by Andrew Gould
I thought I pulled a fast one on my league mates when I drafted Justin Smoak in the 23rd round last year. When I saw the young first baseman, whose power and plate discipline often led to Mark Teixeira comparisons, on the board that late I thought I landed the steal of the draft. After he hit .284 with a .393 on base percentage along with four homers and 17 RBI in April, I was convinced I just nabbed a future star for nothing.
Fast forward to present day and Smoak is ranked around the same position as last year, if not lower. His season took a turn for the worse after the hot start, as he finished with a .234 average, 15 home runs and 55 RBI. Those are not exactly eye-popping numbers from a first baseman. Smoak’s numbers increased slightly in some categories, but his stats from 2011 were for the most part just as mediocre as 2010.
After two full lackluster seasons from Smoak, is it time to give up hope and look elsewhere, or is he an ideal post-hype sleeper candidate?
The first thought here is usually to find something in his peripheral stats to blame his shortcomings on poor luck, but there’s nothing there to save Smoak. Considering his 43.6% ground ball rate and his utter lack of speed, his .273 BABIP (an increase from his .255 mark in 2010) doesn’t seem too far off. Throw in his 21.5% strikeout rate and it’s hard to envision a useful average from Smoak.
However, Smoak suffered thumb injuries in June that could have been more serious than he and the Mariners would admit. In 50 games in June and July, Smoak hit a ghastly .176, and he didn’t hit one long ball in July. After finally going on the disabled list in August, he finished strong in September, hitting .301 with three dingers and 11 RBIs in 22 games.
In our efforts to gain every possible trickle of statistical information to help gain an advantage on draft day, we can sometimes ignore a human element that, while rightfully not a deciding factor in drafting, could play some significance at times. Smoak’s father passed away in late April. I don’t know about you, but I would have a hard time focusing on crushing a 95 mile per hour fastball if it was me.
With an array of talented first baseman crowding the rankings, it’s easy to see how a guy can fall between the cracks and become a forgotten man. I won’t be anxiously pacing before my pick in fear that somebody is going to take Smoak before I get the chance. In fact, he’s probably not worth drafting in a standard 10 or 12-team mixed league considering the amount of skilled talent at the position.
However, as a gamble that will cost next to nothing, I’m willing to take one more shot on Smoak in a deeper league. Most projections don’t forecast much of an improvement, expecting him to hit around .240 with 15-20 home runs. He may not light up the league, but Smoak is still capable of hitting .260 with 25 homers and around 75 RBIs and runs.
At the ripe old age of 25, Smoak could end up being a late round steal this time around.
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