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<  Gary Hill - High Heat

A surprising baseball quiz

By Gary Hill

Here is a quiz: Which player would you rather have for the 2013 season?

• Player A: .270 BA, .367 OBP, .450 SLG, .817 OPS
• Player B: .261 BA, .353 OBP, .434 SLG, .787 OPS

Want more information?

• Player A: 12.7 walk rate, 23.2 K rate, 27.2 PA per HR
• Player B: 11.5 walk rate, 17.7 K rate, 30.6 PA per HR

There are some differences between the two players this season.

• Player A: 354 PA, 13 HR, 31 RBI
• Player B: 521 PA, 17 HR, 81 RBI

Players B has taken 167 more plate appearances on the season and has batted almost twice as many times with runners in scoring position (155 plate appearances to 89).

If you have not guessed by now, Player A is Justin Smoak and Player B is Prince Fielder.

The counting stats sway towards Fielder thanks to a wide gulf in 2013 plate appearances. The massive disparity has to do with the plate-appearance gap in general and chances to hit with runners in scoring position specifically. As it turns out, hitting behind Miguel Cabrera has some serious advantages. Three of the top seven hitters with the most plate appearances with RISP play for the Tigers.

• Dustin Pedroia, 170
• Mike Napoli, 158
• Prince Fielder, 155
• Miguel Cabrera, 152
• Jay Bruce, 152
• Brandon Phillips, 152
• Victor Martinez, 150

The other major factor in the RBI gap is that Fielder has been much more productive with his RISP chances. Here are their numbers with RISP:

Fielder: 36 for 131 (.275), 5 HR, 61 RBI, 19 BB
Smoak: 17 for 73 (.233) 1 HR, 16 RBI, 16 BB

However, the RBI difference should not mask the fact that Smoak is having a better season than the hulking Detroit first baseman in terms of percentages. Smoak has quietly made impressive strides in his offensive game over the most recent calendar year.

Over the past 365 days, Smoak is hitting .275 with 19 homers and 24 doubles. He boasts the 38th-best OPS (.827) in baseball during that time for all players with 300 at-bats or more. He finds himself ahead of big names like Pujols, Pedroia, Zimmerman, Holliday and Napoli.

Smoak has been one of the best first basemen in the game for the past month. He maintains the second-best OPS in the American League (.896) behind only Edwin Encarnacion (.952) for all players at his position the last 30 days. He is hitting .361 with four homers in his last 10 games.

What has made the difference?

The approach Smoak has taken has been the catalyst to his offensive awakening. His 12.7 percent walk rate is among the elite in MLB.

• Joey Votto, 16.7
• Shin-Soo-Choo, 14.1
• Miguel Cabrera, 14.1
• Adam Dunn, 13.5
• Mike Trout, 13.5
• Dan Uggla, 13.5
• Dexter Fowler, 13.3
• Paul Goldschmidt, 13.2
• Carlos Santana, 13.2
• Jose Bautista, 13.1
• Justin Smoak, 12.7
• Billy Butler, 12.7
• Edwin Encarnacion, 12.5
• Joe Mauer, 12.4

His previous high in walks came in 2011 with 55. He has already been issued 45 free passes this season and there is still a month and a half to go.

When the ball is in the zone he is whacking it with more authority. His line-drive rate is sitting at a career high 23.6 percent, according to FanGraphs.com. The rate was 18.2 percent last season and 13.8 percent the year before.

He needs just eight doubles and six homers to match career highs in both categories. His batting average is 30 points over his previous high.

What does this mean?

Smoak has clearly secured the first base job for the Mariners moving into next season. Not only should his production over the past calendar year warrant confidence, but his continued progression could land him among the top 10 offensive first basemen in the game in the very near future.

Here are the top first basemen in 2013 according to OPS (miminum 300 at-bats):

1. Chris Davis, 1.054
2. Joey Votto, .943
3. Paul Goldschmidt, .927
4. Edwin Encarnacion, .903
5. Freddie Freeman, .867
6. Allen Craig, .833
7. Kendrys Morales, .818
8. Justin Smoak, .817
9. Brandon Belt, .815
10. Adam Lind, .811
12. Adrian Gonzalez, .809
14. Prince Fielder, .784
15. Ryan Howard, .784
16. Mike Napoli, .778
17. Eric Hosmer, .775
19. Albert Pujols, .767
20. Anthony Rizzo, .764
21. Mitch Moreland, .752
22. Mark Trumbo, .749
23. Justin Morneau, .743
25. Nick Swisher, .735

Smoak is still only 26 years of age so it is reasonable to assume there could be plenty of room for growth moving forward. However, he still maintains tremendous value to the M's even if his progress stalls and he's simply a league-average first baseman.

This is the list of somewhat prominent upcoming free-agent first basemen:

• Lance Berkman
• Jason Giambi
• Travis Hafner
• Paul Konerko
• Casey Kotchman
• James Loney
• Justin Morneau
• Mike Napoli
• Lyle Overbay
• Carlos Pena
• Kevin Youkilis

Not only is it likely Smoak will be better than everyone on the list moving forward, but he is under team control and is not expensive.

The Mariners benefit more from rolling into 2014 with Smoak at first while funneling funds to clear places of need such as spots in the outfield. The more places they can fill now the more resources they can focus in specific positions.

The Mariners are certainly hoping that Smoak will continue to develop into the middle-of-the-order bat they have be salivating for. He has already done enough, however, to earn him the job for 2014.

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