In 2015, Jake Smolinski had a pretty normal year for a guy hovering between Triple-A and MLB. That is, the path he took and the numbers he posted on the way all made logical sense.
When the Oakland A’s picked up Smolinski last year he was annihilating Triple-A, hitting over .400 with airtight plate discipline and absurd power. He more or less kept it up in Nashville, and his hot streak quickly earned him a trip to the bigs. Of course, no one expects a player to replicate his minor league numbers against major league pitching, so it was no surprise when his average plummeted, when he walked slightly less and struck out slightly more, and when his power returned to that of a mere mortal. It all made sense, and when all was said and done he was a productive role player in Oakland.
Things have gone differently in 2016. Smolinski started the year back in Triple-A, and he didn’t do much at the plate. He got the call from the A’s anyway, though, and he’s been excellent in the bigs. It’s the opposite of last season, and the opposite of logic. His batting lines:
AAA (159 PAs): .248/.310/.407, 3 HR, 6.9% BB, 14.5% Ks, 89 wRC+
MLB (164 PAs): .286/.348/.456, 6 HR, 6.7% BB, 11.0% Ks, 120 wRC+
In roughly the same number of plate appearances, he’s doubled his homer output while cutting down his strikeouts, and all of that has helped his average grow much faster than his BABIP. Let’s be clear — we’re just having fun looking at small-sample silliness, and I don’t mean to suggest there is some great conclusion to be found here. But look at that. He stunk in the minors, and he’s been awesome in the majors. How odd!
For what it’s worth, the good news is that the MLB line is probably closer to the truth while the Triple-A line represents a bit of a slump. There’s also this:
AAA (159 PAs): 79.9% vs. RHP, 20.1% vs. LHP
MLB (164 PAs): 60.4% vs. RHP, 39.6% vs. LHP
We know that Smolinski is best in a platoon role, focusing against left-handed pitchers. In his MLB career his OPS is 400 points higher against lefties, with massive differences in BB/K and power to support the notion. That makes it all the more impressive that he’s posting such strong numbers in Oakland this year, considering he’s putting in the majority of his time outside of that comfort zone thanks to the A’s thin outfield depth. But look at what he did in the minors — he was essentially in an everyday role there, which helps explain why his numbers weren’t as good.
This is nothing more than a reminder that baseball does funny things in small sample sizes, and maybe also a reminder that Nashville’s stadium might be an insane pitcher’s park. Smolinski has been one of the pleasant surprises in Oakland’s lineup this year, but his path to get here has been most peculiar. Par for the course for the A’s, I suppose.
Wondering how Jake has such good numbers in MLB despite such limited time against lefty pitching? It’s because he’s crushed southpaws hard enough to make up for it. Here’s his split:
Smolinski vs. LHP: 21-for-59, 5 HR, 6 BB, 4 Ks, .356/.415/.678, 196 wRC+
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