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Does Justin Smoak have Untapped Upside? (Part 2)

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Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 1, I looked at Justin Smoak's high level production and profile as a hitter career to date, and established a reasonable base case expectation for 2015 production. In part 2, I'll drill further down to examine strengths and weaknesses, and make the case

Before moving on, it's worth noting that the latter part essentially amounts to speculation, it's not a prediction. Baseball is a game of failure, most prospects don't realize their potential, and most 28 years olds do not break out.

Smoak's Batted Balls Profile is Instructive

Ground Balls OBP BABIP ISO wRC+
Justin Smoak 0.189 0.189 0.019 4
MLB Average 0.236 0.236 0.020 30

Smoak's production has been well below average on ground balls (-47 points), ranking 22nd worst of 278 batters with at least 400 round balls since 2010. While there might be the inclination to dismiss this, since MLB hitters do so poorly on ground balls anyway, given that Smoak has hit ground balls 26% of the time, this underperformance on ground balls is worth about 7 overall points of wRC+.

The lack of production is driven by a very low BABIP, and typically it is expected that BABIP differentials tend to strongly regress. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change in this case, as production on ground balls is strongly tied to speed in terms of beating out balls (BABIP) and occasionally taking an extra base (ISO). In fact, between negative baserunning and lost value on ground balls, Smoak's plodding speed has cost him about -1.5 runs per 100 PA, or roughly an entire win per full season (~600 PA). Ideally, we want Smoak hitting as few ground balls as possible.

Justin Smoak 0.215 0.111 0.419 127 11.5% 11.7%
MLB Average 0.219 0.133 0.398 119 9.8% 9.9%

On fly balls, Smoak's production has been good, despite having a home park that is pretty tough on them. His BABIP, like on ground balls is also below average, but that's due to him hitting home runs at an above average rate (+1.8%) as when those are added back his OBP on fly balls is just a hair under league average. His power is a little above average (+21 points).

It would be ideal to have home/away breakdowns here, alas, split splits are generally not available (I'd speculate he's likely had better outcomes on fly balls away from Safeco). But it's also worth noting that the outperformance on fly balls is relatively modest, especially compared to the gap on ground balls. Realistically, to be a viable MLB player, more production has to be squeezed out here.

Justin Smoak 0.714 0.713 0.140 355 0.4%
MLB Average 0.695 0.693 0.198 355 0.5%

On line drives, Smoak's production has been in line with league average, albeit somewhat opposite to above trends, with a higher BABIP (+20 points) offset by below average power (-58 points of ISO). Again, it would be helpful to have more granular details in regards to the power dropoff, but it's not a material factor in any event.

The big takeaway from this section is that overall, when Smoak puts the ball in the air, his outcomes have been slightly above average. When he puts the ball on the ground, he's destroying significant value.

Significant Differences According to Where Smoak hits the Ball

Pull Middle Oppo
Justin Smoak 49.2% 32.3% 18.6%
MLB Average 39.8% 35.2% 25.0%

Career, Smoak has been a dead pull hitter. Generally, this should be a good thing, since hitters have more power to their pull field. How has that turned out?

Justin Smoak 0.328 0.269 0.303 166 20.5% 53.9% 25.6% 7.5% 31.2%
as RHB 0.320 0.269 0.298 159 20.2% 47.8% 32.0% 10.3% 21.8%
as LHB 0.333 0.270 0.306 169 20.7% 57.5% 21.8% 5.1% 39.4%
MLB Average 0.341 0.298 0.270 161 19.1% 59.8% 21.1% 9.1% 29.5%

Smoak has had good results when pulling the ball, especially from the left side and in the power department. Overall, his BABIP is below average, offset by well above power. What's interesting his the splits. From the left side, Smoak has been elite at hitting home runs (+9.9%) and avoiding popups (-4%). The only negative is that he's only hitting fly balls 22% of the time - this is where hitting fly balls have a high expectation of success, so the higher the rate the better. From the right side, Smoak has hit fly balls at a well above average rate, though they have not left the park at nearly the same rate. Some of those lost HR have fallen in as doubles, but this appears to be the Safeco effect. There's certainly reason to think more value can be attained from the pull side.

