Let me just start by saying that I hate player comparisons. You know, when somebody says, “Player X looks like a young Willie Mays,” or, “Player Y is going to be the next Nolan Ryan.” I hate these comparisons for two reasons: (1) they are unfair to the youngster being compared and (2) they are rarely anywhere close to accurate. Usually the player being compared to a former great fizzles somewhere down the line or simply fails to live up to the comparison (and for good reason: there aren’t very many Mays’ or Ryan’s). This is what has me concerned when people say that Justin Smoak looks like a young Mark Teixeira. Not only is that an incredibly high ceiling to try to live up to but it also puts enormous pressure on the Mariners organization since he was the “gem” of the Cliff Lee trade.
So far in his young career, Smoak hasn’t been very Teixeira-esque. Yes, of course it’s still very early in the game for him. He should see a ton of at-bats in the second half and will have every opportunity to get comfortable in Seattle at first base, but so far, he’s more Casey Kotchman than Mark Teixeira. In fact, the only real way to compare Teixeira and Smoak was to cross-reference their first full seasons of minor league ball since it would be unfair to gauge Smoak’s long-term success based on his limited time in the majors.
Teixeira is known for his power and ability to hit with runners in scoring position while still posting a strong average, on-base percentage and playing fantastic defense. In effect, he’s a terrific all-around player of MVP caliber. How did Smoak do in his first minor league season as compared to Teixeira?
Player AB 2B HR RBI BB SO AVG OBP OPS
Teixeira 321 21 19 69 46 60 .318 .413 1.005
Smoak 386 21 12 57 75 81 .290 .410 .853
It should be noted that Smoaks stats come from an almost even split between AA and AAA ball while Teixeira’s come from an almost even split between A+ and AA ball. Both were 22 at the time these stats were compiled (Teixeira in ’02 and Smoak in ’09). Teixeira’s slugging percentage was significantly higher and recorded an extra-base hit in 14% of his AB’s. Smoak on the other hand recorded an extra-base hit in fewer than 9% of his AB’s. On the plus side, Smoak had a higher walk rate than Teixeira and a very similar strikeout rate. While Teixeira is noted for his defense today, Smoak actually had a far superior fielding percentage in his first full minor league season. Overall, it would appear that Smoak has slightly less raw power than Teixeira did at the same point in their respective careers. To his credit, Smoak has a better plate discipline and appears advanced defensively.
Now let’s fast forward to the major league version of Justin Smoak. He’s off to an incredibly slow start but has just been the key piece in a trade for one of the top three pitchers in baseball. Teixeira was rather impressive in his first big league season and finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting. Smoak is a long ways away from receiving any votes when it comes to special considerations this year as he’s barely above the Mendoza Line with only eight homers while striking out in over 1/5 of his AB’s. By comparison, Teixeira hit .259 and homered 26 times while posting very similar strikeout and walk rates in his first full major league season. Both hit line drives about 21% of the time and had nearly identical groundball to fly ball ratios.
So what’s so different? Many tell-tale factors appear be consistent from player to player but one in particular stands out and is beginning to show (aside from BABIP where Smoak has been plagued and has resulted in an uncharacteristically low batting average). As the Mariners may be unhappy to find out, Justin Smoak does not appear to have the same raw power that Mark Teixeira does. For me, this is where the comparison falls apart. As the ISO statistic shows, Teixeira (.221) was clearly more of a raw power hitter in his first season than Smoak (.140), at least halfway through Justin’s first season. This trend also becomes evident when going back to comparing each player’s first full minor league season where Teixeira (.274) clearly out-slugged Smoak (.152). While Smoak’s power should continue to improve as he matures and begins to turn more of his doubles into homeruns, I don’t see him becoming a consistent 35-40 homerun hitting threat. Smoak’s plate discipline should continue to improve and his strikeout rate is likely to decrease as he gains experience. Defensively, he should remain solid and is unlikely to ever be considered a defensive liability.
Comparisons are often unfair. In this case, the obvious reason for comparison is appearance. Both Justin Smoak and Mark Teixeira have worn a Rangers uniform, both are switch hitters and both play first base. As the Mariners are about to find out, Smoak will likely walk and hit for a strong average while playing good defense, just like Teixeira, but he is unlikely to become an MVP-caliber power threat.