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June 29, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Bring Me the Head of Justin Smoak

by Jason Parks

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The Backstory
Smoak was drafted by the Texas Rangers with the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft, viewed by many as one of the top bats available. After the unexpected fall from the top 10, Smoak signed at the deadline for a well above-slot bonus ($3.5M) and reported to the Midwest League, where the switch-hitting first baseman showcased his talent in his brief full-season debut. Coming in, Smoak was lauded for his approach to hitting and his smooth stroke from both sides of the plate, a swing that projected to produce both a high batting average and over-the-fence power, making Smoak a potential middle-of-the-order monster.

Smoak’s first full-season in the minors had its peaks and valleys, crushing in his Double-A debut, then getting injured for a month with a strained oblique, then returning and struggling in his first taste of Triple-A, then finally rising back up to his potential and leading the USA to gold in the World Cup. His swing was still praised for being fluid and easy from both sides of the plate, and his mature approach was said to be among the very best in the minors. His glove at first was seen as a well above-average tool, and he possessed a total defensive package at the position that could make him a weapon at a less-than-premium spot on the diamond. He lacked speed and plus athleticism, but the footwork was good, the arm was strong, and the glove was called a vacuum.

By the end of April 2010, Smoak was firmly planted in the Rangers lineup at the major league level, and after a few months of less than stellar results at the plate, the young slugger was packaged in a deal for Cliff Lee, sending the 23-year-old to the Mariners for a new jersey and a fresh start. At the time, losing a player of Smoak’s potential for a rental pitcher who was ready to test the open market at the end of the season was seen as a big risk, one that could really bite the Rangers years later if they failed to win with Lee, failed to secure Lee to a long term contract after the season, or failed to find a permanent solution at first base as Smoak developed into a first-division talent for somebody else in their own division. In hindsight, did the Rangers know something that the Mariners didn’t?

Smoak continued to struggle after the move to Seattle, but after a demotion to Triple-A over the summer, Smoak rose from the ashes in a September call-up, hitting a robust .340/.421/.580 in a small sample size of 14 games. It was a sign of life, and scouts weren’t off the bandwagon, maintaining that his hands were still special gifts at the plate, producing a short, line-drive stroke capable of power to all fields. His approach was still championed for being advanced, keeping the young hitter in exploitable counts and allowing for on-base ability. Smoak would play the 2011 season as a 24-year-old, and the first-division player that was given $3.5M and penciled into the future was still on track to live up to the hype. The whispers of doubt were growing in volume, but the chorus was still overwhelmed by those shouting patience and future prosperity.

The 2011 season started off on a sour note, as Smoak’s father lost a battle with cancer, and the fog that consumed the switch-hitter never seemed to dissipate. His contact ability wasn’t improving as many had predicted, and the game power that was supposed to make him a middle-of-the-order masher left a lot to be desired. In 123 games, Smoak struggled against lefties and righties alike, with inconsistent contact bringing down his batting average (.234); when he did make contact, it was often quiet and soft, which explains the sub .400 slugging. The player penciled in as future All-Star was starting to lose the walls that supported his once impressive ceiling; so far in the 2012 season, those walls are crumbling into ruin.

In what might be viewed as a make-or-break season (2012), the now 25-year-old Smoak is bottoming out, as the deficiencies in the skill set are tattooed on his face, giving pitchers an easy roadmap to exploit him. It’s almost impossible to find a source that thinks Smoak recovers to reach his potential, and the vast majority of those I spoke with had doubts that a sustainable major league career was even possible. In times of failure, pessimism is contagious, and right now, doubt is spreading like the plague.

The Expectations
From jump street, Smoak was viewed as one of the most well-rounded offensive threats in the draft, bringing a combination of contact ability, power, and approach. All the people I spoke with saw the young switch-hitter as a can’t miss major leaguer at worst, with a floor as a solid-average regular, with some saying they viewed him as a perennial All-Star if everything clicked. He was a refined product coming out of South Carolina, a player that would rocket through the minors and be a standard at the major league level for a decade. I saw Smoak in the instructional league in his first season, and at several stops along the way, and I was absolutely convinced that he was a first-division talent at the position, with an easy swing and excellent barrel-to-ball ability, a fantastic approach, and a slick glove with gold glove potential in the mold of Adrian Gonzalez. I was sold on Smoak.

The Quotes

In early 2009, Mel Didier, a baseball treasure with more than 50 years of scouting experience, suggested Smoak was a more complete switch-hitter than Mickey Mantle and Mark Teixeira at this stage of his development.

