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July 8, 2013 at 7:59 AM

Justin Smoak looking like most interesting second-half story for Mariners

Justin Smoak goes deep against Bronson Arroyo of the Reds in yesterday's 3-1 win by the Mariners. Photo Credit: AP

Justin Smoak goes deep against Bronson Arroyo of the Reds in yesterday’s 3-1 win by the Mariners. Photo Credit: AP

Justin Smoak hit another home run yesterday and is now starting to pop them with a bit more frequency as the weather heats up. More interesting to me, the blast helped push Smoak’s slugging percentage up past the .400 mark to .403.

As many of you have already noted, Smoak has maintained a pretty solid on-base percentage all season long. After this much-improved, 4-2 road trip by the Mariners, Smoak’s OBP now sits at .360 for the year. Most teams will take an OBP that good from just about anybody. It’s the slugging part of Smoak’s game that has been the issue.

Smoak post-game yesterday referenced his season-long issues with runners in scoring position, which he also does need to work on. For now, though, what concerns me the most is whether he can finally put together the type of season overall that the Mariners are looking for out of a first baseman who was the centerpiece in the Cliff Lee deal. Once that happens, I’m pretty sure Smoak will relax somewhat and his added confidence will take care of the RISP come 2014.

For now, though, it will be interesting to see what he does this second half of 2013. The most interesting aspect of this remaining Mariners season, at least in my book.

It’s great to see what Nick Franklin has done. Brad Miller as well out of the leadoff spot. But both those guys are still in their “first time around” phase in the big leagues and pitchers will eventually adjust and they’ll struggle and have to fight out of it. Might even happen next year. So, what they do the rest of this year — think Dustin Ackley in 2011 — won’t automatically tell us what’s coming down the road.

But with Smoak, we’ve seen him at his worst. The pitchers know who he is and he knows them. This was his year to put something together and show the Mariners he is worth keeping.

And I think he’s just about there.

When you look at the type of slugging numbers needed out of Smoak, many will say he has to reach .500. That’s understandable, since you want your best sluggers to be capable of that and first basemen tend to be among the best at slugging.

But when you look at it, that .360 OBP by Smoak leaves him just .440 in slugging shy of an on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) mark of .800. And that’s becoming more and more — in the post-Steroids Era period we’re now in — the differentiator between really good hitters and just average ones.

In other words, Smoak is really just 37 slugging points from an .800 OPS and I know that I — and probably most of you — would have gladly taken that from him when the season began.

Former first baseman named Nick Johnson who played a decade in the majors, including for some playoff-bound teams in New York. Like Smoak, he wasn’t a 40-homer guy, but what he did excel at was getting on-base. Johnson actually reached base at a .399 clip for his career, which is better than Smoak, but his lifetime slugging mark was just .441.

In terms of OPS+ — measuring how he fared versus his AL peers — Johnson was at 123 for his career. Smoak currently sits at 120 this season.

In other words, even now, with Smoak still below where he and the Mariners — and the rest of us — would like his numbers to be, he’s really not that far off from being the finished product we’d all hoped to see.

Really, if he’s going to be a .350 OBP guy going forward, Smoak needs his slugging to be in the .450 to .475 range.

Is he capable of doing that? Sure he is.

Since April 25, when the Mariners returned home after a disastrous road trip to Texas, Smoak has slugged .472.

In other words, he’s done it for 2 1/2 months since the opening three weeks of the season.

So, let’s see how he does the rest of the way. If he continues at this pace, a nice, .800 OPS season will occur and serve as his building block.

And once that happens, we can have the conversation about whether he should stick to swinging exclusively from the left side of the plate or not. His splits batting left-handed (.866 OPS) versus right-handed (.503 OPS) are tough to ignore. But let’s worry about that once this season is over. Right now, he’s in position to make 2013 a truly solid campaign and that — above all else — might go down as the big long-term story of the season for this ballclub.

Comments | More in storylines | Topics: justin smoak; nick johnson; slugging; second half


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