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Smoak, Garcia, and Bautista: the Teammate Mentor Theory, part 2

A further look at the latest breakthrough in player projection.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Texas Rangers
Justin Smoak has finally put it all together, perhaps with a little help from his friends.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we examined a group of veteran hitters who have transformed from middling to mind-blowing. Our objective: to test the hypothesis that these hitters’ sudden improvements were the result of instruction and advice they were receiving from teammates, otherwise known as the Teammate Mentor Theory (TMT). The results from last week were inconclusive, yet encouraging nonetheless. Thus, we are back at it again, looking to answer the question of how these hitters have gone from mediocre to menaces at the plate. The answers may surprise you!

Middling Veteran Number Six: Justin Smoak (90 wRC+ in 2016, 151 in 2017)

Possible teammate mentor: Jose Bautista

Count me among the people who thought the Blue Jays were silly to let go of Edwin Encarnacion and entrust first base to Justin Smoak. But Smoak has gone above and beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected by posting a 151 wRC+, well above his previous career high of 112.

The secret seems to be that Smoak is making contact like he never has before, which really isn't all that secretive. Smoak is striking out in just 18.1 percent of his plate appearances after striking out nearly a third of the time in 2016. The 18.1 percent figure is also well below his 23.4 percent career average strikeout rate.

But other than the increase in contact, not much else has changed. He isn’t swinging significantly more or less often on pitches in the zone (66.7 percent Z-Swing percentage in 2016, 67.8 percent in 2017) or out of the zone (29.6 percent O-Swing percentage in 2016, 28.6 percent in 2017). He’s just making contact more often when he does swing.

Beyond just the increase in contact rate, this may simply be the year Smoak finally puts all the existing components of his game together at the same time. His fly-ball rate, which has vacillated as low as 33.6 percent and as high as 42.6 percent, has settled in at 39.9 percent. His hard contact rate has gone up steadily since he arrived in Toronto. And, because his increase in contact rate is a result of connecting on more swings rather than just swinging more often, his walk rate is still an acceptable 8.9 percent. The only bit of cold water here is Smoak’s increase in homerun-per-fly ball rate (26.7 percent in 2017, 14.8 career). But Smoak did manage to post a 25.4 percent rate in 2015, so his raw power combined with his favorable home ballpark should help him maintain a lofty rate, even if it does fall from its current perch.

As for Jose Bautista’s potential to be Smoak’s TMT mentor, there is nothing going back to Smoak’s days in Seattle that would indicate he’s functionally changed as a hitter under the tutelage of Bautista. Perhaps even more damning is that this is Smoak’s third year in with the Blue Jays. Whatever Bautista’s value may be as a TMT mentor, it’s not that helpful if it takes two-plus seasons to take effect. No, this seems more like a player finally putting it all together after years of trial and error.

Verdict: No

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins
Garcia is having a magical 2017 season. Is the TMT the reason why?
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Middling Veteran Number Seven: Avisail Garcia (86 wRC+ in 2016, 147 in 2017)

Possible teammate mentor: Melky Cabrera

A TMT mentor that could teach other players how to post BABIPs above .400 would be the MVP without ever having to step on the field himself. So even though the notion seems beyond frivolous, maybe there is someone playing for the White Sox who possesses that special power and is using it to turn Avisail Garcia from also-ran into all-star.

Whomever this mentor may be, if he exists at all, hasn’t helped Garcia make the monumental changes necessary to reach a .400 BABIP. There’s a slight increase in hard hit rate, and a slight increase in fly ball rate, but otherwise Garcia is substantially the same player he’s always been. In fact, he’s pulling the ball more than ever (46.5 percent pull rate in 2017, 37.5 percent career), which in theory would make him easier to defend, and thus less likely to post a .400 BABIP.

But the researchers of the TMT will leave no stone unturned, which is why Melky Cabrera, and not Jose Abreu or Todd Frazier, is listed as Garcia’s potential mentor. You see, it was only a scant five seasons ago when Cabrera posted a .379 BABIP across 501 plate appearances for the San Francisco Giants. It was a magical season, both for Melky’s .379 BABIP-fueled battling title run as well as the failed fake supplement website scheme Cabrera put on in order to avoid a PED suspension.

Point being, Avisail Garcia’s current run is magical. But much like Garcia and a .400 BABIP, magic and science do not belong together.

Verdict: No

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Tampa Bay Rays
Logan Morrison has credited other players in helping him adjust his approach to hitting.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Middling Veteran Number Eight: Logan Morrison (86 wRC+ in 2016, 147 in 2017)

Possible teammate mentor: Even Longoria, Brad Miller

If one were to have fallen asleep in November of 2011 and woken up on June 23, 2017, he or she would not think anything was abnormal about Morrison’s 2017 season. In 2011, Morrison's first full season, he slashed .247/.330/.468 with 23 homeruns in 525 plate appearances. Fast-forward to today, and Morrison is slashing .247/.357/.566 with 21 home runs in 280 plate appearances. Our hypothetical sleeping beauty would nod knowingly at Morrison’s steady improvement as a hitter and move on to figuring out how the guy from that crummy reality TV show became President.

But our hypothetical friend would be ignorant to the journey Morrison took to reach this point, which included just one season in five with a wRC+ above 101. There’s no secret to Morrison’s renaissance: he’s hitting a crap-ton more fly balls (47.6 percent in 2017, 36.9 percent career) and he’s hitting the ball a whole helluva lot harder (42.9 percent hard hit rate in 2017, 32.7 percent career).

Of course, some of the improvements can be attributed to Morrison’s continuing growth and understanding of what it takes to succeed in the bigs. But Morrison himself has credited other players in helping him transform his approach to hitting. In this FanGraphs interview, Morrison cites teammates Evan Longoria and Brad Miller as well as the second-hand information he gleaned from listening to Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner as his influences in crafting his new hitting approach.

As for the TMT, this is good and bad news. The good is that we have some notion that a player has upped his game with the help of those around him. The bad news is we don’t necessarily have a single player or players to pin it on. But for now, at the risk of including a false positive, let’s call Morrison a TMT success.

Verdict: Yes, although to whom we’re not sure.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Cincinnati Reds
Chris Taylor may have had an assist from Justin Turner, one of the key subjects of the TMT himself.
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Middling Veteran Number Nine: Chris Taylor (63 wRC+ in 2016, 138 in 2017)

Possible teammate mentor: Justin Turner

Chris Taylor is an exciting TMT case study because his mentor is one of the inspirations of the theory itself.

Turner, if you remember, used to be a totally generic utility player. Before Turner arrived in Los Angeles, he never hit more than 12 home runs at any level of competition. The Mets let him go for nothing, and at the time there was no reason not too.

Except, of course, that in 2013 Turner started working with now-retired outfielder Marlon Byrd, who at the time had his own late-career power renaissance on his resume. Turner and Byrd’s exploits are well documented here, but the point as it pertains to the TMT is that Byrd and Turner are one of the first mentor-mentee combos we have documented online.

And now, in 2017, Chris Taylor may be the beneficiary of the progress made by Byrd and Turner. Taylor, like Turner, is a past utility player who now has the look of an everyday player. Before Turner fully become the player he is today, his improvement started by hitting more line drives and hitting the ball harder, both of which Taylor has been able to replicate (hard hit rate up 5 percentage points, line drive rate up 4.8 percentage points).

And, most importantly, these two swings look pretty similar to each other, right? The scientists behind the TMT are ready to call this one a success.

Verdict: Yes!

All stats current as of June 14, 2017.


Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.