a sense. Smoak’s getting some bad bounces, but he also might need to make an adjustment at the plate. Overall, he’s holding his own in the majors.
Back when the Rangers popped Smoak and handed him a $3.5 million bonus, Baseball America lauded his “superior pitch recognition.” That skill has been on full display since he signed — Smoak’s career minor league line sits at .293/.411/.461 in 599 plate appearances, with a 16% walk rate. With the Rangers, Smoak’s working the pitcher for a walk 14.1% of the time. He’s not getting a lot of pitches within the strike zone (44.7%, compared to the 47.2% MLB average), and he’s doing a good job of laying off those offerings. Smoak’s outside swing percentage is 25.7%, well below the 28.5% big league average. Adeptly discerning balls from strikes, Smoak isn’t falling behind the pitcher often — his first pitch strike percentage is just 52.2% (58.6% MLB average).
He’s also hitting for solid, if not spectacular power. The 23-year-old has a .157 Isolated Power, with 13.6% of his fly balls hit turning into home runs. Smoak’s power output in the minors wasn’t off-the-charts (.168 ISO), but that may have been the result of a rib cage injury suffered in the middle of the 2009 season. Few question the 6-4, 220 pounder’s ability to put a charge into the ball.
If Smoak’s taking his walks and showing decent pop, why is his line so lousy? The answer appears to be a combination of poor luck and perhaps a timing issue when he decides to pull the trigger.
His BABIP on the season is extremely low, at .234. Among big league hitters with at least 250 PA, Smoak has the fifth-lowest BABIP. Part of the reason for that low BABIP is that he’s hitting a bunch of pop-ups — Smoak’s infield per fly ball rate is 18.6%, the third highest rate in the majors and far higher than the 7-8% MLB average (for reference, Smoak hit pop ups 9.2% of the time in the minors). But even with that IF/FB rate, Smoak’s expected BABIP is .315.
Meanwhile, at Triple-A, Davis is hitting .340/.389/.533. Given that line, it might be tempting to make a change. That performance includes good pop (.193 ISO), but also a modest walk rate (7.4 BB%) propped up by a .420 BABIP. If the Rangers stay the course with Smoak, they’ll likely be rewarded.
A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.