Much is written about Toronto Blue Jays’ Justin Smoa, but it is time to recognize his contract and performance for what they are, and move on
Look, Justin Smoak plays for the Toronto Blue Jays. It might be time to put an end to the constant stream of posts, tweets, rants about his contract and his perceived value. Considering the amount of vitriol and the fact that it is a narrative that just seems to go on and on, it might be time for someone to just say enough is enough. If I may be so bold, I volunteer as tribute!
It might be easy to see why fans can get on board with hating on Smoak. Since he was drafted by the Athletics (16th round in 2005), and then the Rangers (11th overall in 2008), it seems like he has never really lived up to the ceiling thrust upon him. The power hitting first baseman with 20+ HR potential from both sides of the plate, never could find consistency at the dish. His career .224/.309/.392 line has had him hovering roughly between -0.5 wins and 0.5 wins, which is a far cry from where many had hoped he would perform.
Here we are in 2017 and Smoak is signed to a deal that will pay him $4.125 M this year and the same the next. There is also a $6 M option for 2019. The ink wasn’t even dry on this deal and folks were lining up with forks and pitchforks. Ridiculous, they said.
And, to be fair, there is reason to be frustrated with what we’ve seen from Smoak in a Blue Jays uniform. He represents what fans hate– wasted at bats. So far, we’ve seen K% of 23.9% and 32.8%. While last year is an eyebrow raising number, even for Smoak – his career rate is 23.9% – his value lies in what happens when he doesn’t whiff. The obvious counter to that is that how many K’s can we live with while waiting for 15-20 HR. Well, for context, Smoak gets a lot of hate for striking out, but Russell Martin reached a higher 2016 total: 112 to 148, which is something we don’t really talk about. Now, Martin did that over 535 PA and Smoak saw 341, so it stands out more.
So, what is it that makes Justin Smoak valuable? Why not just cut him loose like has been logically suggested by our own Callum Ferguson. Well, the answer may lie in the comments from GM, Ross Atkins that Callum referred to in his post. The fact is that having Smoak at first base provides the team with flexibility throughout the roster. With Smoak as the everyday first baseman, the club can roll with a healthy Steve Pearce in LF, which becomes even more important now that Melvin Upton Jr. has been released. Let’s be honest, having a switch hitter in the lineup is also a benefit.
Let’s dig into his defense. The club has said many times that they love Smoak’s glove. The reality, though, is that for his career, Smoak has put up -16 DRS and a UZR/150 of 0.2. His 2 seasons with Toronto has yielded 4 DRS, UZR/150 of 4.6 and -5 DRS, UZR/150 -3.1 respectively. His D isn’t quite as stellar as we might think. He’s certainly more than capable of playing solid defense, but don’t expect him to win a Gold Glove, or even have his glove skyrocket his value, even if some will say that just being tall is enough to provide defensive value.
Thus far, I’ve really just presented basic arguments for why fans (and writers) might question the contract of Justin Smoak, which doesn’t exactly provide a final answer to this whole thing as I suggested. Brace yourselves, because the final answer to this comes from pure, basic, calm, rational logic. That might be a little tough to swallow, but it will help everyone sleep at night, I promise.
The fact of the matter is that the Toronto Blue Jays sign contracts based on a value they place on wins. And, just like Fangraphs and other outlets don’t necessarily agree on WAR, clubs also have their own methodology for placing a value on WAR. A source within the organization provided an explanation about how the Blue Jays value wins and how that applies to Smoak’s contract.
It was explained to me that each team places a value on wins, and that could vary depending on whether they are in contention, or not. So, a team contending will likely place more money on a win than a .500 team. That makes sense. If you are close to winning, you want to sign deals that will move you that much closer. For a team like the Minnesota Twins, or the Rays, signing Mike Trout doesn’t make a whole lot of sense since they would be spending a great deal of their budget on one guy when they have multiple needs. For the Toronto Blue Jays, they value a win at around the $9 M mark.
If you apply this line of thinking to the contract of Justin Smoak, they are paying him for half a win per season. In 2015, he put up 0.6 WAR, according to Fangraphs. While last season, he put up a WAR of -0.1, the club acknowledges that that is a risk when signing a deal like this, or any, for that matter. All contracts come with risk. The player may not perform as well as you had banked on. But, the flip side of that is that they very well could.
While there isn’t a set of metrics to measure the personality of a player, we have heard many times that this organization places great value on that side of things. So, we have to think about his contract with that in mind as well as performance. But, if you’re not convinced by that stuff (and you should be), consider this: in order for Smoak to make his contract worthwhile he would have to put up half a win, which he has done in the past.
If you consider what half a win looks like, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Darwin Barney put up 3 times that last season, and he played in 104 games. Ezequiel Carrera put up 0.7 WAR. Logan Morrison put up exactly 0.5 wins for the Rays last year. Mitch Moreland put up 0.4. I think you’re starting to get the picture. To add more clarity, the Boston Red Sox are paying Allen Craig ($11 M) and Rusney Castillo ($11M) to play in AAA this season. Smoak’s deal doesn’t seem so bad, does it?
On a team of All Stars, it is easy to wish for just one more at first base. Instead, fans of the Toronto Blue Jays will look at Justin Smoak, and his strike outs, and wonder how much longer can the team stick with him. But, the reality is that Smoak is what he is; he is what the team expects. They are paying for half a win. Early indications are that he very well could reach (or even surpass…imagine…) that. He’s slashing .333/.385/.500 for a WAR of 0.1 in the very early goings of 2017.
He will provide some pop, reasonable defense and a healthy portion of strike outs on his way to that half win mark. It is time for everyone to move on. To aim frustration in his direction over his contract is wasted energy.
*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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