Is Seattle Mariners' Justin Smoak Finally Breaking Out In 2013?

By Thom Tsang
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, poor Justin Smoak.

When he gets off to his usual slow starts for the Seattle Mariners, it’s just so hard not to notice. But now that he’s actually living up to his billing as a former top prospect, much of the buzz get dampened by coming-out parties of folks like Brad Miller, who stole the show from the M’s leadoff spot on Tuesday in a duel of dual-home run hitters against the Tampa Bay RaysBen Zobrist.

Never mind that the team’s first baseman went 2-for-4 to drive in two key runs from the bottom third of the order — it just wasn’t his night.

The again, maybe it’s because the team and its fan base had seen the same old Justin Smoak song and dance just last season. You know, the one where he’s brutal for the most part of the season, then closes things out with a flourish over the last two months to tease everyone about his ability to finally break out?

So maybe his .643 OPS month of April wasn’t a good indicator that he’d shake his trend in 2013, but don’t let that fool you — this is a very different Smoak these days.

For one, his did not take nearly as long to adjust as he did last season, posting a .780 OPS in May despite fighting with an oblique injury prior to finally landing on the DL. Since his return in the middle of June? He hasn’t posted a monthly OPS lower than .842, finishing the first half with a respectable .272/.372/.431 line.

If that was his season starting to heat up, he’s straight up caught fire these days (yes, I know, another perfect smoke/fire pun opportunity missed, right?).

Including Tuesday’s two-hit performance, the 26-year-old has managed to hit in all but one game he’s played in this month, crushing four home runs in just 40-at bats in the process. That’s good enough for a .375/.444/750 line … or what you could also call the top OPS (1.194) and fWAR (0.7) in the AL among first basemen in August.

Yes, eat your heart out, Chris Davis.

All small sample size silliness aside, there are fairly positive signs that Smoak is just getting it ahead of his age-27 prime.

Though his contact rate has remained relatively steady at 78.8 percent (79.3 in 2012), the fact that he’s swung more (44.1 percent vs. 42.8 last season) with a dramatic improvement in his line drive rate (23.7 percent vs 18.2) suggest an improvement in bat/hand speed, as he’s also no longer popping up as many pitches (10.5 percent in 2013 vs. 14.6 percent in 2012).

His strikeout rate might have spiked a bit as a result of the extra swings (23.2 percent vs. 20.7), but he is drawing walks at a career-best 12.6 percent to alleviate that. Is the .335 BABIP helping him out, as it did on Tuesday? Probably, though he’s helping himself plenty too.

In all, several months of promising production while being poised for a big finish in 2013 has Smoak currently being a 1.5 fWAR player for the M’s in 2013. At this rate, he could very well top 2.0 fWAR for the first time in this career. You know which other former Texas Rangers top first base prospect had a minor 2.0 fWAR breakout season at age 26?

Oh, just some guy who plays for the Baltimore Orioles these days and is leading the league in home runs, that’s all.

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