Smoak_as_RHB_2010

Justin Smoak: Both Ends of the Spectrum

July 11, 2010 - Seattle, WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - epa02245639 Seattle Mariner Justin Smoak warms up in the on deck circle during second inning play of his game against the New York Yankees in Seattle, Washington on 11 July 2010. Smoak joined the team July 10 after being traded from Texas.

One of the biggest impacts to the 2011 Mariners’ lineup will be the production of young first baseman Justin Smoak, who was the prize of the Cliff Lee trade. Though Smoak’s peripheral stats were quite good, he never could get things going in the right direction in 2010. In a way, his numbers were at such extreme ends of the spectrum that using them to predict future outcomes will be a daunting task.

Last season, Smoak hit line drives in about 23 percent of his at-bats, which was the tenth highest line drive rate in the majors last season (min 300 plate appearances). Along with his excellent line drive rate, however, came an 18.6 percent infield fly ball rate, which was the sixth highest in baseball. While line drives have the best chance to become hits, infield fly balls have the worst chance to become hits. On one hand Smoak seemed to be getting unlucky, but on the other hand he was popping out to the infield at an extremely high rate.

As far as his plate discipline goes, Smoak had shown very good walk rates in the minors and walked in over 11 percent of his at-bats in 2010. One the other hand, he struck out over 26 percent of the time and profiles as a hitter that will likely strike out over 20 percent of the time over his career, which is not terrible, but could lead to fluctuations in his AVG. 

When swinging at pitches inside the strike-zone, Smoak made contact about 88 percent of the time, which was right around the league average. When Smoak swung at pitches outside the strike-zone, he only made contact about 58 percent of the time, which is roughly nine percent worse than the league average. 

Power wise, Smoak held his own in 2010. He averaged one home run per 26.8 at-bats. That would translate to 20.5 home runs over 550 at-bats. His home run rates in the minors are somewhat skewed due to a strained oblique in 2009, but the numbers behind his home runs in 2010 speak for themselves. 

Smoak hit 13 home runs in 2010 with an average true distance of 405.5 ft according to Hit Tracker Online. The major league average true distance was 396.5 ft, so clearly Smoak has some big-time pop. As a point of reference, the Rangers’ power hitting outfielder Nelson Cruz had a average true home run distance of 405.2 ft in 2010. Also according to Hit Tracker Online, seven of Smoak’s 13 homers were designated as “plenty” while four were defined as “no doubt” (See Hit Tracker’s glossary). 

The problem with trying to accurately project Smoak’s 2011 numbers will be the sample size of 348 at-bats as well as the wide range in peripheral rates. His line drive rate could drop just as easily as his infield fly rate could. However, FirstInning.com shows that Smoak held extremely good line drive rates for most of his minor league career. 

Another question will be if Smoak’s tendency to pull the ball will hurt him in the AVG department. He clearly found much better results when he pulled the ball in 2010, both from the right and left-handed side of the plate.

Smoak_as_LHB_2010

Justin Smoak does some things extremely well. He has plus-power and the ability to hit a high rate of line drives while drawing a good amount of walks. However, it seems that for everything Smoak excels at, he struggles in another department. He often whiffs when swinging at pitches outside the strike-zone and in 2010 hit weak fly balls to the infield too often. Smoak also doesn’t go to the opposite field very well, but finds success when he does pull the ball.

The bottom line is that Smoak has a ton of upside, but enough question marks to make fantasy GM’s hold back a little when projecting  his 2011 numbers. Given his low-level production in 2010, he shouldn’t cost too much on draft day. With a low draft day cost, I’d gladly take a chance on Smoak next season as a source of late-round power with a usable AVG.