“A third-slot hitter in the lineup of a championship-level team.”—Kevin Goldstein (March 2009)

“Smoak projects as a middle-of-the-order run producer who can score and drive in 100 runs annually. He has the best plate discipline in the organization, and among the best in baseball, with plus raw power from both sides. He has good instincts for the game and is a solid to plus defender at first.  A switch-hitting Justin Morneau.”  –Kevin Goldstein (January 2010)

“I think of Smoak as more of a switch-hitting Adrian Gonzalez.” – Keith Law (January 2009)

“He projects as a middle-of-the-order power hitter and has a chance to be a superstar.” –Baseball America Prospect Handbook (2009)

“He has a chance to be a switch-hitting slugger in the Mark Teixeira mold.” –Baseball America Prospect Handbook (2010)

So What Happened?
Most problems are the confluence of several individual factors, and that seems to be the consensus when it comes to Justin Smoak’s fall from "top prospect with an All-Star ceiling" to "a player struggling to stay above the Mendoza line at the major league level." You could suggest that the main problem is adjustment, or, better said, the inability to make the necessary adjustments against major league-quality pitching. But this isn’t a black and white issue, so there isn’t a black and white solution. The adjustment issue has become the elephant in the room at the major league level, but was cloaked at the minor league because of Smoak’s natural ability compared to the ability of the pitchers he was facing. His raw ability was simply more advanced, so the need to adjust in order to stave off exploitation wasn’t as necessary. At the major league level, Smoak’s deficiencies were more visible and his weaknesses were magnified, with one of the larger villains being his pitch recognition skills, specifically, his ability to recognize and adjust to higher caliber secondary offerings.

Adjustment isn’t just a physical maneuver, as you could make the argument that the mental focus and dedication required to execute these physical actions are just as vital to the process. Like with anything in baseball, the amount of effort you put towards something can often be found in the results, and Smoak has taken steps backwards in his professional development, especially since reaching the majors. Finding success at the highest level is often tied to finding your footing after you fail, with the top players learning from those failures and progressing, while others just stay in the failure, never making the necessary adjustments to rebound and recover. Some of the failure is tethered to a physical ability that doesn’t exist or is fundamentally insufficient, but most of the response to failure is a makeup issue, an issue that some players simply can’t overcome.

I think it's common to connect makeup issues with off-the-field issues, but I view makeup as the overall approach to the game, the fortitude to accept failure and step forward, and the drive to maximize the skill set, regardless of what physical or mental output that requires of the player. Justin Smoak is a very nice person, and you probably won’t find much in his private life to suggest any of his off-the-field activities are a concern to his baseball game. But the more I asked around about his game, the reports I received questioned whether he really wanted “it” or not, which can be interpreted in a number of ways. Smoak reached the majors on his raw ability, but sticking around and rising to the top requires more than just physical tools. His once advanced approach could stand in the spotlight in the minors (where arms aren’t refined) and having the ability to recognize the trajectory of a fastball can give you a huge advantage. At the major league level, Smoak hasn’t shown the ability to recognize secondary offerings with any authority, adjust his bat plane to theirs, and become a multi-dimensional hitter. His swing still looks the part, but if you can’t track the ball to the bat and make adjustment to the pitch, the aesthetic quality of the swing doesn’t matter.

If this fixable? I think it depends on which issue casts the scariest shadow. Can a 25-year-old learn to visually recognize the spin of a breaking ball out of the pitcher’s hand, properly diagnose it, and then adjust his physical actions appropriately? That’s more of a neurological issue, and I’m not convinced that a player who is extremely deficient in this regard can learn to overcome it. Is Justin Smoak extremely deficient in this regard? One of my sources said his inability to properly recognize off-speed offerings is the main culprit in his demise, one that he won’t be able to recover from.

If it’s a makeup concern, and Smoak lacks the mental fortitude to overcome adversity in the majors, I think its possible to regain the intensity required to move forward. Again, I’m just offering some opinion on the situation, and I’m not trying to suggest that Smoak is a weak-minded person who can’t handle life. Several sources mentioned his makeup as it relates to failure, raising questions that perhaps the #want isn’t always there, and I think it's worth noting. If his struggles have root in focus and passion, I think Smoak can re-light the fire; it’s entirely possible that his early struggles in combination with the death of his father sapped some of his mental strength. Given his age and initial promise, I’d be willing to stay optimistic on this front.

At the present, Smoak is sinking to the lowest depth of his professional career, achieving failure at a time when most thought he would be achieving fame. The first-division promise has all but disappeared from his scouting report, replaced by the dream of developing into a major league contributor, a ceiling better suited for a late-round pick, not a player of his initial promise. I have to admit that I still think Smoak can take a step forward and become a major league force, but I’ve been saying this for several years and I have little to base this belief on other than the dreams of the past, which are still in my head when I watch him swing. The expectations were always very high, but I don’t think they were sensational in any way, as Smoak lived up to the hype in the minors only to fall flat in the majors. This story is far from over, but I think the “what could have been” narrative will stay relevant going forward.

