Justin Smoak’s Struggles

It’s just one of those things. I feel good at the plate, but I hit it right at them.

Justin Smoak, to the Fort Worth Star Telegram

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.

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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 david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

11 Responses to “Justin Smoak’s Struggles”

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  1. DonCoburleone says:

    So what would it take to get Chris Davis if you’re another team? Seems like it would be a worthwhile gamble for a team like Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Baltimore no?

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  2. lester bangs says:

    How can you write an article about Smoak and not mention his splits against LH and RH pitching? Just because he’s a switch hitter doesn’t make that split irrelevant, and there’s a major gap here (.141/.215/.282 against lefties, .240/.364/.404 versus righties).

    If I ran the Rangers, I’d find a platoon caddy just for the balance of 2010. Worry about skills growth next year. I realize all of these stats come with a modest sample, but if we can discuss his season to this point, we can discuss his handedness splits.

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    • bballer319 says:

      It’s also worth nothing that the splits extend back to the minors as well…

      vs R .325/.443/.505 (.380 babip)
      vs L .215/.304/.331 (.245 babip)

      Also interesting that his IF/F against L is nearly 4x against R (19% v 5.1%)

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      • philosofool says:

        When looking at splits with significant BABIP differences, you should look at more than a triple slash line. Look at K% and BB%, and HR/FB….

        In the minors
        vs. LHP: 10% BB, 19% K, 8% HR/FB
        vs RHP: 17% BB, 21%K, 16% HR/FB

        There’s a split there, but both are pretty respectable numbers. You’d certainly take that from a LHB–it’s a very good line except for the HR/FB, which is average. I might mention that 145 PA versus LHP in the minors isn’t a grand sample size. You’re right about IFFB, but pop-ups aren’t something that stabilize in small samples.

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    • Slick says:

      Rangers don’t need to platoon him. They are winning their division and his lack of production doesn’t hurt the team. Platooning him will only hamper any development he may get against LH pitching. We are all too quick to look at why young guys aren’t excelling. The bottom line is, he is 23 and has plenty of time to get better. He is surrounded by hitters on that team, he will make the adjustments and when he has a big second half, all this nonsense will go away.

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    • philosofool says:

      Small sample sizes. Platoon splits are almost completely meaningless for a switch hitter until after a complete season or more. He has 82 PA versus lefties. Looking at 82 plate appearances is like looking at the first three and a half weeks of the season.

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      • lester bangs says:

        Just for grins, project what you expect from Smoak against lefties the rest of the way.

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      • Toz says:

        If you recognize the small sample size, you can craft a theoretically acceptable argument. For example: Justin Smoak does not appear to see the ball from left handers as well as from right handers. That theory would support many of the numbers, and, extrapolating his numbers out over the course of a full season of ABs, could potentially be a statistically correct theory.

        I’m tired of hearing small sample size…that is an excuse for the inability to craft a workable hypothesis, with caveats for future performance.

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  3. Adam D says:

    just from an eyeball test (which I know doesn’t pass muster around here), he does tend to hit the ball very hard right at people. i think he hits the ball every bit as hard as Josh Hamilton and Nellie Cruz, again, from a ‘being there in person’ standpoint.

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  4. army mos says:

    Interesting post , I am going to spend more time researching this subject

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