This story focuses on lines that might appear on the back of five players’ baseball cards:
Setting small sample sizes aside for a moment, and just going with some immediate impressions:
Player A’s results look bad, but he seems as if he’s got good plate discipline and has hit into some bad luck, what with the .200 batting average on balls in play and the 27.4 line-drive percentage.
Player B looks like a superstar, although it’s impossible to believe that 46 percent of the balls he puts in play will keep falling for hits, even if 27 percent of them continue to be line drives.
Player C looks like a great player to have at the plate, and the results look sustainable, given the peripherals.
Player D looks a little more troubling than any of the three previous guys; he’s striking out too much, though he (like Player A) looks like he’s had some bad luck, based on LD% and BABiP.
Player E also looks like a guy who’s had some bad luck, although despite that, he’s put up a league-average overall performance, and both his ability to hit the ball hard and his plate discipline stand out as above average.
All of these players have the same name:
Player A was Justin Smoak during the month of May. Player B is Justin Smoak for the month of June. Player C is Justin Smoak against right-handed pitchers; Player D is Justin Smoak versus southpaws. And Player E is Justin Smoak since being called up. (All numbers heading into Sunday’s rubber match against the Brewers, and courtesy of Fangraphs, unless stated otherwise.)
Smoak’s start to June has been as hot as the temperatures at the Ballpark in Arlington, and his early-summer success has helped many folks forget his second half of May, in which he posted a .146/.255/.167 line over the last 15 games (55 PA) of the month, striking out 12 times. It’s also quieted much of the agitation for Smoak to be sent back down to Oklahoma City in exchange for Chris Davis.
That desire to see Davis back with the Rangers was very hard to understand, even when Smoak was at his worst.
Sure, Davis has been putting up decent numbers at AAA. In 190 PA over 43 games, Davis has posted a . 331/.389/.509 line as a Redhawk. (And that’s actually worse than his .330/.403/.557 overall line in AAA.) But Smoak, in 66 PA over 15 AB, had a .300/.470/.540 with OKC this season before his call-up.
And after his amazing 2008 debut in the majors, here are Davis’ MLB numbers in 2009 and 2010, respectively (a total of 472 PA):
That’s epically bad.
Now, granted: Player B’s line doesn’t look so different than the numbers Davis has put up in the last couple seasons. But this is why “stats geeks” make so much hay out of what are termed “peripherals.” We don’t just want to know what happened; we want to know how it happened. And with all due respect to certain local color commentators, we want to go off more than what we think our eyes are telling us about how it’s happening. We want empirical evidence that a player’s either flailing away cluelessly, or smacking the ball around the park and getting unlucky about where it’s winding up.
And this is where the differences between Chris Davis and Justin Smoak become even clearer.
First off, there’s BABiP. Sometimes this stat gets a bit oversimplified – as when people claim that batters don’t have any control whatsoever over BABiP (which tends to hover around .300 for MLB hitters on average). This isn’t quite true. Some batters do exercise a certain amount of influence over how they’re hitting the sorts of balls they put in play, which in turn can lead to some degree of control over the results of those balls.
Chris Davis may well be one of them. Even in his awful 2009 season, for example, he posted a BABiP of .324, which was well above the league average of .299 – though in 2010 Davis’ .290 BABIP was 9 points below league average. All that said, there’s no convincing reason to believe Davis’ numbers are luck-neutral. In large part, Davis is simply a “three true outcomes” (TTO) sort of guy: more than 43 percent of his MLB PA have ended in a strikeout, walk, or home run. The problem, of course, is that in 2009 and 2010, the strikeout component has been overwhelmingly dominant. In each season, he’s struck out in over 35 percent of his appearances, and logged BB/K rations of 0.16 and 0.29 (0.50 is roughly league average).
Enter Smoak. His “TTO percentage” is around 37.5, at the moment, and while he’s striking out in around 23 percent of his at-bats, his BB/K ratio of 0.79 is well above the 0.49 league average. His line-drive percentage is comparable to Davis’ in 2008, and about 5 percent better than Davis’ in 2009 and 2010. And Smoak’s largely unlucky .243 BABiP has risen 25-30 points in just the last week or so.
Using a different stat, this one from StatCorner: Chris Davis’ wOBAr for 2010 is .236; for 2009 it was .308; and for 2008 it was .353 – none of those that far off from his (park-adjusted) wOBA*. Smoak’s wOBAr for 2010 thus far is .380, which is 49 points higher than the wOBA* he’s logged thus far.
“But wait,” some might say: “we all know that Chris Davis hasn’t been able to hit left-handers to save his (major-league) life. So let’s compare apples and apples.”
OK: compare Davis’ career .268/.319/.504 versus righties (which is much better than his 2010 stats in 41 PA against RHP) to Player C. Then throw up Davis’ .220/.264/.413 line against Player D, and factor in Davis’ .310 BABiP and 0.13 BB/K against lefties.
Here, we do finally see some legitimate red flags go up regarding Smoak. His tendency to pop up when facing southpaws is troubling; of his fly balls against southpaws, nearly 30 percent haven’t left the infield, and only 6 percent have left the park. As mentioned, Smoak’s striking out too much against LHP: 27.5 percent of the time, in fact. And even during his great start to June, Smoak’s only gone 3 for 17 with 2 doubles, 2 walks, and 4 strikeouts (all swinging) in 19 PA against lefties.
Still, Smoak’s tallying a line-drive percentage of 24 percent off left-handers. It’s almost impossible he’ll continue to do that and only have 11 percent of his batted balls fall for hits. And even if you factor in Smoak’s struggles against the change-up – which have been especially marked against left-handers – you have to realize that he’s 9 months younger than Davis, and has about 600 fewer big-league PA. He’s got plenty of time to make adjustments, and his ability to shake off a dozen ugly games in May speaks to the fact that he can.
When a player’s getting hugely unlucky while hitting the ball well, his numbers when he goes through a fortnight of struggles are going to be especially ugly. And the same holds for a young switch-hitter trying to find his stroke against LHP.
Boiling it all down into two simple conclusions:
By the end of 2010, Justin Smoak is a lot more likely to look like Player C than A, B, D, or E.
And Smoak’s been better than Chris Davis at the plate this year. In April. In May. In June. Versus RHP. Versus LHP. Overall. End of story.