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  A's,  Justin Smoak,  The Who,  Double Switch

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

leites

Thanks, Jason! this is really interesting analysis, and I hope that you'll do more of it.

I'd be interested in any comparisons you might make (#want, pitch recognition skills, etc) between Smoak and Lars Anderson . . .

Jun 29, 2012 06:40 AM
rating: 1
 
cdgarosi

Just get me a glass of hot fat. And bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia while you're out there.

Good piece on the toughest tool to evaluate. It seems like those who "fail" to develop due to makeup fit into three categories:

1. Bad makeup - this is the classic idea of makeup; think Elijah Dukes. Million dollar body, but a ten cent head.

2. Lack of desire - think of the 6' 2" eighth grader who is put on the basketball team, but all he wants to do is play the flute. He has all of the physical skills, but just doesn't want to participate. He may have physical skill so superior that he can be successful at lower levels. But, if he doesn't apply some training to that physical skill he won't meet his perceived ceiling.

3. Adaptation due to failure - I always think of a team on a winning streak heading into the playoffs (such as the Spurs in the NBA this year). Would they be better served to have lost a game along the way (knowing that they cannot win forever) so they can make adjustments or does continued success offer more lessons.

I think failure is extremely important to development. You almost want a hitter to go into a prolonged slump to see what he does to adjust (complain, seek out coaches, quit, etc.). You want a pitcher to get bombed a couple of times to see what he can do.

This raises a couple of questions:

1. How do you (can you) screen or scout for makeup?
2. Can (as Jason raises in the piece) a player improve or develop his makeup?

Fascinating column which leaves a great deal of room for further investigation. Thanks Jason for writing about Smoak.

Jun 29, 2012 07:52 AM
rating: 2
 
Behemoth

Kind of think there's a huge amount of post-failure rationalisation going on with a lot of those sorts of comments (in general - this isn't aimed at you). So and so didn't make it, so he must have a ten cent head/lack of desire/whatever. It's kind of easy to say that the reason for someone failing is just down to makeup, and there isn't any real way to verify that in most cases.

Jul 01, 2012 14:44 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

It's not always a popular statement, but makeup plays a huge role in the developmental process. Outsiders can't quantify makeup, so it loses value in the overall equation. But for a major league team, it's one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle, and believe it or not, poor makeup is directly tied to failure. Just because we as outsiders can't assign a value to intangible characteristics, doesn't mean they don't play a major role in the evaluation process of players/prospects. That's why I work the phones when I'm evaluating a player. I want to get outside opinion, but I also want to hear from people within the org about how a player approaches the game. Teams love to champion players that have plus makeup. Not that they are eager to blast players that lack these characteristics, but sometimes not saying anything says a ton.

Jul 01, 2012 14:59 PM
 
Mtn Jam

This is an incredibly awesome series. Great work, as usual.

How much do hitters practice facing non-fastball pitches? It seems like it would be a tough thing to do because I doubt a team would want to send out their top arms throwing 100% in practice just so their hitters can practice tracking/hitting non-fastballs? I'm sure pitching machines can mirror the action of a pitch but it's not the same as picking up the ball out of a pitcher's hand.

Jun 29, 2012 08:44 AM
rating: 0
 
cdgarosi

Nick Piecoro had a quick story about Paul Goldschmidt and his struggles against lefties. So, Goldschmidt took more BP from left handers and voila he improved.

http://www.azcentral.com/sports/diamondbacks/articles/2012/06/01/20120601arizona-diamondbacks-paul-goldschmidt-heating-up-plate.html

Jun 29, 2012 20:21 PM
rating: 0
 
Leg4206

If it is truly a deficiency of recognizing breaking balls, tracking them and adjusting the swing, I find it hard to believe that this wasn't apparent in the minors. He must have seen some quality breaking balls in AA and AAA, and presumably there were scouts there to judge his skill in that regard. And if it is just the difference between average and plus breaking pitches that troubles him, does he handle average breaking pitches at the MLB level?

Jun 29, 2012 09:23 AM
rating: 3
 
SaberTJ

I would think a team that could properly identify how well a prospect can identify the spin of a good breaking ball prior to investing first round money into a player would have a huge advantage.

I would interested to see the pitch fx data of the breaking balls Smoak has faced during his time in the majors and see how he's faired.

Jun 29, 2012 10:48 AM
rating: 1
 
SaberTJ

Here is what I was able to find at Joe Lefkowitz's site.

http://joelefkowitz.com/batter_card.php?pid=475253&m1=-1&d1=-1&y1=2011&m2=-1&d2=-1

He's dieing against curves when facing righties.

Jun 29, 2012 11:04 AM
rating: 0
 
nolansdad

I'd say the change-up, specifically the change down, out of the zone, gives him the most problems, but that does tie into pitch recognition.

