Seth Smith: The Final Piece Rises

Before this year, I had no idea how big Seth Smith was. I knew he was a perpetual 4th outfielder while playing for the A’s and Rockies, always getting plenty of playing time but never really making a name for himself. I knew he killed the Padres, but I always thought of him a Chris Denorfia type of player: right around 6 feet tall, right around 200 pounds, more slap-hitter than power guy.

Then I saw him in comparison to other Padres hitters, and I realized that he’s kind of a big dude. He’s like what Clayton Richard would look like if he were an outfielder. Remember that picture of Clayton Richard going chest to chest with Matt Kemp? Smith’s a bit smaller, but not much.

Clayton Richard will pump *clap* you up.

When Padres GM Josh Byrnes traded veteran setup reliever Luke Gregerson for Smith, I was pretty cool with it. Others were looking for the team to make a bigger splash, adding a starting outfielder. I knew that given the team’s financial constraints and the success of Will Venable last season, it was much more likely the team was looking to add a complementary piece. My big problem with the trade was that Byrnes then went on the radio and called Smith “the final piece.” It’s a nickname that has stuck, at least with many of us here at Padres Public.

Now we’re 7 weeks into the the 2014 season, and The Final Piece is not only justifying Josh Byrnes’ decision to trade for him, he’s been one of the best hitters in the league. After slugging his 5th home run of the season Sunday in Colorado, Smith raised his wRC+¬†for the year to 192*. In the month of May, it’s an outrageous 284. For some context, in 2012 Chase Headley’s best month of his terrific season was a 197 wRC+ in September/October. In Venable’s late-season break out last year, his best month was a 205 wRC+. Through 19 days of May, Seth Smith is crushing both those very impressive performances.

*wRC+ stands for weighted Runs Created, adjusted for park and league factors. It is a lot like OPS+ except that it is based on OBA rather than OPS. I don’t think there is a statistic for measuring offensive performance that does a better job than wRC+, and given that it is based on a 100 = average scale, it’s really easy to decipher. Just don’t ask me to do the math myself.

Not only that, he’s hitting better than anyone in baseball not named Troy Tulowitzki. That’s right, Seth Smith is 2nd in all of baseball (qualified players only, of course) in wRC+. Tulowitzki, as you saw this weekend, has been an unstoppable force this season, and the only player who has even come close to him is The Final Piece. Yasiel Puig jumped ahead of Smith for a couple days, but an 0-fer Sunday dropped him back. Big name players like Jose Bautista, Chase Utley, Giancarlo Stanton, Mark Teixeira, and Victor Martinez are all crushing baseballs too, but none of them are doing so quite as well as Seth Smith is.

One of the things you’ll notice about the other players topping that list is how many more plate appearances they have than Smith. Tulowitzski has 30 more, or about 7 games worth, but many of them have 50-60 more, which is 12 to 15 more games. So while Smith, in rate stats, is sitting right up there near the top of the leaders, in counting stats he’s well behind most of them.

The reason for this is how Bud Black has smartly chosen to use Smith. For his career, Smith has a 56 wRC+ against left-handed pitching. He was acquired because the Padres struggled against right-handed pitching in 2013, and Black, even without Carlos Quentin most of the season, has stuck to the plan of having Smith face right-handed pitching almost exclusively. Of Smith’s 144 plate appearances, only 15 have come against left-handed pitchers. Most recently, Smith drew a walk against Rex Brothers Sunday, and then was called for base-running interference sliding into 2nd base, which resulted in a triple play for the Rockies. Not that has anything to do with anything, except it was a huge play in the game. On replay, Quentin looked like he may have been out at first regardless, had the play been challenged.

So what happens next, and how much value can a player have when he is limited to facing only right-handed pitching? Seth Smith is a free agent after this season. If he’s able to stay hot through the end of the year and finish among the top offensive performers in the league, how big a contract can a strict platoon player be expected to receive?

