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The Seth Smith Problem: Part 1

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Seth Smith has had a five-year career as a solid complementary player. Might that run of solid play have reached its end?


Many A's fans spent much of the first half of the season wringing their hands over the production of Eric Sogard in a platoon role. However, it isn't Sogard who's been the weak link platoon-vs.-righties guy this year. After all, he's hit .289/.345/.392 (.323 wOBA, 105 wRC+) against them while playing above-average defense at second. It's hard to complain about that sort of production, and it does seem that Sogard's extended run of solid hitting has finally silenced most of his doubters.

It is instead Seth Smith who doesn't hold up well to scrutiny. He's hitting .253/.333/.391 against righthanders this year, good for a .316 wOBA and 101 wRC+. Those numbers are almost as good as Sogard's, of course, but there's a big difference between the players: Sogard is playing the third-toughest position in baseball, while Smith is splitting his time between the second-easiest (left field) and the dreaded designated hitter spot. Smith isn't the Custian defensive liability that such a LF/DH split might paint him as--he's usually in the DH role because he's merely an average defender, whereas Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, and Josh Reddick are all excellent glovemen--but nevertheless, that's his role, and he's not producing the sort of offensive numbers to fill it more than passably. In 87 games, he has just 0.6 WAR--essentially a 1 WAR pace. If you're a contending team, you certainly don't want to throw 500+ PAs at a guy producing that little value, especially when he's not exactly a bargain (making $3.675 million this year, which isn't exactly a huge overpay, but also isn't nothing, especially given the A's small-market status).

So, what do we do about Smith? Obviously, the deadline has come and gone, so trading (waivers aside) is no longer an option. But first, the important question is: Do we need to do something about Smith?

Of course, he has a track record: he's a career .265/.341/.456 hitter, including .279/.357/.488 against righties. Part of the reason so many were skeptical of Sogard is that he had no track record of MLB success. Smith certainly does. Still, I think one can make a fairly strong case that Smith is not a long-term answer for Oakland.

First off, he's 30 years old. The average hitter peaks at 27. Smith's best year was actually at age 26, in 2009, where he had a .384 wOBA against righties. Since then, that number's gone to .366, .380, .345, and now .316. We don't tend to think about 30-year-olds really declining, but it's quite possible that Smith's peak was from age 26 to 28 and he is now on the downside of his career.

One factor that many credit with Smith's dropoff from 2011 to 2012 is his move from Colorado to Oakland--Coors Field to the Coliseum. Certainly, his numbers have to be viewed in that context--he was never really a dominant hitter like his 2009 line might make him seem, and he'd look better today in most parks than he would in Oakland.

But what would you expect the park switch to change? Power, right? Homers, yes? Well...

Year (Team) HR
2009 (Rockies) 15
2010 (Rockies) 17
2011 (Rockies) 15
2012 (A's) 14
2013 (A's) 6

I sure don't see a big change there.

"Oh, but Nathaniel," I can hear you saying. "Raw Homers are a terrible way to measure this! He didn't have the same number of plate appearances every season, and probably had different flyball rates too! What garbage."

Well, okay then: What would get at the heart of this more accurately? How about the traditional arbiter of home-run luck: HR/FB ratio?

Year (Team) HR/FB%
2009 (Rockies) 13.4%
2010 (Rockies) 12.1%
2011 (Rockies) 9.6%
2012 (A's) 13.6%
2013 (A's) 7.8%

The highest HR/FB% in a full season for Smith actually came in his first year at the Coliseum, not at Coors! Who knew?

"Power isn't just homers, though!" you insist.

True. Here's Smith's Isolated Power production, by year:

Year (Team) ISO
2009 (Rockies) .218
2010 (Rockies) .223
2011 (Rockies) .200
2012 (A's) .180
2013 (A's) .128

Okay, here's something that changed with Smith's move to Oakland. But just because it decreased doesn't mean it's park-induced. Smith's homer-to-flyball ratio is mostly unchanged, and even in his worst year this season, he's on pace for a career high in doubles.

The other thing that jumps out as a possibly park-affected number is BABIP. How does that compare?

Year (Team) BABIP
2009 (Rockies) .324
2010 (Rockies) .256
2011 (Rockies) .320
2012 (A's) .285
2013 (A's) .323

Again, it's tough to see an obvious Coors effect here.

I'm not saying that moving from Coors Field to the Coliseum did nothing to make Smith's life more difficult. Frankly, if it didn't, that's a heck of a credit to Smith, because the park factors dictate that he should've seen a drop in these areas with the transition. But whatever effect there is sure doesn't seem to be prominent in the data.

Of course, that doesn't change the fact that Smith has been a far inferior hitter in an A's uniform than he was in a Colorado one, it merely rules out the most obvious (and, frankly, laziest) explanation. So if it's not the park that did it, what did? Well...

Year (Team) K%
2009 (Rockies) 17.3%
2010 (Rockies) 16.8%
2011 (Rockies) 17.4%
2012 (A's) 22.2%
2013 (A's) 24.0%

And here's our problem.

Our problem is that Seth Smith has never had a really great skill. In Colorado, he was the sort of guy who was more than the sum of his parts. No, he didn't have huge power, but he'd reliably get his 15 homers and rip a fair amount of doubles. No, he wasn't an elite contact hitter, but he combined slightly better-than-average strikeout rates with slightly above-average batting averages on balls in play. No, he wasn't a walk machine, but he reliably would post a K/BB ratio around 2/1. No, he wasn't a defensive asset, but he also wasn't a defensive liability. He wasn't any sort of star, but there was nothing he did badly, and it's tough to be worse than average if you have no major deficiencies.

In an Oakland uniform, though, a chink in the armor has emerged. Smith has struck out more than ever with the A's, and his walk rates haven't been substantially stronger than the ones he posted with the Rockies. We went over earlier how his BABIPs are in the same range in Oakland as they were in Colorado, yet the strikeout increase has badly affected Smith's ability to hit for average. In 2009, he had a .324 BABIP and hit .293. In 2010, he had a .320 BABIP and hit .286. This season, he has a .323 BABIP...and is hitting all of .250. It's tough to expect Smith to post a higher BABIP than .323...which means it's tough to expect him to hit over .250 now.

And if Seth Smith is only hitting .250, then the meaning of all those non-superlatives gets reversed. Yeah, he can pop 15 homers, but can that make up for hitting .250? Sure, he'll draw a few walks, but enough to give him a good OBP while hitting .250? Yeah, he plays a decent left field, but do you want a left fielder who hits .250?

What we know is that Seth Smith is striking out more than ever before, and he has not developed a corresponding improvement in another skill to offset the problems this issue creates. He is past the age where hitters peak, and it could be that his bat is slowing, leading to both the K% increasing and the ISO decreasing. It's certainly a worrisome trend, and one that may (and should) signal the nearing of the end of the line for Smith's A's career if it persists for the next two months. Next week, I'm going to dive more in-depth regarding some of the specifics of Smith's struggles in Oakland.