Justin Smoak has been hitting much better in 2013. His weighed on-base average (wOBA), which is used to measure total offensive performance, has jumped over the league average mark for the first time in his entire career. In fact, his wOBA of .341 is higher than the first baseman league average wOBA across the league. What has caused Smoak’s offense to suddenly become tolerable where it was atrocious before? The first thing I look for when a good hitter becomes bad, or a bad hitter becomes good, is a spike one way or the other in batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Sure enough, Smoak has seen a drastic spike in his BABIP. Here is a graph of his BABIP, average (AVG), on-base percentage (OBP), and slugging (SLG) over his career:
Smoak carried a career .256 BABIP into 2013 which is almost incomprehensibly bad. Smoak’s BABIP was ~.040 points worse than league average from 2010-2012. There were two guys who hit for a worse BABIP than Smoak over that period: Mark Teixeira and Carlos Pena. While both those players were decent over that period, Smoak was dreadful. Teixeira and Pena both walked more than Smoak and they both hit a lot more home runs. Home runs are the only hits that don’t factor into BABIP because they aren’t technically in play. However, if you factor in HR into BABIP, both Teixeira and Pena pass Smoak by a modest margin. In any case, Teixeira was worth 10 WAR over those three 2010-2012, so comparing him to Smoak (-0.5 WAR) isn’t worthwhile.
But I digress, Smoak’s 2013 BABIP of .316 struck me as a red flag—however, Smoak’s 2010-2012 BABIP of .256 was also a red flag that seemed unsustainable. So I decided to dig deeper into what types of balls Smoak was hitting and which ones were falling in for hits.
The first thing I noticed was that in his last 24 games of 2012, Smoak was stellar. There were a lot of reports coming out at the time about how Smoak had retooled his left handed swing … and the results seemed to be there. Smoak had 30 hits in 88 at bats while only striking out 13 times. His BABIP was .357 and he hit 29.3% line drives (LD).
In 2013, Smoak has hit more line drives than at any time in his career since his rookie season, continuing his trend from the end of 2012. Along with a rise in LD%, Smoak has cut his ground balls (GB) which is a good thing as well. Here is a chart with Smoak’s LD%, GB%, and BABIP (as a percentage) over his career:
Notice anything odd about the graph? It seems odd to me that his BABIP line doesn’t move in correlation to either line perfectly but seems to follow both at times. I would have expected his BABIP to rise and fall with his LD%. So I decided to look a little more closely at his GBs. Sure enough, a trend emerged.
It’s pretty hard to deny that for Smoak, it looks like what he hits on his ground balls will play a large role in determining his BABIP. That makes sense to a certain degree; most guys hit a lot more GBs than LDs and the larger sample of results should lead to a bigger difference on batting average.
It’s also hard to deny that Smoak has been incredibly horrible at collecting hits when he his GBs. Smoak found a way to hit under .200 on GBs over the course of an entire season twice. That got me wondering; what does a smaple from around the league look like for GB AVG and BABIP? I took 13 random(ish) players and made a very brief average for what a player should hit on GBs compared to BABIP.
So what Smoak was doing from 2010-2012 when he hit grounders wasn’t as unusual as I thought in the aspect that his average and GB average had a similar ratio. However he just hit so much worse than most of the guys on this list on his GB—until 2013.
Is Smoak’s current trend of sneaking more balls past the infielders sustainable? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. First of all, like Aramis Ramirez and David Ortiz, Justin Smoak is one of the slowest players in the majors. Being so slow allows defenses to play really deep when Smoak is at bat because they have no fear of him beating out a dribbler. Here are some pictures I took at a Mariners game recently:
In the first picture we can see that even with a runner on first base, the Texas defense is playing Smoak really deep; 2B Ian Kinsler is standing in the outfield, as are the SS and 3B. In this picture, Smoak is batting left-handed. In the second picture, the Texas defense is playing almost as deep with Smoak hitting right-handed. Some teams will even occasionally use the shift on Smoak when he is batting left-handed and put three infielders on the right side of the diamond with the 2B standing in shallow RF. Just for fun here is a chart of Smoak’s 2013 GBs:
So while Smoak likely won’t be able to keep up his .300 GB AVG, because of the way defenses play him, his slow running, and the fact that an approximate for the league average on GBs in play is .253. Despite these facts, I don’t think Smoak is due to fall in the toilet and become 2010-2012 Justin Smoak. For one thing, he is hitting far fewer GBs then he did earlier in his career:
As you can see, Smoak’s percent of GBs is slowly trending down, and as he hits less GBs his BABIP will be less based on his average on GBs. Also, we will see Smoak use his power more when he is hitting less groundballs and more flyballs and line drives.
In conclusion, I don’t think Smoak’s early 2013 groundball fueled run of success is sustainable over the next few seasons; however, perhaps we are seeing the Mariners’ 1B transition into a slugger who hits line drives and fly balls (FB). His August FB% was over 50 and he hit 5 HR and 3 doubles.