Smoak Bombed

JustinSmoak

Finally, the self-entitled Mariners blog gets a Mariners post! All the stats below come from FanGraphs, and in case you’re not familiar with one of the metrics used, I linked each to its explanation on the website. If those are too confusing, though, I hope you can trust that any argument made on this blog will attempt to portray what the stats say as accurately as possible. Enjoy!

It felt fitting to focus our first baseball post on Justin Smoak. Since he arrived four years ago, rooting for Smoak has been a microcosm of the millennial Mariner fan’s larger experience – er, had. If you will.

Our first glimpse of Seattle baseball in the early ’00s hinted at years of dominance, as did Smoak upon arrival. He was Baseball America‘s 13th-rated prospect, a talent large enough to almost singularly secure Cliff Lee (never forget) for Texas. Finally, we thought, the team had resolved its search for a middle-of-the-order masher in the post-Edgar age.

Of course, neither the team nor its eventual first baseman fulfilled the promise it once showed. The Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since 2001. And the Smoakamotive has been anything but a Gar Car.

That said, neither’s disappointing performance has taken the form of a free fall. The Mariners were still quite good in the two years immediately following their 116-win campaign, and had solid runs in the ’07 and ’09 seasons. Even Smoak’s been productive at times (not joking!). In September 2011, he produced a slash line of .301/.354/.438, then surged again in the final month of 2012, hitting .341/.426/.580, good for wRC+  numbers of 127 and 181, respectively. As late as last August, resident sabermetric-Einstein Dave Cameron even thought Smoak could be Seattle’s starting first baseman going forward.

My early memories of the M’s, along with those occasional winning seasons over the dismal past decade, have been enough to keep me a fan. Just as the allure of Smoak’s pedigree and those annual hot streaks always had me preaching patience to my fellow Mariner faithful.

Until, well, now.

I almost entirely gave up on Smoak after last year, when he responded to Cameron’s praise by promptly doing fuck-all on the field. I certainly wasn’t excited at the prospect of him as an Opening Day starter in 2014, at least. But then Lloyd McLendon and Robinson Cano joined the squad, started saying real nice things about Smoak, and once again, a glimmer of hope surfaced.

But that’s gone, my last ounces of optimism depleted. I can’t pinpoint a trigger, but I finally give up. Smoak has sucked this year, sucked in past years, and will continue to suck until he’s relegated to a rec softball league.

No one would argue Smoak’s been good to this point in his career, but detailing just how bad he’s been is brutally eye-opening.

Let’s look at how he’s done offensively. Smoak is currently in his age-27 season, having so far amassed 2,183 plate appearances. In the last 30 years, 80 other first basemen have been given at least 1,500 PA by the time they were 27. Among them, only five produced a lower wRC+ than Smoak. Only four got on base at a lower rate. And when you factor in their value on the basepaths, only THREE had lower overall offensive outputs; Smoak’s produced almost 34 runs less than a league-average hitter during his time, from a traditionally offensive position!

Relative to other first basemen, Smoak’s fielding hasn’t been as terrible. He’s been average on defense, almost exactly, according to UZR. But first base is the easiest position in the game, and defending it averagely provides almost nothing to a team. A first baseman that hits like a decent second baseman while providing nothing special in the field is a bad player, aka Justin Smoak.

Now we’ll consider hitting and fielding together, and look at Justin Smoak’s overall value, via wins above replacement (WAR). Over his career, he’s been worth -0.3 WAR. But Smoak did play 70 games for Texas before coming over, during which he accumulated precisely -0.3 WAR. That means that, since becoming a Mariner, Smoak’s WAR has been zero. Essentially, Seattle could’ve had a AAA player man first the last four years, and it wouldn’t have been any worse off because of it.

In deciding what to do with Justin Smoak, though, the important thing to consider is not how he’s performed so far, but how he can be expected to play down the road. If we knew Smoak was going to be Bonds-esque from here on out, it would be silly to get rid of him just because he’s shit the bed to date. So, how does Smoak project in the future?

Answering that question is, obviously, an imperfect science. Maybe Cano finally shows Smoak what he’s doing wrong. Maybe he sees a really inspirational quote on the web and is motivated to exact revenge on the league. We just can’t account for all the variables. But we can look at a couple things that will give us a solid idea of where he’s headed.

First, his statistical company. When I compared Smoak to other first basemen who had accumulated at least 1500 PA by age 27, he didn’t stack up well at all. In terms of the three metrics I used, his closest comparisons were Todd Benzinger, Casey Kotchman, Travis Lee (Go Cougs!), and Carlos Martinez. Benzinger and Martinez had career WARs left of zero. Lee’s was 7.1, almost half of which came in one season. And Kotchman, the only one of the four still active, has been worth 2.6 wins above a replacement-level player during his time in the majors. Although there have certainly been first baseman who started their careers as poorly as Smoak has and still went on to have productive careers, history is not on his side.

We can also take an individualized approach and consider Smoak’s numbers alone, to see if anything points to progression. Surprise, nothing does! He’s walking less than ever this year, while striking out more than ever. And the power’s not improving: his ISO and HR/FB are right around his career averages. I realize he’s only played 63 this season, but there’s nothing enthusing about the stats; by most measures, this is the worst he’s hit since his rookie season.

Okay, so it’s probably fair to say that what we’ve seen from Smoak so far is similar to what we could expect from him later on. What, then, are the Mariners to do their 6-foot-4 pile of shit?

It’s a question I don’t feel qualified answering with too much specificity. I do know, though, that I don’t want him on the team next year. And I’m hard pressed to envision a scenario in which I would welcome his presence in the lineup this year. I’m done, Smoak bombed.

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