Interesting that some question his want. He and Ackley - who isn't living up to expectations in his own right - are both viewed as "humble, quiet country boys" but that could also be translated to "lacking want or fire".

Jun 29, 2012 09:38 AM
rating: 0
 
ChinMusic

Jason, great work - I've been waiting to see someone write about the different characteristics required for success. Last week when you explored the guys drafted solely on their "physical tools", I couldn't help but think about all the other components for success - mostly neurological. "Instincts" and "ability to adapt their skills to baseball" do not seem descriptive enough. There are many physical specimens in the NBA who cannot shoot the ball with proficiency outside of ten feet. There are far more neurological actions going on that I ever hear being discussed. Quickness in recognition, firing your actions, and the muscle memory actions required to create an accurate swing. Some people have it and some don't. I was glad to see you unwind this category from the issues that are about determination, fortitude, adaptablility and #want. There is more going on than "feel for the game". I tend to believe, without evidence mind you, that you can improve in this area, but someone born without it will have a hard time ever developing this skill to the level required to be successful at the highest level. I would love to see you explore this more in the future.

Jun 29, 2012 10:05 AM
rating: 0
 
skelton

I love this series. Looking back at what was said when these guys were still potential monsters and owning it is a great way to learn. How a guy with all the physical tools fails is fascinating. Identifying players early who have a trait for adjusting to failure would be a monumental achievement in scouting I would think. Seems like that's the end game of analysis like this and ai think it's pretty smart. Sort of like reverse engineering players. Great work, Jason.

Jun 29, 2012 10:28 AM
rating: 1
 
John Carter

Thanks for the excellent analysis.

Do teams/scouts keep track of how well prospects are hitting secondary pitches in the minors AND majors? Perhaps, that is what the Rangers picked up on that the Mariners didn't know.

Jun 29, 2012 10:56 AM
rating: 0
 
Vriez10

It doesn't speak on Smoak's struggles, but more on the Mariners lack of #vision, but I truly think the Mariners are deplorable when it comes to evaluating and developing talent. I know Parks/KG doesn't recognize an organization's aptitude for developing talent -- but rather luck...but I think the Mariners are an exception. Grab top rankings from Baseball American since the turn of the century.

http://www.thebaseballcube.com/prospects/byTeam.asp?T=26

Major Failures:

Ryan Anderson
Ryan Christianson
Cha Seung Baek
Snelling
Tony Perez
Jeff Heaverlo
Nageotte
Blackley
Clement
Johjima
Tuiasosopo
Wladdy Balentien
Halman (RIP)
Aumont
Chris Tillman
Triunfel
Juan Ramirez
Adam Moore
Liddi
Ackley (mostly)
Dan Cortes
Nick Franklin (?)

Major Successes:

Guillen - after trade
Soriano
Pineiro - much later
Bloomquist
Ichiro
Choo - after trade
Thornton - after trade
Jose Lopez
Adam Jones - after trade
King Felix
Assdribble - after trade
Morrow - mostly after trade
Pineda
Seager (?)

Sorry for the length, but thats a pretty poor track record. I love Taijuan Walker and Hultzen...but this scares me.

Jun 30, 2012 08:26 AM
rating: 1
 
Behemoth

Not sure that it really is atypical to be honest. The weakness appears to be trading too many people away, rather than a developmental one.

Jul 01, 2012 14:47 PM
rating: 0
 
dee150586

Excellent Jason! Thanks for the great work, and keep it up!

Jun 29, 2012 11:23 AM
rating: 0
 
Llarry

I'm thinking of Travis Lee...

Jun 29, 2012 11:45 AM
rating: 0
 
cmaczkow

Is there any thought that his current environment is affecting his mental approach? I guess I'm wondering about this on three fronts:

1. His home park is very difficult to hit in, and does knowing this create an additional mental obstacle (the classic self-fulfilling prophesy)?

2) The whole Mariners offense seems to be in a collective daze, and it makes me wonder if there's a cognitive aspect to seeing basically everyone else on your team being unable to hit either that leads to a complacency in one's approach.

3) Is there something about the coaching or instruction these guys are getting that is counter-productive to practically all of their hitters?

I know he struggled briefly with the Rangers but it makes me wonder what would happen if he got a fresh start somewhere else and could have the chance to clear his head.

Jun 29, 2012 14:19 PM
rating: 3
 
zmooney

cmaczkow, I wondered the same thing about the Mariners coaches. Their hitters seem to regularly underperform; could this be because of poor instruction? I would imagine a good coach could help a young kid with enough talent make the necessary adjustments.

Jun 29, 2012 15:31 PM
rating: 0
 
OonBoon

Bring Jamie Moyer back to throw him 500 off speed pitches a day

Jun 29, 2012 19:03 PM
rating: 1
 
dcorr82

You mean a Jamie Moyer fastball?

Jun 30, 2012 13:03 PM
rating: 6
 
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