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May 22, 2012

Western Front

My Kingdome for a Morse

by Geoff Young

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You look for things to write about the Mariners. You watch some games, flip through stats pages, maybe think about clever puns for Justin Smoak. Because probably that hasn't been done to death.

You ponder how Smoak has done since coming over from Texas for Cliff Lee in July 2010. Smoak was supposed to provide power, but he has five homers and isn't hitting or getting on base. Still, that is more homers than Albert Pujols, and he is hitting more and getting on base more often. Also, Smoak is seven years younger and a tad less expensive.

Not that this makes you feel better, but it's something. And also, the Pujols thing has been done to death so it isn't any better than Smoak puns.

Maybe you notice that Smoak's top comp at Baseball-Reference through age 24 is another former Cardinals first baseman, Steve Bilko. You've never heard of this player, but now you're thinking of Sgt. Bilko—not the one with Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd, but the original with Phil Silvers. You hope that Smoak turns out better than Bilko, who hit .251/.334/.412 with 21 homers for St. Louis in 1953 and then hit .221/.298/.434 with 24 homers for five teams from 1954 to 1960 before re-emerging with the Angels for two seasons and then retiring.

This is your hope, although better than Phil Silvers might be more realistic. Better at baseball, anyway, not at comedy... Then again, it's good to have a backup plan.

* * *

You resist the urge to make puns, but it's no use. You consider the folly of a guy named Geoff making fun of someone else's name and think better of it. Then you undermine your own intentions by compiling the list anyway. Most of the puns are just stupid, but a few are downright inappropriate:

Twelve Rejected Titles for this Article

  1. Smoak Gets in Your Eyes
  2. Smoak and Mirrors
  3. Smoak on the Water
  4. Up in Smoak
  5. Don't Drink, Don't Smoak
  6. Smoak 'Em if You've Got 'Em
  7. Where There's Smoak, There's Fire
  8. Blowin' Smoak (Hey, Now)
  9. Smoakhouse Blues
  10. Smoak'd
  11. Smoak Signals
  12. I Don't Get It, What's So Funny About His Name?

You rummage through the stats and discover that Smoak has the lowest WARP in the American League (through May 20). Only the Mets' Ike Davis is worse in the majors.

You start looking at other things that you probably shouldn't, like the Mariners' schedule. You notice a recent four-game stretch against the Yankees and Red Sox that resembles a tennis match:

Sea

2

2

6

1

NYA/Bos

6

6

2

6

It's a stupid thing to notice, but you probably will notice something even stupider before you're done.

* * *

You dig in different directions and discover that Seattle is getting abused in the eighth inning this year; they’ve been outscored 29-3 in 43 games. This is the most runs they've allowed in any inning and the fewest they've scored. The pitching has been bad (5.86 ERA, .266/.324/.456 batting line against), the hitting worse (.133/.168/.182). It's a team effort on the offensive side, but Smoak has been most remarkable, going 1-for-15 with seven strikeouts.

In fact, Smoak didn't reach base in the eighth inning of a game this year until last Thursday, when he led off with what Baseball-Reference describes as “Single to 1B (Pop Fly to Front of Home).” So yeah, he crushed that ball.

The Mariners held a 4-1 lead at the time and had a 94 percent chance of winning the game before Steve Delabar surrendered a three-run homer to former Seattle infielder Jose Lopez with two out in the bottom half. Lopez later would lead off the 11th with a four-pitch walk against closer Brandon League (who threw 9 of 26 pitches for strikes in retiring one of the six batters he faced) and score the tying run. The Indians would win, 6-5.

Mariners fans will remember Lopez as... well, not as a patient man. Among active players with at least 3,000 plate appearances, only fellow former Mariners infielder Yuniesky Betancourt (3.4%) owns a lower BB% than Lopez (3.7%).

But even as you are impressed by League's ability to walk the unwalkable, you cannot stop pondering Smoak's eighth-inning exploits. You think it must be a fluke. Because 14 plate appearances isn't much. So you check his career numbers and note that his eighth innings usually aren't horrible but that he stinks in the second inning, where he also has most of his plate appearances:

Inning

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

2nd

152

.161

.211

.266

8th

122

.250

.361

.317

All

1,037

.226

.307

.376

This might be related to the fact that his numbers improve with each subsequent plate appearance against any given starting pitcher, but the same holds true for most hitters. Besides, he could be facing a reliever in the eighth, so you forget about this and focus instead on Smoak's overall line. You wonder who else has put up similar numbers and find a bunch of guys, some of whom spent time in Seattle:

Then you think, anyone can run that query. How very pedestrian.

