My mother bats headless chickens out of our willow tree with an old broom. Well okay, that’s not true, at all, in fact I just made that sentence up because when you’re writing an article about Mariners baseball and it’s September then best believe nobody is going to get hooked in by reading “sexy Miguel Olivo update!” Luckily for you-the-reader, this isn’t a Miguel Olivo update. You want a Miguel Olivo update? He’s in the lineup today and has an OBP of .235. Whatever. This post is about Justin Smoak.
Justin Smoak is an infuriating case with whom most readers of this blog are painfully familiar. Everyone knows the pedigree: a favorite of scouts and destroyer of AA, Smoak was rushed to the majors, traded for Cliff Lee, and hasn’t been good since. He’s been worse than any Mariners fan could have imagined, which is a staggering accomplishment since Mariners fans have learned that expectations should probably just not be a thing. Smoak was supposed to be a star, an offensive pillar. Instead his WAR this year as a hitter is lower than that of Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi and Kevin Millwood, just to name a few. He’s been better than Chone Figgins, and that’s about it.
Of course, Smoak is all the rage right now because his September wRC+ leads all of baseball heartily. His swing mechanics look a bit revamped and his results have been marvelous. Without looking it up or performing any math I will boldly gander that no less than half of Smoak’s well-hit balls this season have come since the start of this month. His line drives are back. His dingers are back! His walks are up, his strikeouts are down, and he looks like an unstoppable force of nature. This, of course, has happened before. April 2011 and September 2011 stand out as months where Smoak looked like the birth of a superstar, but of course those months were followed by 1) a dismal season and 2) an optimistic offseason followed by a dismal season. A month is a small sample.
But no matter how many times it’s happened before, Smoak’s September surge is legitimately encouraging. All we can ask for as Mariners fans is signs of sustainable improvement from a player the team has more or less stuck with all year despite his unbelievably bad everything. There were three tools that were supposed to carry Smoak to the hall of fame or something hyperbolic like that. His plate discipline was supposedly great and he would supposedly walk a lot, but for quite a time that didn’t happen. He was supposed to be a strong line-drive hitter, which for quite a time he has not been. And, perhaps most importantly, he was supposed to be a tree-punching slugger, which for quite a time he has not been. Smoak has struggled to consistently utilize his three main tools, and for most of this season he seemed perfectly content using none of them. Smoak sucked, but now he doesn’t. Why?
Surprise surprise, it’s due to these three things and more or less nothing else, save for a .350+ BABIP. But what most often leads to a high BABIP, luck aside? Line drives! Smoak has hit lots of line drives in September. I present to you numbers:
Those are Justin Smoak’s line drive percentages by month for the 2012 season. One of those numbers is not like the others, and one of those numbers is better than the others. For comparative purposes, remember how he was fantastic in April and September of 2011? His LD% in those months were 12.3% and 17.0%. Justin Smoak is just now starting to do something that he was supposed to have done from the get-go. This is legitimately encouraging, albeit probably a bit fluky. Smoak simply couldn’t do this as recently as a month ago.
Bases on balls actually made their return to Smoak’s game in August, when his BB% jumped from a gut-wrenching 5.6% to a perfectly acceptable 11.9%. This month it’s hanging in there at 11.4%. This is about the rate to expect from a successful Smoak, which is the Smoak we’ve watched for the last few weeks. There’s not much to say here – he didn’t walk at all in April, May or July but has been alright otherwise. He’s always had patient months mixed in with impatient months. Consistency is the issue.
And finally, dingers. Smoak’s posting a HR/FB% of 21.7% this month, another unsurprising career high. What makes this so encouraging is that his percentage of balls in the air is down significantly, currently resting at 38.3%. Those missing warning track pop outs have turned into line drives, fueling a high batting average on balls in play and allowing Smoak to be wildly productive from both sides of the plate. His five homers this month have come against very good pitchers and Tanner Scheppers, and none have been particularly cheap. Plain and simple, he’s showing more power with his tweaked swing. His productive fly balls are still there and the unproductive ones have become line drives. This is why Smoak’s September is so encouraging – he’s using his tools in congruence with each other to maximize his potential.
The burning question is, will it keep up? This is the part where I don’t know and you don’t know and nobody can know because this answer is not knowable. The answer is “maybe.” Smoak has been freakish in his inconsistency, showing glimpses of talent while being shitty most of the time. What this September has done is allow us to dream. A Smoak breakthrough is easy to imagine now because he’s shown that he is capable of being the player the Mariners, and everybody, wants him to be. He could slip up in 2013 of course, but right now things look about as peachy as possible for Justin Smoak.
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