Prospect Report: Justin Smoak

by Jimmy Hascup

Chris Davis was supposed to put up monster numbers in his first full major league season, after his strong debut in 2008.  So far, expectations have exceeded reality for Davis.  The power has certainly been there with 12 HR in 193 Abs, but that may be part of the problem.  Statistically speaking, it almost looks as if Davis is aiming for a home run each at bat.  Last season he hit .285 in 80 games, but this year he’s batting a paltry .202. 

Texas should start using the wind power generated by Davis’ bat for electricity this summer.  He’s already struck out 88 times in 56 games (which is what he had all of last season) and he’s swung and missed 45.6% of each at bat.  He’s always been a high strikeout guy, but someone who is on pace for 255 strikeouts is absolutely ridiculous.  The Texas Rangers’ patience has to be wearing thin with this sort of production.

Enter Justin Smoak.  The Rangers’ first-round draft pick from 2008, he played at the University of South Carolina.  While many scouts and writers across the board expected Smoak to be ready in 2010, many felt this way because he shared the same position Davis.  With Davis struggling mightily, Smoak’s chance may come much sooner than anticipated.

In Keith Law’s preseason rankings for ESPN, he slotted Smoak as the 15th best prospect in baseball.  While many scouts compare Smoak to Mark Teixeira because of their switch hitting abilities with power and fielding prowess, Law thinks of Smoak as more of an Adrian Gonzalez type.  Law cites Smoak’s lack of speed as his only flaw.

Kevin Goldstein, of Baseball Prospectus, ranks Smoak has a Five-Star (out of five) prospect, and projects him as a “third-slot hitter in the lineup of a championship-level team,” with at worst him being a fifth-place hitter.  Obviously, he expects him to hit no matter what.  This is the kind of prospect to take a chance on because there clearly is not a huge difference between the projected best and projected worst Justin Smoak in the major leagues.

Since Justin Smoak is a very inexperienced minor leaguer, he only has 207 career ABs, it’s important to read scouting reports like the ones given by Law and Goldstein. He’s only been a part of two minor league seasons.  Last year he only played in fourteen games after his signing, so obviously just looking at his stats will not fully represent what Smoak can do in the batter’s box.  Since we don’t have a lot to go by numbers-wise, I’m going to include his college stats in this prospect profile.

Forewarning: be careful not to give too much credence to college statistics.  There have been countless times that sluggers hit extremely well in college, but can’t hit a lick in the minors.  Also, remember metal bats are used so power numbers can be slightly construed.  Also keep in mind, Smoak’s solid numbers in college are representative of at most, 260 ABs a season (compared to 500-600 ABs in the major leagues). 

In three seasons at SC, Smoak averaged a .334 BA, 21 homeruns and 69 RBI.  Smoak possesses a great eye at the plate, made evident through his 151 walks compared to 107 strikeouts.  His OBP was also a staggering .448 in college.

This season in Double-A, Smoak has hit .325 with 6 HR in 151 ABs, to go along with 25 RBI and an OBP of .444.  He’s struck out only 30 times in 151 ABs and has walked 32 times.  This combination of patience and command of the strike zone is rare for a young hitter, thus it’s no wonder scouts swoon over Smoak and expect him to be unfazed when he’s promoted.  In his two minor league seasons he has hit .319, with 9 HR and 31 RBI in 207 ABs.  His career minor league OBP is .422.

What can you take from such a small sample size?  At first glance, you have to love the OBP and K/BB ratio Smoak has shown since his collegiate years.  He’s obviously a great average hitter; he’s never had a batting average below .303 in his life.  He certainly hasn’t shown the power he had in college, but that shouldn’t worry anybody.  Smoak has a mastery of every other facet of hitting: he has a great eye at the plate, can hit for average and barely strikes out.  His power will be the last thing to fully develop as he becomes acclimated to more advanced pitching.

Now is the time to scoop up Justin Smoak.  With the Rangers contending in the AL West, they can ill-afford to keep Chris Davis at first base if he continues to bat .200 and strikeout almost half the time.  If you’re in a keeper league, stashing Smoak on your bench is a no-brainer.  Even mixed-leaguers should take a chance on Smoak now, before it’s too late.  He’s definitely a great handcuff for those owners who are still holding out hope for Chris Davis.

What about you guys?  Will you take a chance on Smoak?  Or do you expect Chris Davis to wake-up soon?

To read the previous article, click here.

3 comments

  1. daniel says:

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and start placing blame on the hitting coach. Davis clearly has the ability to hit over 250 at least. What has changed since last year? Mechanics? Eye Vision? Possible injury? Isn’t the management supposed to step in and figure out what’s going on? How can Davis not be sat vs lefties and Dru not play first? Davis is killing me fantasy wise……

  2. MJ says:

    “What has changed since last year? ”

    Scouting reports have caught up to him. He has always struck out a ton, and the advanced scouts have now had plenty of time to figure out how to best pitch him. He’ll never be a great hitter at this level unless he can learn to take a few walks and cut down on the k’s. It wasn’t far fetched to see this coming.

    This is also why I LOVE Justin Smoak. He has already shown great plate discipline at every level. Thus his transition to the majors should be easier. He may struggle at first like most rookies do. But I don’t think it will take him long to hit…..and hit some more. And yes, the power will come.

  3. Jimmy says:

    MJ, I totally agree. When a minor league hitter first gets the call-up to the big leagues, they struggle or they excel. Davis excelled partly due to the fact major league pitchers didn’t really know how to pitch to him. They now know he’s not patient at all, therefore there’s no reason to pump pitches right in the zone to him. Until he learns to take a walk (like you said), he’s never going to be worth starting for Texas. Smoak has that patient approach that could translate very nicely to the big leagues.

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