Justin Smoak is in a heck of a slump. It was enough to get him benched Friday night, though let's be honest, he doesn't even seem like a problem. The Mariners just took 30 innings to push across 1 run. That's not an exaggeration; that's reality.
Like most slumps, Smoak's is marked by some bad luck. So far in July, his BABIP is .161, which is brutal. At some point, some balls will avoid fielders.
However it isn't all bad luck. It's not as if Smoak has been stinging the ball lately. Low BABIP and weak contact go hand-in-hand, though it's difficult to quantify the relation. The best marker is that every hitter has an insanely high BABIP on line drives. For instance, Smoak's batting average on line drives is .607 for the year.
At some point, Smoak will snap out of this slump, but I think there is a bigger question that his past month has brought up. Which is closer to the real Smoak: the one we saw in April, capable of powering the order, or the one we see now, who is seemingly helpless?
In all honesty, I think it is impossible to say what kind of hitter Smoak really is. He has about a season's worth of plate appearances in the majors for his career. That's not a ton of data to go on. Furthermore, he is still finding his place in the majors, so fluctuations in his numbers aren't necessarily the statistical equivalent of background noise.
Still, that won't stop me from trying to glean something out of what we have seen so far. While Smoak won't always be in major slumps, he might be susceptible to them. There is an interesting trend in his batted ball profile.
There are three basic kinds of hits - fly balls, ground balls, and line drives. As I already mentioned, the best BABIP is by far on line drives. When it comes to the value between ground balls and fly balls, more grounders go for hits, but hardly any go for extra bases. That's why fly balls are still seen as better for hitters, and worse for pitchers.
Interestingly enough, Justin Smoak has a .194 BABIP on ground balls, and .220 BABIP on fly balls this year. He doesn't have much speed, so it isn't too surprising that his ground ball rate is bad, but that's really bad. Maybe unsustainably bad - but maybe not. Smoak batted .143 on grounders in 2010. At the very least, it is peculiar just how bad his BABIP is on ground balls.
Clearly, Smoak tries to lift the ball, and he should with his power. He certainly uses an upper cut stroke, and those, when they produce grounders, tend to produce weak grounders. Weak ground balls, combined with somebody as slow-footed as Smoak, aren't going to produce many hits. They might produce a BABIP in the .194 range.
Without the usual assortment of singles that most MLB hitters get from grounders, Smoak's production becomes even more tied to fly balls. Experience tells us that fly balls, and more specifically the power that comes from them, is naturally streaky to a degree. Until someone hits more than 162 home runs, it is unreasonable to go to the ballpark and expect a home run on any particular day from one specific player.
Though Smoak is still young and learning, he is going to be a fly ball hitter. The only question is how extreme of a fly ball hitter he will be. The way he is right now makes him rather susceptible to streaks. He can't leg out any singles, and doesn't even seem all that capable of simply rolling one through a hole. His line drive rate is only 12.3% this year, which is low, and well down from the 23.1% rate he posted last season.
With the batted ball profile Smoak has right now, if he is stinging balls in the air, he's great. If he isn't, he's nothing. There won't be much between.
I also wonder how much the putrid Mariners offense has harmed Smoak. How couldn't it? The lineup should not impact a batter's approach, but Smoak isn't blind. He knows this team really needs some power, and he has as much as anyone on the team. He also sees the lack of runs, and until recently, was the clean-up hitter. I am sure Smoak feels the pressure to provide power and run production, which might push him to go after a few pitches he shouldn't, with a little more pronounced uppercut than he otherwise would use. That could partially explain the disappearing line drives.
Also, it's worth noting that Smoak's walk rate seems to be sinking as the season progresses. Eric Wedge wants hitters being more aggressive, so Smoak could be taking that to heart. He also could be seeing more pitchers trying to bait him (successfully) into hitting ground balls. Either way, it is a bad trend. Pitch selection is a crucial piece of any power hitter's game.
Some day, Justin Smoak will get rolling again. It might be today. It would be lovely if it happened today. We will have to live with a feast-or-famine version of Smoak though, at least until he hits a few more line drives and/or figures out how to hit fewer ground balls. Maybe the swoons won't be as bad as this current one, but the type of hitter he is right now makes him prone to them.