Entering the 2016 season, the Athletics oufield was unreliable, to say the least. Josh Reddick was coming off of a strong year, but Coco Crisp and Sam Fuld had shown zero offensive ability, and it was hard to fully trust Billy Burns’ BABIP-fueled rookie season. So, to help mitigate these concerns, the team went out and traded for Khris Davis and Chris Coghlan.
The outfield has, again, been a mixed bag this season. Reddick was playing at an All-Star caliber level before breaking his thumb, and Coco has shown signs of life but is still a sub-par player. Burns has regressed, his batting average plummeting, and Khris Davis has hit for a ton of power but hasn’t done much else. Despite giving up some serious talent to upgrade the outfield, it still looks to be one of the club’s main weaknesses.
Enter the forgotten Jake Smolinski.
Smolinski was claimed off of waivers from the rival Texas Rangers in June of 2015, providing some outfield depth the team could stash in Triple-A. Then 26, Smolinski had hit very well in the minors, and continued to mash in Nashville, hitting a blistering .349. This, and an injury to first baseman Ike Davis, earned him a call-up in August of 2015.
Smolinski didn’t appear to have a very strong season in 2015. With the A’s, he batted only .226/.288/.462 in 41 games (118 plate appearances) with five home runs. However, this clip was actually good for a 103 wRC+, despite only a .226 BABIP. Defensively, he also managed a UZR/150 of 25.1 - a better mark than both Jason Heyward and Kevin Pillar, among others. A very small sample size, sure, but if it weren’t for some poor batted ball placement, Jake Smolinski could have been seen as a 2016 breakout candidate similar to Danny Valencia.
Instead, Smolinski was mostly neglected. Davis took his spot on the roster, and Coghlan and waiver pick-up Andrew Lambo provided more obstacles between him and a return to the big leagues. Smolinski returned to Triple-A Nashville to begin the season, where he would wait until Reddick hit the DL in May.
And now, quietly, and again in a small sample, Jake has simply hit. He is batting .311/.327/.511 with a pair of home runs in 20 games (49 PA), good for a 122 wRC+. He passes the eye test, too - he’s been scorching the ball, with a hard lineout and a warning track fly ball in Tuesday night’s contest against the Rangers.
Not much changed in Smolinski’s batted ball profile. His line drive rate and hard hit rate are up a bit, and his pull rate has dropped by 10%. He has become more aggressive, swinging more and making more contact. However, the main difference remains his BABIP, up to .324 compared to .226 in 2015. That .324 mark likely isn’t sustainable, but it is much more realistic than .226 for a player like Smolinski.
It’s still an extremely small sample for Jake. A lot of his success has come against fastballs, so maybe he will regress once teams start showing him more offspeed and breaking pitches. His platoon splits also remain apparent, hitting lefties to the tune of a 164 wRC+ versus a 59 wRC+ against righties for his career. Chances are, he isn’t a true talent 122 wRC+ hitter overall.
However, since joining the A’s, all Jake Smolinski has done is hit. And by doing so, the 27 year-old has worked his way into the conversation as a potential piece for the future.