Why Didn’t Justin Smoak Become Chris Davis?
This question seems to relate better to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective or Face/Off than Major League Baseball. Einhorn is Finkle! Finkle is Einhorn!
Imagine Chris Davis waking up and realizing that Justin Smoak had stolen his face!
Justin Smoak would probably need to steal some more aspects aside from Chris Davis’s face, but the reality is that the two players were once considered hot prospects for the Texas Rangers. Check this out:
Player A: Ranked Baseball America’s #65 prospect after the 2007 season. Ranked best power hitter in the Texas Rangers system after 2007 season.
Player B: Ranked Baseball America’s #23 prospect after the 2008 season. Ranked Baseball America’s #13 prospect after the 2009 season. Ranked best power hitter in the Texas Rangers system after 2008 and 2009 seasons. Ranked best strike zone discipline in Texas Rangers system after 2008 and 2009 seasons. Ranked best hitter for average in Texas Rangers system after 2009 season.Of course Player A is Chris Davis and Player B is Justin Smoak.
Fast forward to today and the Rangers only miss one of them. While Davis exploded onto the national scene this season with ridiculous numbers (.327/.401/.722 with 32 HR and 81 RBI in 85 games), Smoak continues to disappoint as he battles injuries and puts up meager numbers especially for a first baseman (.259/.363/.393 with six homers and 13 RBI in just 59 games). So how did Chris Davis become a leading MVP candidate and Smoak remain simply a smoke screen? They seemingly have a similar skill set and in fact, Smoak was regarded with more enthusiasm just a few years back. And for the optimistic Mariners fan, they note that despite criticisms of Smoak having enough time in the majors, Davis entered this year with 262 more career at-bats than Smoak.
This a description of Justin Smoak from a Rangers blog in 2009:
As far as pure hitting tools go, there aren’t many minor leaguers that have the ability to hit a baseball like Smoak can. His hitting fundamentals are sound from both sides of the plate; he keeps his hands back, has a calm load, and a smooth path to the ball with excellent lift and bat plane. His swing from the left side is slightly more compact, but his superior strength creates enough bat speed to give him power from both sides of the plate.
His swing from the right side, while slightly longer, doesn’t appear to have an exploitable hole that would make him susceptible to balls on the inner half of the plate. Thanks to his mechanics, he is able to stay inside the ball and generate tremendous bat speed, producing power to all fields. He’s very Mark Teixeira-esque in that regard, although Smoak’s swing is more compact. In fact, the comparisons to Mark Teixeira, while fairly obvious and easy to deduce based on surface information, are reasonably accurate. Smoak’s offensive output will probably fall short of Teixeira’s yearly offensive production, but his bat will still be an above-average force from both sides of the plate.
Smoak has been anything but average thus far in his Major League career. He has been downright bad. But what differentiates him – with a one-time evaluation as a better player than Chris Davis – from the MVP candidate in 2013?
Dave Cameron of the U.S.S. Mariner made the distinction in April that Smoak isn’t strong enough and doesn’t make enough contact. He may be right on one of those points. Smoak’s peripheral numbers indicate he may lack strength. While Chris Davis posts a flyball/HR rate of 33% this season (and 25.2% in 2012), Smoak’s is 10.5% this year and 12% last year. While that may be an indication that Smoak simply isn’t strong enough to lift the ball out of the ball park, there may be some contact issues different than Cameron’s assertion. When Cameron wrote the article, he pointed to Smoak’s 72% contact rate at pitches in the strike zone. Well Smoak is making contact with 85.2% of pitches in the strike zone and made contact with 88.8% of pitches in the strike zone in 2012. These rates are better than the ones that Chris Davis puts up (81.1% in 2013, 82.5% in 2012), yet Smoak isn’t even close to Davis’s level. So what else is to blame? Smoak makes more contact, but swings less and hits the ball on the ground more.
Justin Smoak swings at 25.4% of pitches outside of the strike zone, 64.6% of pitches in the strike zone and 41.7% total while Chris Davis swings at 34.5% of pitches outside of the strike zone, 77.4% of pitches in the strike zone and 52.2% of pitches total. Since Smoak actually makes more contact than Davis, should he simply swing more? Well the swing rate and contact rate only tell part of the story. Davis’s emergence in 2013 might be related to simply hitting more fly balls. For some players, this is a disaster. But not for Davis. He increased his fly ball rate from 36.8% in 2o11 and 37.5% in 2012 to 44.5% in 2013. At the same time, he dropped his ground ball rate from 38.9% in 2011 and 39.3% in 2012 to 31.2% in 2013. Smoak has a ground ball rate of 39.2% in 2013 (and 39.6% in 2012, 43.6% in 2011) while posting a fly ball rate of 38.5% (42.2% in 2012, 42.6% in 2011). As Cameron pointed out in his post in April, Smoak simply hasn’t ever hit for much power in spite of the scouting reports that said he would. (Did you know Smoak’s 19 HRs in 2012 were his career high at any level?). So maybe the ground balls are a reflection of the player that Smoak really is rather than masking his Chris Davis potential.
While there has been criticism of Smoak’s long swing (see link and video below), Smoak has less movement with his hands and less of a leg kick than Chris Davis.
Yes, someone made a highlight reel of the 2012 Justin Smoak.
Smoak hit 12 homers in the minors in 2009 when he was named the best power prospect in the Rangers organization. He followed that up with 13 homers in 2010 in the minors. Meanwhile Chris Davis hit 15 in 2006, 36 in 2007 and 23 in 2008. They have different skill sets after all. Even in the videos, you can see the raw power of Davis as compared to Smoak. While the comparisons for Mariner fans are optimistic as it seems Davis came out of nowhere, Smoak simply isn’t a power guy. Take this comparison as an example. In 278 AAA plate appearances for the Tacoma Rainiers over the past three seasons, Smoak has hit seven home runs. In just 104 at-bats for Tacoma this year, Brad Miller hit six home runs. So where does this leave us with Justin Smoak? It leaves us with a first baseman who has a better chance to hit .285 with 15 home runs than a .250 hitter with 30 home runs. While he is a real plus defensively at first base, the Mariners will need better production from a traditionally power spot. (Smoak is currently tied for 11th in WAR among AL first basemen and 13th in OPS). And unfortunately, they can’t count on Justin Smoak becoming the next Chris Davis.