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Stats say Smoak could be case of slow development

By Brent Stecker

Arguments have been made for Justin Smoak to remain the Mariners’ starting first baseman, and arguments have been made against him, like ROOT Sports analyst Bill Krueger did recently on “Bob and Groz.”

Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs and USS Mariner had a different take than Krueger did on Smoak when he joined “Bob and Groz,” as he said the 26-year-old switch-hitter has shown signs that his recent hitting surge could be a strong representation of things to come.

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Justin Smoak’s slash line over the last year is considerably higher than for his career, lending credence to the idea that he’s just a case of slow development. (AP)

Sullivan examined Smoak’s past year in the majors, starting with when he returned from a stint at Triple-A Tacoma, where he made some tweaks to his swing. The results are promising, to say the least.

“He was demoted (to Tacoma) because he was terrible, and then he was just working really hard on changing his swing. When a player changes something about the way that he plays, that gives what I think is a pretty good dividing point,” Sullivan said. “Smoak had a big September, and since he came back on Aug. 14 he’s been legitimately good. He’s walked more than he used to, he’s struck out less, he’s hit with more power, and he’s actually hitting doubles, which he never used to do. He’s just improved it seems like every aspect of his offensive game, and he’s actually looking like a pretty good player.”

As Sullivan found, Smoak’s slash line from Aug. 14, 2012, through July 12 is .274/.369/.438, much better than his career line of .231/.317/.385.

Krueger’s chief concern with Smoak was that as much as he’s improved, he’s still an average offensive option at first base. But Sullivan believes that Smoak could just be developing slower than the normal player, and he wouldn’t be the only highly-touted young first baseman in the MLB doing so.

“Just a few months ago you had Justin Smoak, a young first baseman in Kansas City named Eric Hosmer, and then in San Francisco a young first baseman named Brandon Belt, and all three were very highly regarded and all three were struggling,” Sullivan said. “I think with all three players, people were sort of getting to that point where, ‘Alright, maybe it’s time to move on.’ But since then all three of them have started to show real signs of life, so it looks like it could just sort of be a delayed development.”

Whether or not Smoak continues to hit a high clip, it appears he has the first base position locked up for the rest of the season because there are no solid first base prospects waiting in the wings in Triple-A. But that doesn’t mean Smoak is lacking for motivation.

“Maybe (Smoak) was motivated by the reality that the Mariners pursued a first baseman a couple offseasons ago in Prince Fielder, and then this past offseason, you could link the Mariners to Nick Swisher. Smoak wasn’t given any guarantees,” Sullivan said. “That might have helped motivate him, and also just being a terrible player might have motivated him. He was sort of on the verge of losing his shot at a long-term career.
“I don’t know if Smoak needs that push (now) because I think he’s already pretty much on the right track.”