If there’s one thing the 5-11 Mariners can hang their hats on in the early going, it’s the consistent hitting of Justin Smoak. While Michael Pineda has dazzled, he only plays once every five days. Smoak, on the other hand, has given Mariners fans a reason to tune in on non-Felix or Pineda starts. Let’s take a look at Smoak’s progress at the plate, albeit in a very small sample size.
The first thing that jumps out is how incredibly patient Smoak has been this season. Smoak has walked 11 times against 10 strikeouts (though one of those bases on balls was intentional) which is good for a 17.7% walk rate. Given a career rate of 15.6% in the minors, this looks like it is legitimately a skill Smoak has, and not just a small sample size mirage. Smoak’s walk rate rates as the 14th best in the major leagues, just behind Alex Rodriguez, and just better than Miguel Cabrera. That’s good company.
Secondly is his drop in strikeout rate. Last year it was something that was a noticeable problem with Smoak. He struck out in 26% of his plate appearances, after averaging 21% in the minor leagues. This year he has dropped below that minor league average, down to 20%. Part of this could be explained by the fact that last year he swung at 27% of pitches out of the strike zone, and he’s now dropped that to a much better 23% rate. Smoak’s disciplined approach has allowed him to swing at better pitches than last season, and led to his early season success.
It’s not all positives, however. While his .300/.419/.460 line is mighty impressive, it is driven by a likely unsustainable .350 BABIP. As this number regresses, we can expect to see Smoak’s triple-slash line decline, however, as a second year player, it would be unrealistic to expect an .879 OPS all season long.
Of course, there are also areas to expect improvement. Last year, 12.7% of Smoak’s flyballs left the ballpark, while this year that is down to 6.3%. After hitting 22 home runs between AAA and the Majors last season, we should expect to see his HR/FB rate go up. Watching him hit, he has missed a few home runs by hitting the top of the wall, and has demonstrated opposite-field power from each side of the plate. Even if his average goes down, we can expect Smoak to hit home runs at a greater rate than he has thus far.
Smoak has taken some important steps forward in his approach, and it’s allowed him to show signs of the hitter the Mariners want him to develop into. Expect to see Smoak’s average drop off a little, and expect him to hit a few more long balls as the season goes on. It’s unlikely he will maintain a .385 wOBA, but if he finishes the season above .350, it’s time to get really excited. Justin Smoak is showing that he has the talent to become the next great Mariners hitter. In a year or so, we should know if he is that hitter. Let’s all hope, because I think we’re all tired of watching a team whose hitting is as entertaining as getting stabbed in the face.