Smoak on the Water in Seattle

The Mariners offense is comfortably in baseball’s bottom third. And while they are getting positive offensive contributions from Ichiro Suzuki, Adam Kennedy and Milton Bradley, who knows where they would be without Justin Smoak, who, after a 7-for-12 performance against the Rangers this week, is beginning to look more and more like the potentially great player many thought he was when he was traded last season.

Smoak has reached base at least once in 23 of his 26 games this season, and has reached base at least twice in 14 of them. He has moved onto the first page of the WAR leaderboard, and his wRC+ is currently seventh-best in the game. And while his BABIP is also quite high at .359 (T-23rd), he may not be due for the sharp regression that most in the upper BABIP stratospheres can expect.

While noting the usual caveats about small sample size, Smoak has walked in about three more percent of his plate appearances, while striking out in about three percent less of his at-bats so far in 2011. Both of these figures are supported by the fact that Smoak is swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone thus far. But an even bigger factor is that Smoak has not been hitting a ton of line drives this season. His LD% is down ten percent from last year. So while his .464 batting average on fly balls — which has been the main source of his high BABIP — will surely drop, as his LD% ticks upward, the two should balance out to some degree.

While his performance overall may level out, it will be interesting to see in what proportion. Put another way, has the power he has shown for real? Much like the recently called-up Eric Hosmer, Smoak only showed intermittent power in the Minors. ZiPS is certainly skeptical. His ISO in ZiPS (U) is just 34 points higher than his initial ZiPS projection, and with his ZiPS (R) ISO being just 16 points higher, the system feels that Smoak may already be bopped out. Still, there are positive signs that the power is real. Looking at his first four homers on Hit Tracker, we can see that none of them were classified as “lucky,” and his shot last night was roped as well. Furthermore, he has hit multiple home runs from both sides of the plate, and he has hit well in spacious SAFECO Field. Looking back a bit further, Smoak’s ISO in 2009 was just .153, but in his two Minor League stops in 2010, it jumped to .218. Granted, that sample was smaller, because he was promoted to the Majors — and he didn’t hit for that kind of power once in the Majors — but he has shown flashes before.

The progress against lefties is important. In his scouting report on Smoak before the 2010 season, Marc Hulet noted that Smoak needed to improve against lefties, as he had managed just a .626 OPS versus lefties in 2009. And after improving in that regard ever so slightly last year, his early returns this year show a marked improvement. Again, this could easily be small sample size syndrome, as he has just 42 plate appearances versus lefties so far. But if we dig a little deeper, we can see encouraging signs.

Thus far this season, Smoak’s only lefty tormenter has been C.J. Wilson, against whom he is 1-for-7. But Smoak reached base twice each against Brett Anderson and Derek Holland in three tries, doubled off of Gio Gonzalez, and singled off of Ricky Romero. These are some of the elite lefties in the AL, and four of the five he will see frequently in AL West matchups. Again, these are single games, and have to be taken not with a grain, but a shaker of salt, but it’s encouraging nonetheless.

Smoak hasn’t been perfect, and it is early in the season. Any player on earth is capable of getting red-hot for a month (for further reading, see the sonnet entitled “Clint Barmes, April 2005″). But Smoak is showing improved discipline at the plate, encouraging results versus lefties, and surprising power. While the BABIP bump he is getting from fly balls should erode, he may easily replace that with a similar bump on line drives. If he can maintain this power stroke, he may just be the total package. Yes, it’s early, but there is still definitely Smoak on the water in Seattle.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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