Breaking down the top 7 hitting prospects: #4 Jake Smolinski

Probably counts as surprise #2

Jake Smolinski has seemed to be getting a bad rap through top prospect lists.  Baseball America left him off their top 10 list, while Kevin Goldstein and John Sickels’s both ranked him 10th (He was the 7th hitter for BP, 8th for Sickels).  I think the most surprising was the fact that Fangraphs left him off their list completely, not just because of the nature of the site but also because they don’t include 2009 draftees.  And while he doesn’t really have their upside, he’s closer to Dominguez/Morrison level than a lot of people realize.

Drafted out of high school in the second round in the 2007 draft by the Washington Nationals, the Florida Marlins acquired Smolinski prior to the 2009 season as part of a 3 man package in the Josh Willingham/Scott Olsen trade.  With PJ Dean going AWOL and Emilio Bonifacio being Bonifacio, Smolinski is the last hope for that trade amounting into anything positive for our franchise.  But Smolinski has the chance of putting things on our side if all goes right.  After the jump, we’ll take a look at the numbers and ponder why he’s being so underrated.

As we can see, Smolinski mixes a great BB/K with average power that mostly comes from gap hits.  One of the more surprising things is his BABIP; even though his skill set points towards hitting for a high BABIP, he’s so far not lived up to expectations in that catagory.  Considering how he’s hitting the ball (21% LD rate, 45% GB rate, 5% IFFB, so on), and just how much random variance there is in BABIP as well as the small sample size we have for Smolinski, I believe going forward we’ll see his BABIP replicate what his skillset dictates.  This will help his slash line, which in turn will help his prospect status.

Speaking of sample size, this is one of the knocks on Smolinski.  He has suffered at least one injury every year of his pro career.  In 2007, he fouled a ball off his foot and suffered a small break.  In 2008, he suffered tears in his MCL and ACL, forcing season-ending surgery that carried over into 2009.  He’d make his debut in mid-May for the Grasshoppers, but would again miss time at the end of the season after being hit in the face with a pitch. Due to missing time every single year, he has been labeled an injury risk.  However, two of these were freak occurrences.  The knee surgery certainly raised question marks, but he responded very well this past season and should have put the questions to rest.

The other knock on him has been lack of a defined position.  A SS in high school, the Nationals originally played him in LF.  They moved him back to the IF in 2008, this time to second base.  The Marlins again moved him to a new IF position, as he mostly played 3rd for Greensboro while only getting a handful of games at second.  Here’s how he’s done going by Total Zone so far:

POS TZ TZ/150 adj TZ/150
2B -3 -5 -11
3B -2 -6 -12

As we can see, things don’t look as promising now. However, we need to remember he is far from having an ample amount of sample size to make a conclusive decision based off the numbers. There’s also some room for hope: His biggest sample size at 2B (Hagerstown 2008), he was at +3 TZ, +8 TZ/150. And last year, while his TZ was poor at 3b, a lot of that had to do with just how many errors committed. He finished the season with a .879 FLD%. At 2B, his career number is .969%. It seems very unlikely for his error count to remain that high at third base, which would then increase his other defensive numbers.

Regardless of the knocks, his bat is most definitely legit. His peripherals are extremely similar to another former Marlins prospect, Rookie of the Year winner Chris Coghlan. Take a look at how their numbers compare when both were in Greensboro:

Name BB% K% .ISO HR/150 BABIP
Smolinski 11.8% 14% .154 12 .316
Coghlan 11.9% 11.9% .190 14 .354

There are two thing that stick out.  First is the big gap in BABIP.  I’ve already addressed this though, as the stat is volatile in nature and Smolinski has shown a skill set to hit for a high BABIP.  The second is power.  However, one of the main things to keep in mind is that Coghlan was old for the league, while Smolinski was young for the league.  After Greensboro, Coghlan would skip Jupiter almost entirely and spend the next year in AA Carolina, where his power regressed a lot now that his age was in relation to the league he was in (8 HR/150, .126 ISO that season).

Not only that, but their ISO number also has a discrepancy due to Coghlan being able to hit more 3Bs.  As we can see, their rate of HRs wasn’t much different, and neither was their rate of 2B+3B hit (52 per 150 for Coghlan, 49 for Smolinski).  If we change Coghlan’s 4 triples into doubles, his ISO drops to .177.  So in terms of actual raw power, they look to be similar because of the age difference between the two when they played there.

Plain and simple, Smolinski can hit the ball pretty damn well.  Now that we’ve taken all this in, let’s take a look at about what we can expect out of him:

With Smolinski’s strong OBP ability, this would ask for for a slightly above average bat.  Again the positional value plays a big factor here.  Unfortunately, if he’s a -10 IFer/+0 OFer, that lowers his WAR to +1.8, not nearly as impressive.  As I said before though, I believe in his defense, but it is most definitely something that will need to be monitored.

As far as his ceiling goes, he does not have much power potential due to his small stature (he is under 6 feet tall) and fly ball rates.  He probably caps out at around 15 HRs and a .370 wOBA, making his ceiling WAR in the 3.5-4.0 range based off -5 IF defense.  Thanks to his BB/K rates, his floor also isn’t very low.  If his power regressed to that of single digits, and his BABIP continues to disappoint, we’re looking at a .322 wOBA/1.3 WAR.  Not starting material, but a good guy to have on the bench, especially with his experience to play all over the diamond.

Hopefully, going forward, Smolinski will start getting the cred he deserves.  He’s certainly not Stanton/Morrison/Dominguez territory, but he’s still better than the last 3 on the list that continually get ranked ahead of him.  However, next year Smolinski will spend the year in Jupiter, and thanks to the park and league factors there, it seems unlikely he’ll have a break out season in terms of raw slash line.  But here’s hoping.

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