Have you tried to pick the 2012 Seattle Mariners' most valuable player? I have. I chose Felix Hernandez. It wasn't a particularly difficult decision. I also picked the Mariners' most valuable hitter: Kyle Seager, although you could make a decent case for both John Jaso (bat) and Brendan Ryan (glove).
That's not what this article is about, though. This is about the player who best symbolizes the 2012 Seattle Mariners, who did improve over 2011 but also lost 87 games.
I have some statistics I would like to share with you, and they are numbers.*
* shameless swipe from television comedy show
In 2010, the Seattle Mariners scored 513 runs.
This is an exceptionally low number of runs. An exceptionally low number. There was some hope, though, that young hitters in the organization would help turn things around. Michael Saunders. Dustin Ackley. Justin Smoak, generally considered the big prize when the Mariners traded Cliff Lee to the Rangers that summer.
Have the M's improved?
Well, sorta. They did score a few more runs in 2011, but still they finished last in the American League in scoring. They scored a few more in 2012 -- all the way up to 619 runs! -- but still they finished last in scoring.
Now, in fairness to the Seattle's hitters and Chone Figgins, Safeco Field is apparently an incredibly difficult place to score runs. Here's a statistic that is both a number and somewhat shocking: in 2012, the Seattle Mariners outscored the Texas Rangers in road games.
Does that mean the Mariners actually had better hitters and Chone Figginses than the Rangers?
In a word? No, not really. For one thing, there's sample size. For another thing, what you do at home counts for something. And finally, the Mariners got to play 10 road games in Texas, while the Rangers had to play nine in Seattle. On balance, I don't think even the pointiest-headed figure filbert would trade the Ranger hitters for their seafaring counterparts. But those road numbers do tell us, don't they, that the M's really weren't as bad as all that?
And there is perhaps no better example than Justin Smoak.
By virtually any measure, that trade has been disastrous. When you trade a pitcher like Cliff Lee, you're supposed to restock your organization with young players who eventually add a bunch of wins to the ledger. Well, it's actually sort of worked. But Justin Smoak, instead of being the jewel in the deal, has been third-most useful of the three players the M's got in the deal. The most useful was probably Josh Lueke, who the Mariners later flipped for John Jaso, who wound up being one of their best players this year. The second-most useful was Blake Beavan. Somehow, Beavan gives up too many home runs, but he won 11 games in 2012 and is young enough to become a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter.
And then there's Justin Smoak. Since joining the M's, he's batted .227/.304/.382, which wouldn't be bad if he were a shortstop, except he's a first baseman. His Wins Above Replacement as a Mariner is approximately zero. Which means, approximately, that the Mariners would have been better off asking the Rangers for someone else in the trade, and plucking someone from Triple-A Tacoma to play first base.
Ah, but what happens if you remove Justin Smoak from Safeco Field? This year, he played 66 games at home, 66 on the road. In the "friendly" "confines" of Safeco Field, Smoak batted .198 with four home runs. Away from "home", Smoak batted .235 with 15 homers. By no means was he good on the road. But he did some things that might have given one hope, if one were able to pretend those home games never happened.
They did happen, and they too tell us something about Justin Smoak's real abilities. But the Mariners are pulling in the outfield fences in time for next season, and there be nobody happier about that than Justin Smoak, who will get at least one more shot at making people in Seattle forget about Cliff Lee.
In case you missed any previous entries in this EXCITING SERIES, here's the archive.