After reading Dave Cameron’s piece on Justin Smoak at USSMariner, and after being inspired by Jeff Sullivan’s animated Smoak GIFs at Fangraphs, I thought I might add a little touch to the conversation. For anyone just joining the conversation, Smoak has done this since September 1st:
1.063 OPS, 4 doubles, 5 homeruns, 12% BB, 13.3% K rate.
Obviously, the first thing out of anyone’s mouth around here is “small sample size.” And anyone is right to question the small sample size. But I think there’s something here. I started playing around with GIFs, and I think this is a telling one. These are the pitches against righties that Smoak has swung at before September versus during September:
Swing rates stabilize the fastest, and it doesn’t appear that Smoak’s plate discipline has changed all that much. He’s still being pitched low and away-ish, and there are still similar proportions of swings both in and out of the strike zone. Through Sullivan and Shannon Drayer, we have reason to believe that Smoak has changed something in his swing, specifically from the left side. But choosing which pitches to swing at isn’t one of those things.
Texas Leaguers tells me that he’s actually swinging a little more often against righties now, and that his whiff rate has dropped only marginally. So I’m not seeing a change in plate discipline, but that kinda makes sense. It’s hard to stop swinging at bad pitches overnight. You know what’s probably easier to change? Your bat, and maybe a tweak in your swing. Smoak was supposedly working on his swing down at Tacoma, and Shannon Drayer wrote that Smoak started using a lighter bat against righties. And guess what has changed…his distribution of contact. In the last month, Smoak has a sizzling 32% line drive rate as compared so a sub-20% season to date. In that same month—known as September—Smoak has hit just 2 popups out of 56 fair or playable balls (3.6%). That’s compared to 20 popups out of 299 such balls through August (6.7%). With 5 dingers to go with all those line drives, Smoak has made better contact during September, much of which has been played with that lighter bat.
On their own, as Sullivan notes, these changes aren’t enough statistically to suggest that a new Justin Smoak has emerged. However, when we know that Smoak has altered something major in his approach—like say, his swing and his bat—then these statistical improvements hold more weight as evidence for some real improvement.
This is not to say that the Mariners shouldn’t look for first base alternatives. It’s always better to have two good players than one at first base. But maybe we can hold out some more hope that Smoak is one of them.