Justin Smoak 0.275 0.260 0.110 81 17.3% 32.3% 50.4% 5.4% 4.1%
as RHB 0.275 0.275 0.060 67 18.1% 31.0% 50.9% 8.0% 0.0%
as LHB 0.275 0.251 0.138 88 16.8% 33.0% 50.2% 3.9% 6.5%
MLB Average 0.328 0.313 0.133 115 20.3% 42.1% 37.7% 4.4% 5.7%

Smoak has been poor using the middle of the field, particularly so from the right side due to no power. Compared to the league, he's been an extreme fly ball hitter at the expense of ground balls, which for him is not a terrible tradeoff. From the left side, the power is okay, but his BABIP seems to have been really low versus the batted ball profile.

Justin Smoak 0.252 0.235 0.128 72 15.0% 13.5% 71.5% 20.4% 3.1%
as RHB 0.183 0.183 0.011 -1 16.1% 12.9% 71.0% 30.3% 0.0%
as LHB 0.287 0.263 0.189 110 14.4% 13.8% 71.8% 19.2% 4.6%
MLB Average 0.291 0.281 0.127 91 21.9% 22.4% 55.7% 15.5% 2.7%

Overall, Smoak is below average when the ball goes the other way, with league average power but a very low BABIP. The latter is unsurprising, given a below average line drive rate, extreme fly ball profile and high popout rate.

However, the splits are fascinating. From the right side, Smoak's production is abysmal; from the left side, it's been roughly league average. Unfortunately, the left side numbers look pretty fluky, as the batted ball profile is very similar as from the right side, albeit with a few home runs and less popups, but not nearly enough to account for the overall difference in production. So realistically, on a true talent basis, Smoak's opposite field production is likely worse than the headline numbers look like.

Looking for Improvement

Smoak's career thus far can be summarized as follows: he hits a lot of fly balls and pulls the ball a lot, and individually this is where he's achieved his best results. He's very bad hitting the ball on the ground, and is bad at using the whole field. In a general sense, this is an approach that will tend to get punished in a park like Safeco, and rewarded in a park like Rogers Centre, and that should go a long way towards improving his production.

But the paradox in his career results so far is the intersection of these two skills in a suboptimal manner: his fly ball skew is least strong when he pulls the ball, and strongest going to the opposite field. Fly balls to the opposite field are not a big issue for Smoak because he does so poorly on ground balls anyway, so it's fine that he's selling out for fly balls. This is also where Rogers Centre probably helps the most, getting opposite field fly balls over the fence. The real value to be unlocked is if he can pull more fly balls, combining the two things are which he's proved most proficient. This was, for example, the key driver in Bautista's transformation on batted balls:

2004-09 0.349 0.357 0.285 170 13.0% 55.6% 31.3% 10.9% 29.5%
2010-14 0.382 0.551 0.265 261 16.4% 44.6% 39.0% 13.0% 40.7%
2004-09 0.331 0.162 0.313 112 16.2% 41.9% 41.9% 7.9% 6.4%
2010-14 0.303 0.157 0.279 105 16.8% 34.2% 49.0% 8.2% 6.4%
2004-09 0.235 0.074 0.235 35 17.1% 21.5% 61.3% 17.6% 0.0%
2010-14 0.255 0.141 0.239 72 12.6% 22.0% 65.4% 27.4% 3.3%

He's already dealing with the negative effects of a dead-pull, fly ball approach, without getting much of the benefits. If Smoak can increase his FB%, particularly from the left side (even just to match his numbers from the right side), his power numbers are going to surge. And that may in turn leverage plate discipline outcomes.

There's also the fact that organizationally, the Mariners haven't done well developing young hitters, particularly with power profiles. A fresh start with the Jays, an organization that has turned around a few guys who turned into elite dead pull power hitters, may do wonders. Perhaps the Jays could even bring in Dwayne Murphy in the spring to work with him. His approach doesn't work for every player, but it does seemed tailored to Smoak's skill set.

This to me is what makes Smoak really interesting to me: he's a low cost reclamation project whose skills are almost ideally suited to Rogers Centre, with a solid base 2015 projection who hasn't got the most out of his existing skills.