Is it clear that I am a Smoak believer?
Justin Smoak, in my opinion, does not get as much hype as he deserves. He was, drafted 11th overall in the first round by the Texas Rangers in 2008, and was generally thought of as one of the best hitting prospects in that draft. After putting up an impressive .288/.404/.466 slash line in 170 minor league games, I can’t help but feel that expectations among Seattle fans are tempered to say the least. Joey Votto, in 711 minor league games, put up a .289/.386/.477 slash line. That’s not to say that Smoak will become Votto; Votto pretty much reached his absolute ceiling. But Smoak should still be considered an elite hitting prospect.
That being said, I don’t think we should expect star level performance from Smoak in 2011. We should expect improvement: his .255 BABIP is extremely low, and 23.1% of his balls in play last year were line drives. Even without marked improvement in skills, we should expect some of those line drives to fall in. Smoak did see some of his balls in play fall in after coming to Seattle, leading to a .239 average in a Seattle uniform, and an acceptable .407 slugging percentage.
What dropped noticeably when Smoak was traded was his walk percentage, but I wouldn’t be too concerned about that. When Smoak was sent to Tacoma after his rough first stint with the big club, he rebounded to the tune of 23 walks with just 32 strikeouts in 35 games. When he returned from Tacoma in September, he took 7 bases on balls and struck out only 11 times in 14 games, while putting up a .340/.421/.580 line. It appeared that his patience had returned after the post-trade jitters, and by waiting for his pitch, he was able to drive the ball with authority once again.
Smoak walked at an 11.6% rate last year, which would lead to 75 walks over 162 to games, and his minor league track record indicates that that may improve as well. Aside from a 16-game stint between Rookie Ball and A Ball, Smoak’s walk rate in the minors never fell below 14.5%, demonstrating that Smoak knows the strike zone very well at a young age. We may not see it next year, but Smoak has displayed the kind of patience that may one day make him one of the league’s perennial 100-walk players.
So, while Smoak posted a poor .218/.307/.371 line last season, we can expect a marked improvement in 2011. He’ll likely have a few years to go before reaching his prime, but he will likely be one of the Mariners’ main power threats, for better or for worse, in 2011. The fans at FanGraphs project Smoak to a .266/.352/.451 slash line, and that seems about right to me.
While he won’t be a superstar in 2011, Smoak’s rise towards that end should be one of the more interesting and exciting storylines for Mariners fans to follow during the 2011 season.