Justin Smoak’s 12.3% walk rate leads the Mariners—or at least those Mariners that have a legit sample size. His .273 batting average ranks third on the team, and his .178 ISO power is just 11 points behind second-place Jason Bay. These stats have led to a wRC+ in the neighborhood of 130 which, depending on the day, often leads the team. That would be the same Justin Smoak who finished with an 85 wRC+ last season.
I know that I, for one, gave up on Justin Smoak last season before I read this piece by Jeff Sullivan. Sullivan—as well as many of his Lookout Landing commenters—pondered the mechanics of a noticeable change in Smoak’s swing after a brief demotion to Tacoma in July and August of the 2012 campaign. Shannon Drayer confirmed that he was also experimenting with a lighter bat. After I read that piece, I dug out some more fun stats that made me something of a believer.
I often warn against trying to explain why players improve and decline after the fact. Randomness is a powerful thing, especially in small sample sizes. But when we notice something important ahead of time—like a change in one’s swing or in his bat choice—then any subsequent improvements in results are more likely to be real improvements. Improvements that could stick. Smoak’s improvements have stuck for 374 plate appearances this season, and that’s at least enough for some analysis.
There are two distinct traits on which I want to focus: plate discipline and contact. As I pointed out in that article I wrote last year, the immediate effects of an improved swing and more effective bat would likely be seen in contact numbers. Plate discipline in the sense of working counts and not chasing pitches would probably come later, if at all.
According to Fangraphs’ PitchFX figures, Smoak is choosing to swing at similar pitches this season. His chase rate has hardly budged, actually increasing slightly from about 26.5% to 27.9%. His swing rate in the zone has crept up from around 62.0% to 63.6%. Again, not a huge change. If anything, Smoak is a little bit more aggressive this season. Thus, his career-high walk rate is probably more influenced by a falling zone rate. Pitchers have opted (or perhaps it’s just randomness) to throw him a few less pitches in the zone thus far in 2013. In any case, the basic pitch selection metrics suggest that Smoak has changed little about when he swings.
Glancing at his overall contact rate, we see that it is exactly the same this season as his career 86.1%. But the contact statistic here includes everything from foul balls to long balls, so it would be wise to look at the type of contact. Line drive rates are finicky, to be sure, but Smoak’s 23.4% dwarfs his career mark of 19.1%. That’s based on more than 200 balls in play this season, so it’s not the tiniest of sample sizes.
Relative to his line drive rate, his power has not really changed much. His 3.7% HR/PA rate is just millimeters better than his 3.3% rate leading up to this season. Additionally, Smoak’s HR/FB rate is barely up this season—insignificantly up from his career rate, anyway. Smoak is still a light hitter by first basemen standards, but his quality of contact as measured by line drives has made him valuable again (again?).
When I mentioned this article idea to Casey, his first thought was a potential player comp: “Moneyball” Scott Hatteberg. Also a light-hitting first baseman, Hatteberg made himself valuable by walking and keeping his average and ISO just high enough. Observe:
For the statty folk, a 95% binomial confidence interval for Smoak’s line drive rate this season is bounded by 18.7% and 29.3%. We can’t yet dismiss the possibility that his recent line drive success is something of a fluke. But it’s starting to look less and less like a fluke. His more recent numbers—walk rate, batting average and isolated power—line up fairly well with Scott Hatteberg’s prime years. The key for Smoak will be in maintaining his recent quality of contact.
We have reason to believe that about a year ago some very real things changed in Smoak’s swing that were identified at the time. It’s an important factor that those things—a shorter swing with a lighter bat—were identified before the results came. That’s why Smoak’s recent improvement this time is more likely to be real than any time before. I am holding my breath.