February 21, 2017
Smoak on the Roster
As one grows older, it becomes a habit to search for baseball players who fasten themselves like tent stakes into the past. Rickey Henderson, my favorite player as a boy, was still around stealing bases and hunting for jobs when I was out of college, hunting for jobs. Roger Clemens held out as the last active member of RBI Baseball for Nintendo, 20 years after its release. Bartolo Colon remains the last link of Major League Baseball to the city of Montreal. These players serve as a connective tissue between generations and eras, keeping one fastened to youth for just a little longer.
This phenomenon is by no means limited to heroes, however; everything that lasts is a madeleine, intentional or no. Perhaps they’re more like burrs, or oil stains on previously cherished t-shirts. Such is the case with the 101-loss Seattle Mariners of 2010. Eight players have survived that disaster; the unlikeliest of them is first baseman Justin Smoak.
A consensus top-25 prospect, Smoak was the jewel of the midsummer trade that sent Cliff Lee to Texas. His potential was unquestioned. Even in a dark season that saw Ken Griffey Jr. retire from a hands-free cell phone halfway to Orlando, the dawn of the Chone Figgins era, the existence of Milton Bradley, and the waning gibbous phase of Jack Zduriencik’s potential, the arrival of Smoak was a promise. Despite a rough first season, and an injury-marred sophomore effort, the team still saw in him enough to film and produce this:
Three years later his options expired and the Mariners placed Smoak on waivers. Two years after that, I am somehow writing that the Toronto Blue Jays, a baseball club with reasonable playoff aspirations, have anointed the now 30-year-old as their starting first baseman. Two years from now, his current extension, including $8 million in guaranteed money. And for years after that, I will continue struggling to believe that all of these things are true.
The only explanation is that Smoak used the Contra Code at the beginning of his career. Consider: 11,347 pitches in his major-league career. A career wRC+ of 95, equal to Tadahito Iguchi. A career slugging percentage equal to shortstop Alex Gonzalez, the one with less power than the other shortstop Alex Gonzalez. A defensive reputation that eludes every single metric, and a baserunning acumen that does not.
In fact, here is a ranking of every first baseman in the WARP era (1951-present) who received at least 2,000 plate appearances and totaled negative career value:
(Note: Five of these seven players wore a Mariners jersey at some point. It’s probably a coincidence.)
Breaking them down in reverse order: Balboni still owns the Royals record for home runs in a season with 36; he was one-tenth of a win above replacement level that year. He was bad, but at least he did something well. Coomer was more generally bad, but at least teams can blame the steroids era and his team-representative All-Star berth for obscuring his relative mediocrity. Kotchman and Putnam were former first rounders who both made their way on this list with terrible final seasons; they were ordinary ballplayers given one chance too many.
Benzinger is more of a mystery. A fourth-round pick, he never had the kind of peak minor-league season to look back on. He repeated Triple-A Pawtucket twice before getting the call. His career after that is a list of uninteresting ephemera: he hit the RBI single that broke Orel Hershiser’s scoreless-innings streak and caught the ball for the last out in the 1990 World Series. But despite having less of a pedigree than Smoak, and certainly less power, he persevered.
Friend of the Internet Grant Brisbee, when asked to offer his thoughts on why a Todd Benzinger might be, offered only this letter sent to Rick Reilly at Sports Illustrated in response to a 2001 anti-Barry Bonds piece:
So it could be that Todd Benzinger was an amazing guy, or just really liked Catcher in the Rye and read it at the right time. I’m happy to accept either possibility.
Finally, there’s Dan Meyer. Smoak will almost certainly never match Meyer’s destructiveness: He didn’t walk, didn’t hit doubles, ran and got caught stealing quite a bit, played a lot of positions badly, and generally just symbolized the early Mariners. Meyer’s WARP total is the direct product of expansion, and the terrible expansion draft performance of the blue and yellow. With no farm system and no cash, the team had literally no replacement player to take his spot and so they had no choice but to keep playing him.
There’s no such defense this time. The Blue Jays have already invested $8 million in Smoak’s future, such as it is, and while such a sum is a minor inconvenience in this game, it’s an inconvenient sum that could have been allotted to Chris Carter or Adam Lind—two sluggers who are certainly flawed but also bring something, anything, to the table. They have an in-house alternative in Steve Pearce. They have nearly everyone, really.
That’s what makes the legacy of Justin Smoak so confusing, particularly for the Blue Jays. We live in an era of broadly available talent, men toiling in places like Korea and Australia just waiting to be discovered by an army of scouts. Modern statistical analysis was supposed to help teams unearth these unappreciated players, funnel them to the available jobs. The days of Roberto Petagine were supposed to be behind us, even if franchises still have their problem spots now and then. And yet Rowdy Tellez is either a year away, or a lifetime away. Edwin Encarnacion is in Cleveland.
Despite all off those things, Smoak is still here, working hard, convincing himself and his employers that there’s still upside, there’s still hope, that the next change in approach will be the one. I don’t think it’ll hurt sales of the Baseball Prospectus 2017 Annual too much to confess that PECOTA’s feelings are tepid, putting him at a career-median .257 True Average and a generous 0.0 WARP. Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins cites Smoak’s calm demeanor in the clubhouse as a positive effect; let’s hope it’s a positive effect.
Just as the stories of heroes evolve out of a combination of hard work, unearthly talent, and impossible fortune, so too do the bit players. Perhaps Smoak gets a different coach, or builds on his 2011 progression before spraining a thumb and breaking a nose, or decides to be a pitcher in college. This Justin Smoak isn’t really one of the worst first basemen in the modern era, any more than 20-game losers are the worst pitchers. Being terrible is a rate stat. For comparison, former teammate Jesus Montero has provided an identical WARP to Smoak in just a third of the opportunities.
Even so, it’s nearly inconceivable that we live in a universe that has conspired to give this Justin Smoak 2,887 plate appearances, with even the fleeting promise of hundreds more, but here we are. Fate brought us here. The Blue Jays have chosen to believe in that fate.