How many major league plate appearances does it take to understand the value and potential of a player? Five hundred? One thousand? Fifteen hundred? It's time for the Seattle Mariners to start asking that question as it regards Justin Smoak. The first baseman recently passed the 1,500 career plate appearance mark, with still no indication that he is the kind of impact hitter they thought they were getting when they hand-picked him from the Texas organization in the Cliff Lee trade of 2010.
Smoak is a .223 career hitter. How bad is that? If you took every major league first baseman in history who was given 1,500 plate appearances through age 26, Smoak has the worst batting average by far -- sinking lower than the .241 mark of Howie Schultz from 1941-48, after which Schultz promptly hung up his spikes and left baseball to play in the NBA.
If batting average is not your favorite stat, try measuring Smoak by adjusted OPS against the universe of first basemen who were given 1,500 plate appearances through age 26. The news is hardly much better. Schultz, the guy the Dodgers traded to open up a spot for Jackie Robinson, is the worst of the lot. But Smoak shows up high on this list, too. Here's the bad news for the Mariners: Nobody in the statistical company of Smoak wound up "turning it around" and becoming a good hitter after such a long run of difficulty.
Here are the lowest OPS+ for first basemen with 1,500 plate appearances through age 26, and what happened to their careers after that age:
The other first basemen just behind Smoak with such a poor OPS+ in such an extended run offer little optimism, either. The list is full of mediocrity, with names such as Tommy McCraw, Travis Lee, Casey Kotchman and Ed Kranepool.
The Mariners are a disappointing team right now, and Smoak is just one reason for their poor play. Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero also are not the hitters the Mariners expected them to be. Smoak is a dead pull hitter (which deflates his average) who strikes out often, doesn't run and doesn't hit for enough power -- a low-value player.
What can the Mariners do? They do have top catching prospect Mike Zunino waiting for a promotion; he posted a 1.002 OPS through his first 14 games in Triple A this year. They could call up Zunino and move Montero to first. But who's to say Montero is the answer at first base? He has yet to prove he can hit righthanded pitching, and his lack of athleticism behind the plate, where he is below average, doesn't inspire confidence of a smooth transition to first base.
The next time somebody talks about trading an ace for young players, remember how the Mariners whiffed on Smoak, the Indians whiffed on Matt LaPorta (for CC Sabathia), the Phillies whiffed on Tyson Gilles and Phillippe Aumont (for Cliff Lee), the Blue Jays, having traded Travis D'Arnaud and received almost nothing from Kyle Drabek and (through Michael Taylor) Brett Wallace, did poorly for Roy Halladay, and the Twins struck out on four players for Johan Santana.
2. Crawford looking like a star
When the Giants brought up shortstop Brandon Crawford from the minor leagues in May of 2011, they knew they had a sure-handed fielder who could man the position in the majors. "Probably he best defender in our system," was how San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean identified Crawford. His bat? Well, Crawford was a career .266 hitter in the minors. True to casting, Crawford hit .204 in 66 games in his rookie season and played solid defense. But the book on Crawford no longer applies.
Crawford showed improvement at the plate in 2012, especially down the stretch, when he hit .285 over the final two months. And this year? Consider April a definitive breakout month. Crawford's huge start (.320/.393/.573) may be unsustainable, but it's not outrageous to think you're looking at this year's version of last year's Ian Desmond: the sudden arrival at age 26 of an All-Star shortstop. Crawford is one of the most improved players in baseball. He has cut down on his strikeouts and while posting higher rates of walks and extra-base hits.
Imagine Crawford, Segura, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Will Middlebooks all on the same team. It actually did happen in 2011 with the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League. Alas, the Scorpions finished in last place.
3. Upon further review, replay still needs fixing
Wednesday was one of those days (among many) that make you shake your head about why baseball still doesn't have a better replay system. Matt Kemp hit a home run at Citi Field that bounced off the hands of a security guard and back on to the field, except the umpires didn't see it that way. It took about 10 seconds for anybody who saw the replay -- fans in the ballpark, players in the clubhouse, viewers at home or with a mobile device, etc. -- to know the hit was a home run. The last people to know the hit was a home run were the umpires. They huddled together, then three of them had to leave the field and duck underneath the stands to a special viewing room to watch the replay while players and fans stood around with the game brought to a dead stop. It took about two and a half minutes for the umpires to come back and basically issue the equivalent ruling of, yes, the sun rose in the east.
Two and a half minutes may not be a long time, but it's a completely unnecessary break in a game that keeps getting bloated with inactivity. Runs are down and time of game is up -- a terrible combination. A fifth umpire in the booth could have ruled immediately upon one replay and taken care of the issue in a fraction of the time.
On the same day, Jed Lowrie of Oakland hit what should have been a double that hit the chalk of the foul line at Fenway Park. Umpires ruled the ball foul, even though the chalk line clearly was compromised by the impact of the ball. A divot remained. Again, we're not talking about judgment calls or splitting hairs. It was an obvious fair/foul call that could have been corrected immediately. But baseball does not use replay on such balls.
Imagine if such a scene happened in the postseason. Imagine the embarrassment for baseball in this age of technology, an age when baseball tracks the speed and break of pitches with military-style cutting edge tracking devices, but does nothing about whether a ball is fair or foul. I understand the breadth of replay use needs extensive debate. But there's no reason why we can't have quick remedies on obvious calls right now.