Deep League Thoughts -- Has the Smoak Monster arrived?

Stephen Dunn

While his prospect peers are struggling, Justin Smoak looks like he's finally seeing some improvement. Let's check if it's real.

Why can't the Mariners develop hitters, amiright?

I mean, look at Dustin Ackley. He's hitting .229/.285/.279 this year, for a 61 OPS+, with only one home run.

Look at Jesus Montero. He's at .208/.264/.327, for a 67 OPS+. And he might be slower than your old 56k modem.

Look at Justin Smoak. He's...hold on a second.

Smoak's slash line is .252/.366/.367. His OPS+ is 109. He's gradually improved over the past month, good for a .986 OPS in May (yes, I'm parsing small samples, and I apologize if I'm wrong).

It has become the en vogue thing in fantasy to say this trio of young Seattle hitters have been irredeemable busts and it's time to move on. Now, while that's a hard line to draw for a group of three hitters whose oldest member, Smoak, is 26, it's also become increasingly difficult to have faith in guys like Ackley, who seems to have fallen off a cliff after his 90-game debut in 2011, or Montero, who was actually almost an average hitter last year, after park adjustments, but appears totally lost this year, and has negative defensive value to go with his hitting woes.

Smoak, though, might not be quite the lost cause of his compatriots. After being a prospect darling of the Keith Law types and the cornerstone of the Cliff Lee-to-the-Rangers trade in 2010, Smoak was expected to be an anchor in the Mariners' infield. In his first full year in Seattle, 2011, he was...well, he was okay. That's about as much as you can say for him. His batting average was only .234, and he hit only 15 homers, but after an adjustment for the land of desolation that is Safeco, his OPS+ was 106, meaning he was still a slightly above-average hitter.

In short, it wasn't a great year, but it wasn't an outright disaster, and there were reasons to believe he might make a jump forward in 2012, at age 25. Only...it didn't work out that way. Other than a slight jump in home runs, everything Smoak did got worst last year, and his OPS+ tumbled to 86, which is the kind of number you expect out of a middle infielder who you have for his glove.

This year, though, after a slow start (he sat at .188/.282/.203 on April 21), Smoak has become a legitimate major-league hitter again. Even better than his slash lines that I listed above, though, is that Smoak appears to have figured out how to hit, at least a little. His 2013 walk rate sits at 14.6%, which would be the highest of his career by a full 3 percent, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio has fallen from 2.25 last year to 1.5 this year. PITCHf/x data reinforce this stat, as they show that Smoak has swung at a lower percentage of out-of-the-zone pitches this year than ever before. If he can maintain those levels over the course of the season, his on-base percentage alone should be enough to maintain a reasonable level of value.

Granted, his power has been lacking, as his .115 isolated power would be a career-worst, so all is not perfect in Smoakville. On the other hand, his HR/FB ratio is also at a career-low of 7.3%, a precipitous drop from previous years. There's not much reason to think that a 26-year-old has suddenly lost the strength to hit the ball a long way, especially when earlier iterations of that same player battled thumb injuries. In short, I expect Smoak's HR/FB rate to climb, which could boost his slugging to more acceptable levels.

Finally, you might have heard that the fences at Safeco Field have been moved in for this season. Now, the changes were not dramatic, and early-season Park Factors appear to show that the hitters' environment is only slightly improved, if at all, but...it can't really hurt, right? You've had to make park corrections to make Smoak look good in the past; it'd sure be nice if you could just look at his raw numbers to evaluate him.

None of this is to say that Smoak is about to Goldschmidt himself and jump to the upper echelon of big-league first basemen. That's probably never going to be his reality. In a 10- or 12-team league, I wouldn't consider Smoak unless my last name were also Smoak. But in a super-deep league, in an AL-only, or in some league where you've been scuffling by with Ike Davis and want a first baseman who appears to know how to play baseball, you could definitely do worse than Smoak.

I mean, heck, Ackley has first-base eligibility. Smoak's definitely better than him.

Follow me on Twitter @danieltkelley

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