Seth Smith is having the best year of his career at the plate. He has slowed down during the second half of the season after a monster first half, but his overall line is still quite good. These days, .266/.370/.444 with half of the games happening in one of the league’s tougher parks for hitters is good for a 134 wRC+.
Even though Smith is having his best year as a hitter at 31, an age at which most players are expected to decline, in itself the story is not terribly interesting. During the off-season and the trade deadline, one could take about the Padres trading Luke Gregerson for him, giving Smith an extension, and electing not to trade him at the deadline (when his numbers was much more impressive) to generaet a bit of heat, but this is not exactly Trout-versus-Cabrera 2012-2013 territory. The Padres are a mediocre team (to put it kindly) in another transitional year, and Smith is only really good by their 2014 standard. He has hardly reshaped himself into a superstar. Smith is a platoon hitter whose greater level of success this year might very well be random variation.
What makes Smith’s performance this season more intriguing than it might appear at first is the possible connection to laser eye surgery Smith had late last season.
Just to be clear, I am not stating that Smith’s improvements this year are definitely related to the Lasik procedure he had in August of 2013. At least one study has suggested that laser eye surgery has not made a difference, on average, for hitters. Chad Young has pointed out some problems with that study and presented some evidence making the opposite case. My intention is not to take a general position about the how laser eye surgery might help hitters. However, I do think Smith’s case is suggestive.
Even without adjusting for park, Smith is having his best season by wOBA (.358) since 2009 (.383) his first full season in the majors with the Rockies. Given the difference not only in parks but in the league-wide run environment, 2014 is much better: a 134 wRC+ compared to 2009’s 124. Prior to 2014, Smith seemed to be in decline. This is not to say he was not useful as a platoon player, but from 2011 through 2013 his seasonal wRC+s were as 110 (his last season in Colorado), 107, and 102, respectively.
Smith is doing a number of things that have increased his value at the plate in 2014. A higher BABIP, a frequent reason for spikes like this, is not one of them. His .305 BABIP so far this season is lower than the .320 he had for Oakland last season or in 2011 for the Rockies. He did have just. a .285 BABIP in 2012 for Oakland, but that is not much lower than his .305 this year.
Smith is hitting doubles and triples on balls in play at a slightly higher rate than the previous two seasons in Oakland, but the difference in negligible. His rate of home runs on contact is up a bit compared to 2013, but his 2014 is closer to 2013 in that respect than to his rates from his years with the Rockies or even 2012 in Oakland. Without getting into all of the math, the improved rates of what happens when Smith puts the ball into play only account for a bit of the increase in value over his previous few seasons. Where is the rest coming from?
There are two sources, and those sources have a common root. First, in 2014 Smith has the highest walk rate of his career at 13.5 percent, much higher than in any other relatively full season of his career. Second, when Smith does not walk, he is not striking out as much, either. His 16.9 percent strikeout rate is his best since 2009. If we use Stat Corner’s component adjustments, Smith is have the best year of his career when it comes to strikeouts as well. Small improvements in power can have a much bigger impact when the player puts the bat on the ball that much more often, especially compared to the last two seasons in Oakland.
The common root is a generally improved plate approach as borne out by Smith’s plate discipline numbers. Through Saturday’s games, in 2014 Smith has the lowest swing rate of his career this season. Although Smith is swinging at fewer pitches both inside and outside of the zone, his improvement over last year in terms of swinging at pitches outside of the zone is particularly notable (from about 27 percent to about 23 percent).
Contact is the key to avoiding strikeouts, and generally gets worse as a player ages. Over the previous three seasons, Smith’s contact rates follow the same pattern, but in 2014 they have taken a jump to be slightly better than his 2009 and 2010 in Colorado. His contact rates outside of the zone are better than 2013, but not quite as good as his pre-2013 numbers. However, not swinging at those pitches is generally a good idea, and, as we have seen, he has done a better job at laying off pitches outside of the zone this season. Moreover, his contact rate when he chooses to swing at pitches inside the zone (Z-Contact) is the best of his career (excluding the 2007 cup of coffee). As one might expect from all of this, his swinging strike rate is the best of his career (other than 2007).
Walking more and striking out less is not exactly a secret recipe for success at the plate. Those two peripherals are among the first to stabilize, or, to put it differently, they have significance in smaller samples than most other peripherals, so that may indicate more improvement than in other cases where a player’s wOBA has improved over past years.
Of more relevance here is that taking balls and being able to make contact at a higher rate are generally associated with having a “good eye” at the plate. After Smith had his Lasik updated last August, he noticed a difference, and went on a hot streak to end the season. That was a relatively small sample, and while Smith probably did feel different, one would understandably be careful putting too much weight in a player’s subjective impressions about a hot streak.
Still, this season Smith has demonstrated better plate patience and selection. I would never claim to be an expert on hitting mechanics, but while eyesight is obviously important to the process, there are clearly many other factors involved in making the decision on whether or not to swing at a particular pitch and the ability to make contact when swinging. Moreover, those factors are interrelated. So I want to be careful not to single out eyesight as a sole determining factor. Nonetheless, it is obviously essential to the process.
One could suggest other plausible alternative explanations for Smith’s improvements this season. First, let’s look at heat maps from Smith’s recent seasons. Here are the pitches Smith swung at in 2012 and 2013:
Compare that to 2014:
The differences are fairly obvious. They not only confirm that Smith swung at more pitches outside the zone in 2012 and 2013, but in the zone he is now swinging a different pitches. Putting it simply, in 2012 and 2013 Smith went after pitches in the middle and inside the most. In 2014 Smith is not only letting more inside pitches out of the zone go, but he is going after inside pitches less often overall and swinging more frequently at pitches on the far side of the zone.
Originally I was going to put up contact charts as well, but they would be mostly redundant with what has already been stated: Smith is making contact more frequently this season. The point with the swing percentage heat maps is not to say that his approach this season has been better, as it seems pretty clear just from the numbers that something about his approach is working better this season. It is more to suggest (although not definitively) that Smith may be seeing the strike zone differently this season compared to the previous two.
Of course, many hitters without vision problems to fix have had good years when they are past the typical prime. Sometimes it is because they move into a different park, but Smith is not in a park one would expect to boost his numbers. Sometimes it is because they are platooned. Smith is being platooned this year, but he has been for most of his career. Smith is actually seeing fewer southpaws this year than in previous seasons, but the difference is not so big as to be the cause of his jump in wRC+. Moreover, Smith is actually hitting lefties pretty well this year, especially compared to what he has done versus them in the past. In any case, it would be a mistake to draw much of a conclusion from one year of platoon performance. It is not as if his performance against left- and right-handed batters can be treated as two completely different skill sets. The improvements in walks and strikeouts this year occur versus both right- and left-handed pitchers, but really, this is all small fries compared to issue of sample size (Smith has fewer than 70 plate appearances versus lefties this year).
Finally, players often have big “improvements” that turn out to look a lot like random variation in retrospect. Smith might just revert back to being a just-above average hitter next year, or worse if his apparent pre-2014 decline continues. Public projection systems will give 2014 more weight than 2013 or 2012, of course, but will not, in that respect, treat Smith any differently than any other player with his playing time, and rightly so — we do not know enough to do otherwise. It would be too simple to say “Smith had Lasik, and we have to treat 2014 completely differently.” A look at which pitches he is swinging at, though, suggests that he might literally be seeing things differently now, and it makes him someone to watch not just for the sake of the Padres and fantasy owners, but as a piece of evidence in the Lasik-and-baseball puzzle.
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.