Should Justin Smoak Abandon Switch Hitting?


September 22, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Seattle Mariners first baseman

Justin Smoak

(17) hits a two run home run during the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

One brief glance at first baseman Justin Smoak’s batting splits and it’s easy to see that offensive production has been a very one-sided affair for number 17 in 2013.

In 291 appearances on the left side of the plate this season Smoak has hit 17 homeruns and boasts a slash line of .268/.368/.488 and an OPS of .856. In 137 plate appearances from the right side he’s hit one homerun (Sunday in Anaheim) and is the owner of a .190/.268/.234 slash line with an OPS of .502.

Despite those numbers speaking for themselves pretty emphatically, let’s just sum it up and say that Justin Smoak has been a serviceable player batting lefty this season and a struggling Double-A player from the right side.

On Sept. 20, as the Mariners were busy laboring through a game against the Angels (only to give it away in extra innings) the Seattle TV broadcast crew flashed essentially these same statistics on the screen and questioned whether Smoak should abandon his righty hitting and focus solely on being a left-handed hitter.

The M’s broadcasters were half right because these stats do seem to speak for themselves. On paper in 2013, Justin Smoak has shown that he can’t hit from the right side and therefore abandoning switch-hitting might be a logical idea for Smoak to entertain.

Sep 5, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Seattle Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak (17) runs the bases after hitting a home run in the first inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

But when Smoak’s split stats from previous seasons are factored into the discussion, suddenly the situation becomes considerably murkier. Smoak’s switch-hitting numbers this season are not consistent with his splits from previous years.

In 130 at bats from the right side in 2011 Smoak batted .253 and hit four homeruns; from the left side Smoak had 297 at bats and hit .226 with 11 homeruns. In 2012 from the right side, Smoak hit .235 with seven homers, and from the left side he hit .208 with 12 long-balls.

While neither 2011 nor 2012 were particularly good years for Smoak offensively, the differences between his left and right-handed batting averages were not as severe. He consistently had more power from the left side, but hit for better averages from the right side.

This season, virtually all his production has come from the left side; his splits aren’t even close, and this is strange because this isn’t consistent with his previous numbers.

Smoak as been a pleasant surprise this season — a season which was generally accepted as being Smoak’s last chance to prove he could be even a shadow of the prospect he once was. He’s hitting and getting on base at a respectable level, and though he’s not hitting very well with runners on base, M’s fans are finally seeing a nominal return on the Cliff Lee trade.

There’s still room for Smoak to improve, as he’s only 26. But even if he only turns out to be a .250 hitter who smacks about 20 homeruns a year, M’s fans should be thrilled to finally get that production consistently out of a guy who was nearing the moniker of ‘mega-bust.’ But right now, Smoak’s hitting splits are an issue.

Those calling for Smoak to abandon switch-hitting and stick to the left side need only present Smoak’s 2013 stat sheet to make a valid argument. But on the other hand, Smoak’s splits from previous years can be used to counter that argument.

If Smoak continues switch-hitting in 2014 and brings up his right handed production to where it was last year, it could make him all the more dangerous from the left side (where he seems to have figured things out). The M’s need guys like Smoak to be as versatile as possible, and switch-hitting gives him an opportunity to be used more often.

There are a lot of ‘what-ifs’ surrounding Justin Smoak, but right now his stats from this season and the two before that indicate that he shouldn’t abandon switch hitting just yet.

If by next July his right-handed batting doesn’t pick up, then he should kick it to the curb. He finally figured out how to hit consistently as a lefty this year for the first time and though he regressed from the right side, maybe all he needs is a couple more hacks to figure that out too.