So you go for a walk. And you are still pedestrian.

Then you decide to watch a game, or at least the parts where Smoak is batting. You have become obsessed with this man. Moby Smoak.

You see him strike out on three pitches against Boston's Jon Lester in the dreaded second inning on Tuesday. Smoak fouls a 93-mph fastball out over the plate straight back, splinters his bat grounding the same pitch (but way inside) foul down the third-base line, then swings over the top of a 77-mph curveball that lands just above his shoes.

You see him pop a 1-0 fastball on the inner half weakly to shortstop to lead off the fifth.

You see him get ahead in the count in the seventh before grounding another Lester fastball down the third-base line. Will Middlebrooks makes a fine back-handed stab and fires across the diamond. The throw beats Smoak by three steps but pulls Adrian Gonzalez off the bag. Smoak signals “safe” with his hands as he glides past the bag, and first-base umpire Jeff Kellogg agrees. It is ruled a single.

You see Smoak again get ahead in the count in the ninth before whacking yet another fastball—Lester's 109th pitch of the game—just inside the third-base line in the ninth for a double, leading to Seattle's only run of the evening. Boston catcher Kelly Shoppach has his glove on the outside corner, but Lester catches too much plate and Smoak makes him pay. This is only Smoak's second double of the season, and it comes off a tired pitcher who missed his spot.

On Wednesday, in the second inning, Smoak hammers Josh Beckett's first pitch down the right-field line but foul. It has home-run distance and doesn't miss by much, so the umpires check replay. Five and a half minutes later, the initial ruling is confirmed: Strike 1. Smoak returns to the batter's box and eventually strikes out swinging at a 77-mph curveball down but over the plate. It's a hittable pitch; Smoak just doesn't hit it.

On Thursday, Smoak looks similarly lost against the increasingly ineffective Ubaldo Jimenez. On the bright side, at least this game features a fine display of Montero's “defensive skills.”

What does it all mean? Aside from the fact that you need to get out more... or even at all.

You think that maybe “White Whale” would be a good nickname for Smoak, although only you will get the reference. Plus you'd have to start calling yourself Ahab, which is even worse than Geoff—no offense to all the Ahabs out there. Ahab means “father's brother” in Hebrew, so you could call yourself Uncle Geoff instead. Which, come to think of it, sounds awful—no offense to all the uncles out there.

Still, it beats Husband of Jezebel, which is something.

* * *

Harry Pavlidis reminds you via Twitter that the Mariners drafted and developed Bryan LaHair before letting him go following a 2009 campaign in which he hit .289/.354/.530 at Triple-A Tacoma at age 26. A year earlier, he saw his only action with the big club, hitting .250/.315/.346–somewhat Smoak-like–in 150 plate appearances.

LaHair is currently playing like an All-Star for the Cubs, hitting “only” .315/.415/.629 thanks to a mini-slump that has dragged his numbers down from even more ridiculous heights. You think that a guy who hits like that might be useful to the Mariners. LaHair's departure calls to mind Mike Morse, although at least Seattle got Ryan Langerhans for him, which turns out to be no consolation at all.

Then you notice that Langerhans' career line bears strong resemblance to Smoak's:

Player

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

Langerhans

1,461

.226

.332

.372

Smoak

1,037

.226

.307

.376

You are concerned that you notice such things... and that your “best ideas” come from Twitter.

* * *

You check the usual sources for inspiration—some old Bill James books, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. Maybe something to do with the Seattle Pilots. Or further back, to the 1896 Seattle Yannigans/Rainmakers, led by veteran outfielder/manager Count Campau, who hit a New Pacific League leading 13 homers in 32 games before the league disbanded in June with his team in last place.

You look up Campau's big-league record and see that he led the American Association with nine home runs while playing for the St. Louis Browns in 1890. He hit .322/.374/.513 that year, in a league that hit .253/.330/.332. He was 26 years old, and you wonder why he amassed only eight more plate appearances four years later, while spending the rest of his career in the minors collecting more than 2,000 hits.

Fascinating, but not terribly helpful.

You wonder what Bill James said about Bill Stein, Darnell Coles, and Dave Valle. While looking, you learn that some cat named Jamie Allen played third base for the Mariners in 1983. He was the first pick in the second round of the 1979 draft, out of Arizona State, where he played alongside Chris Bando, Marty Barrett, Hubie Brooks, Bob Horner, and future Mariners Alvin Davis and Ed Vande Berg.

Allen, originally from Yakima—about 140 miles southeast of Seattle by car—hit .223/.309/.304 in his only big-league campaign. He returned to the minors for a couple more years before retiring at age 27.

