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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

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