Smoak Monster Rising

Apr 15, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak (17) is greeted by the Seattle Mariners in the dugout after Smoak hit a solo home run against the Oakland Athletics in the 3rd inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-US PRESSWIRE

Justin Smoak was drafted by the Texas Rangers with the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft. A three year starter at the University of South Carolina, Smoak punished college pitching to the tune of .333/.449/.656 with 115 extra base hits in 195 games. He opened his professional career following the draft at Clinton in the Midwest League where he slugged .518. He split his 2009 season between Double and Triple-A in 2009, but the power (described as of the "light-tower" variety) didn’t follow. He managed just 31 extra base hits in 104 games that year.

He was called up to Texas in late April in 2010, but even the hitters paradise in Arlington couldn’t give Smoak an advantage. He hit just eight home runs and his 29.4 AB/HR rate was a little better than league average, but it wasn’t enough to offset his meagre batting average. The Rangers, looking to make a post season push, packaged Smoak in a deal that sent him to Seattle in exchange for Cliff Lee.

The change of scenery to the Pacific Northwest actually helped nudge the power of Smoak a little more to the side of value. He hit five home runs in 113 at bats and slugged .407 for the Mariners.

But he hadn’t truly turned the corner...

Last season was a hugely disappointing one for fantasy owners. While Smoak set a career high with 497 plate appearances, he hit just 15 home runs and finished with a slash line of .234/.323/.396 and an OPS+ of 105. Those aren’t the kind of numbers you want from your first baseman.

However as Ray Guilfoyle pointed out last spring, those numbers were likely affected by a variety of issues, including a thumb injury that certainly sapped his power. Entering this season, the power potential was still there and he was entering his age 25 year. Ray tagged him as a sleeper and it he looked like a good option at a deep offensive position. Plus, he was entering his age 25 season and was nearing 1,000 plate appearances on his career. If he was going to break out, it seemed like it was now or never.

For the first part of the season, I would have fallen into the "never" category. Smoak was sinking under the Mendoza line as recently as May 12, when he was hitting an ugly .195/.246/.280 with a lone double and just three home runs in his first 126 plate appearances. If you had picked him up before the season, it’s likely that line was the final straw in your thin patience.

History wouldn’t have blamed you.

Except since then, Smoak has flipped the switch. In 19 games covering 82 plate appearances, he’s hitting a robust .307/.366/.613 with seven home runs and 19 RBI. It’s the kind of production fantasy owners have long hoped for from the former first round pick.

Like most power hitters, Smoak has healthy strikeout numbers. For his career he’s averaging a punchout every four at bats. That’s accounted for a whiff in just over 22 percent of all plate appearances. It’s an elevated rate, but it’s not unacceptable for a home run hitter. Except, of course, the home runs haven’t been there to offset the lack of contact.

That trend continued to open this season. Through his first 126 plate appearances, he struck out about 24 percent of the time. From Texas Leaguers, we can identify the potential holes in his swing. Smoak likes the ball up in the zone so he can generate loft, but he’s been overmatched with the major league fastball. Here’s the plot on where he swung at four seam fastballs while he was hovering around the Mendoza line:

Smoak_2012_1_medium

Note the balls up and out of the zone. As well as a healthy helping of pitches in the upper third of the strike zone.

Now compare that chart to the four seam fastballs he’s swung at since he got hot:

Smoak_2012_2_medium

Nary a single ball offered at up and out of the strike zone. Nice. Plus, Smoak has hardly swung at any pitches in the upper third inside the strike zone. He’s really adjusted and shrunk the upper portion of his zone. And it’s paying enormous dividends.

Here are the top five plate appearance resolutions for Smoak when he was chasing fastballs up in the zone:

Strikeout - 23.8%

Flyout - 16.7%

Groundout - 16.7%

Single - 15.1%

Pop Out - 11.1%

Here’s how he’s performed since he got hot:

Groundout - 25.3%

Strikeout - 19.3%

Single - 16.9%

Flyout - 9.6%

Home Run - 8.4%

Interesting.

He’s not getting under that high fastball, so he’s hitting fewer fly balls. For the season, he’s hitting fly balls at a rate of 39.5 percent, the lowest of his career. However, the fly balls he does hit, he’s hitting with authority. Witness the nine extra base hits in his last 82 plate appearances.

Data shows he’s become a bit more selective in his approach. Inside the strike zone. According to PITCH f/x, he’s swinging at 58 percent of all pitches inside the zone, compared to last year’s rate of 65 percent. The result of his selectivity is his overall contact rate has risen, from 75 percent last year to 79 percent this season. He’s getting better swings, which naturally means better results.

Owners have taken note. At last check, his ownership in ESPN leagues jumped almost 40 percent in the last week. Am I sold on the "New and Improved" Justin Smoak? Not yet. We’re dealing with less than a month’s worth of positive data. I wouldn’t go out and trade for him at this point. Yet if he was on my roster, I’d be inclined to hold on for a while. Just to see what happens… And possibly reap some solid fantasy benefits for the first time.

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