Smoak probably is better than that, which is something.

Coles replaced Allen at third in September 1983, after hitting .301/.385/.473 in Double- and Triple-A at age 21. He started the next season at the hot corner, didn't hit, and lost his job to Jim Presley in June. You note that Coles was selected with the sixth pick overall in the 1980 draft and wonder what might have happened had they chosen Kelly Gruber instead, taken four spots later by the Cleveland Indians. Of course, the Indians lost Gruber to Toronto in the 1983 Rule 5 draft, so who's to say the Mariners wouldn't have lost him in a similar way?

Besides, Coles played more than 900 games in the big leagues, more than a third of which came while wearing a Mariners uniform. He was no Alex Rodriguez, but neither was he Al Chambers. And then you wonder what if Seattle had taken Darren Dreifort (as then-manager Lou Piniella reportedly wanted to do) with the first pick in 1993 instead of Rodriguez... because your mind works in strange ways, when it works at all.

You check unusual sources as well. Some Bill Speidel books about Seattle that you bought when you visited there several years ago. You saw a half-constructed Safeco Field, took underground tours of the city, and ate fantastic Japanese food.

You ask yourself: What would Doc Maynard do? Or Arthur Denny, or Henry Yesler? You think about Chief Patkanim and how different things would be had a certain city been named in his honor.

Justin Smoak would be playing for the Patkanim Mariners.

* * *

And he'd still be striking out a lot. Sabermetric orthodoxy, as it has become, holds that strikeouts for a hitter are no different from other outs. Still, there should be a tradeoff for swinging and missing so darned much. That tradeoff usually is more power.

You think of guys like Sammy Sosa, or Jose Canseco, or Dave Kingman. Heck, the Mariners have seen their share of such players. Here are a few who called Seattle home for a while, in descending order of ISO, which measures a hitter's power independent of batting average:

Player

Years

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

K%

Richie Sexson

1997-2008

5,604

.261

.344

.507

.246

23.4

Jay Buhner

1987-2001

5,927

.254

.359

.494

.240

23.7

Danny Tartabull

1984-1997

5,842

.273

.368

.496

.223

23.3

Mike Cameron

1995-2011

7,884

.249

.338

.444

.195

24.1

Russ Davis

1994-2001

2,178

.257

.310

.444

.187

23.1

Chris Shelton

2004-2009

1,044

.273

.345

.457

.184

24.1

Miguel Olivo

2002-2012

3,649

.242

.278

.420

.178

26.3

Mike Blowers

1989-1999

2,585

.257

.329

.416

.159

23.6

Rob Ducey

1987-2001

1,478

.242

.331

.396

.154

23.4

Justin Smoak

2010-2012

1,037

.226

.307

.376

.150

22.7

Dale Sveum

1986-1999

2,810

.236

.298

.378

.142

23.3

Ben Davis

1998-2004

1,698

.237

.306

.366

.129

22.7

Nick Green

2004-2010

1,131

.237

.305

.348

.111

23.5

You had forgotten that Ducey or Sveum (who now manages LaHair) played for the Mariners. You had forgotten that Ducey even existed, but he was a decent prospect back in the day.

So was Russ Davis. He should have had a better career. Same with Ben Davis, for that matter. His playing days ended as a pitcher for the Camden Riversharks of the independent Atlantic League, when he went 5-11 with a 4.61 ERA in 23 starts for them in 2010 at age 33. He now does postgame analysis of Phillies games on TV. Not what folks expected from a second overall pick in the draft.

Then again, Mark Merchant also finished his career in the Atlantic League. Merchant is the guy Pittsburgh took after Seattle picked Ken Griffey Jr. first overall in 1987, but you knew that.

Meanwhile, Smoak has shown more power than Rob Mackowiak, but not as much as Scott Stahoviak. Ak-ak-ak-actually, in terms of ISO and K%, he's Wes Helms:

Player

Years

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

K%

Justin Smoak

2010-2012

1,037

.226

.307

.376

.150

22.7

Wes Helms

1998-2011

3,027

.256

.318

.405

.149

22.7

* * *

After much consideration, you realize your problem. It isn't that Smoak isn't a very good hitter. That is a problem, but one that belongs to someone else. Your problem is that he isn't very interesting.

You can't stay focused on him. Your mind wanders—from Phil Silvers, to Bill Stein, to Herman Melville, to Count Campau, to Jamie Allen, to Doc Maynard, to... whatever this is. And you wish, despite your best intentions, that you'd been able to come up with a pun involving Smoak's first name.

Now would be good. You know, just in time for you to submit the article.

7 comments have been left for this article.

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