The Padres have Carlos Quentin, who has looked incredibly pained running the bases and tweaked his groin Sunday doing just that, under contract through 2015, and behind him are young right-handed slugger prospects Rymer Liriano and Hunter Renfroe (numbers 2 and 5 on Padres Prospects’ top 25 list for 2014). Having a lefty available to spell the always aching veteran and/or protect the younger talent would make Smith a valuable asset to hold on to.

What locking up Smith would cost, I’m not sure. I’m not even sure what market value for a player of Smith’s skill-set would be. If he rakes all year, continuing to benefit from facing righties nearly 90% of the time, heading into free agency without the burden of an expensive and value-crushing qualifying offer, would any team pay him like an everyday player knowing he’d be a significantly worse player if they played him every day? Would the Padres even threaten to give him a $14 million qualifying offer as a bargaining tool to get him to stay on a cheaper multi-year deal?

If the Padres aren’t competing for a playoff spot this summer, should they cut their losses and trade Smith? What could they really expect to get in exchange for him, given all the qualifiers to whatever his numbers might be in late July and that the team receiving him would only get two months of his crazy platoon splits? More importantly, would a GM trading for Smith this summer then go on the radio and call him The Final Piece to their roster puzzle heading toward the playoffs?

As your local Final Piece expert, these are the things that keep me up at night. Unfortunately, I’m not an expert on what to do with a valuable asset with a limited skill-set who has a breakout season in his final year before hitting free agency, and I don’t have a lot of answers. Stay tuned.

The Vocal Minority posts on Mondays. We also Norf on Norfdays and take phrases that front office types use and then hold them against them in perpetuity. That’s how we got our name! Follow me on Twitter. Almost all the other members of Padres Public have more followers than me, and I get envious.

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  • Lonnie Brownell

    When the Smith/Gregerson deal happened, I read this “Who’s hot on the A’s now” article, written as they were heading into the 2013 playoffs:

    http://www.athleticsnation.com/2013/10/3/4799936/oakland-athletics-alds-playoffs-hot-cold-smith-donaldson-moss-cespedes-crisp

    Which got my hopes up, given how Smith had Lasik surgery in August and came back hitting the snot out of the ball, after slumping through the middle of the season. Was hoping it wasn’t a fluke, that there actually was a cause and effect there. Maybe so. Keeping the faith (in medical science) over here.

    • VM David

      That’s interesting. Your post reminded me of something I saw on Fangraphs a year or so ago (here it is: http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy/could-lasik-help-dan-uggla/ ) re: LASIK. Going to do some reading…

      • Lonnie Brownell

        And that article is also interesting, showing that you can’t view Lasik as a universal fix for any given player’s problems with see ball/hit ball. However, it also shows that it can, or might, help some, but might not provide long-term benefits.

        Seth appears to be in that age group that is most likely to benefit; in any case, he *is* hitting well, for whatever reason.

        Now, if they can just invent a Lasik-like quick-recovery TJ surgery, we’d be good.

        (PS–the link to the Fangraphs page has a close-parent “)” on the end that messes it up; delete that and reload and it comes up.)

      • VM David

        You’re fast, because I edited that link right after I posted!

      • Lonnie Brownell

        Well, fast in some ways, slow in others…

        Saw your tweet, came over here, read the Fangraphs article, wrote the above and tweeted about it…then saw that you had posted a series of tweets covering the same ground.

        BTW, Greg Vaughn was who initially came to mind as an example of someone who at least claimed that Lasik surgery helped him become a 50 HR hitter. Performance enhancing procedures, they call them.

  • GoldenBoy

    I’d be in favor of signing both Smith & Denorfia to 2-3 year extensions right now. It likely could be done at an affordable price, and these are good guys to have on your team. Denorfia & Smith are platoon guys who consistently perform. And the team really should be realistically viewing Carlos Quentin as a bench bat / occasional starter for the remainder of his contract.