Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 7/12/12
Newyork-yankees-seattle

It might be shape up or ship out time for Seattle first baseman Justin Smoak. Ever since his high-profile arrival from Texas, Smoak has failed to live up to expectations. His manager, Eric Wedge, makes it sound as if the organization is nearing their wits’ end and may make a move:

We’ve been patient, they’ve been addressed, and we’ve come at them in different ways and different fashions. But ultimately, they’re grown men out there and either they’ve got to get it done or they won’t be here.”

Delve into Smoak’s numbers and the picture doesn’t get any rosier. He’s already accrued over 1200 major league plate appearances that we can use to judge him against history, and his numbers don’t suggest a hopeful future.

Of course, as with any Seattle player, his home/road splits come to mind first. Smoak has played 150 games at home and 152 games away. In that near-full-season away from home and in friendlier confines, Smoak has hit .233/.300/.389 for an 89 wRC+. That’s not acceptable for a first baseman. It’s better than his .206/.305/.349 (80 wRC+) at home, but it’s still not first baseman material.

His overall line in his first 1214 PAs — .220/.302/.370 — has been 15% worse than league-average park-adjusted offense. He’s only 25, but even if you stack him up against other first basemen that were younger than 25 and put up 1000+ plate appearances, he doesn’t look good. In fact, Dan Meyer was the only first baseman to fare worse to begin his career since free agency began in 1974. Sure, with Smoak’s fielding added in, he’s been demonstrably better than Meyer, who was recently labeled the third-worst regular of all time.

That’s not very exciting. Certainly not as exciting as the #13 prospect in the nation, which was where Smoak found himself on the Baseball America list after the 2009 season.

Surely we can find some solace in the fact that he was even given that many plate appearances. Surely there are other names that started almost as poorly and went on to have good careers. Surely?

Just behind him on the list (86 wRC+) was Willie Upshaw, who managed almost 16 wins for the Blue Jays in the mid 1980s, and Travis Lee (91 wRC+), who actually seems like a decent comp. Lee was known for his patience and defense, and after his poor start, he rallied to accrue… nine wins bouncing around between the Phillies, Rays and Yankees. In between the two sits Chris Davis (90 wRC+), who is a poor comp — he has power, poor discipline and no glove — but has turned in a decent season for the Orioles so far this year (106 wRC+). Even so, without any patience or defense, Chris Davis might be headed to the same short-ish career that befell the other first baseman that started almost as poorly as Smoak has. Tino Martinez is probably the best bat at first base that ever started his career with as many plate appearances featuring worse-than-league-average production.

If you open up the search criteria and include other positions, you get some interesting names that started poorly and went on to long careers. Torii Hunter, Kirby Puckett and All-Star MVP Melky Cabrera all started out with 85 wRC+ numbers or worse over their first 1000 plate appearances, and they ended up being pretty good. But they had the benefit of playing in the outfield, where their gloves could carry their bats through some adjustment pains. Defense-first first basemen don’t get the starter’s share of playing time if they’re having trouble being league average with the bat.

Has Smoak proven that he can’t be a major league first baseman yet? Maybe not, but it’s close. And that’s what his team is trying to communicate through their manager. It’s time for Smoak to be better, or it’s time for Smoak to be out.


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