Jays From the Couch looks into just how good Justin Smoak has been for the Toronto Blue Jays
Back in February, Toronto Blue Jays’ GM, Ross Atkins, made the bold claim that “one of our best teams could be if Justin Smoak is playing first base at a regular rate, playing every day for us.” The statement rankled some, who were pining for an upgrade over Smoak at first base (whether through trade, free agency or calling up Rowdy Tellez). While upgrades are always welcome, it never seemed to me like a very controversial statement. It would be very good for the Blue Jays if Smoak was a productive everyday first baseman. That would mean there’s one less position for the team to worry about filling. Given the injuries this season, that has become even more true.
Two months into the season, every Jays fan understands that Smoak is having a great year. But fans may be surprised at just how great a year he is having. As documented on Jays from the Couch, he has already produced a full season’s worth of value. His $4.1 million salary means that he’s paid to produce about 0.5 wins above replacement (WAR). He has already produced double that amount, with his 1.1 WAR ranking 14th among all first basemen.
His exceptional hitting performance this year is where Justin Smoak has truly stood out. He is posting a batting average that is comfortably a career-best. Importantly, his modest BABIP and even stronger expected batting average suggest that Smoak is not simply getting lucky over a relatively small sample size. He has improved his ability to get on base via his bat.
He’s also made improvements when he doesn’t put the ball in play. While his walk rate is slightly below his career rate (10.6%), his strikeout rate is a career-best so far. In fact, he has never posted a strikeout rate below 20% over a full season. Put together, he has produced one of his strongest walk-to-strikeout ratios, comfortably above league average (0.40 BB/K).
When he does put the ball in play, Smoak has been among the most productive hitters in the league. Among 267 batters with 75+ balls in play this season, Smoak has the 59th highest wOBA. While his HR/FB% is above league average (13.4%), it is only slightly above his Blue Jay average (21.7%), suggesting that he isn’t getting particularly lucky when it comes to generating home runs. His xwOBA on balls in play also suggests that his performance is sustainable (his .468 mark ranks 18th in the majors).
His strong performances at the plate (whether or not he puts the ball in play) have helped Smoak produce the 40th highest wOBA in the majors (among 272 batters with 100+ AB). The exceptional contact quality he has maintained over two months stands out even more (his .406 xwOBA is the 11th highest in the majors).
Back in March, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs wrote about Justin Smoak’s 2016 performance and how it compared to other batters in the majors. In particular, he found 16 batters who generated the most similar exit velocities, launch angles and contact rates as Smoak did (In the table below, I omitted Ryan Howard, retired, and Pedro Alvarez, AAA).
While these batters’ peripheral stats were similar to Smoak’s, their performances were not. Each of Smoak’s comps were above average hitters in 2016 (wRC+ greater than 100), while Smoak was not. Most interestingly, Smoak’s closest comp was Freddie Freeman, one of the best hitters in baseball. Obviously, their similarity lay entirely in their peripheral stats. While Freeman produced the seventh best wRC+ in 2016 (among 268 batters with 300+ PA), Smoak sat 195th. Smoak’s strong batting peripherals were also reflected in his 2016 xwOBA. While he produced a below average wRC+, he produced an above-average xwOBA (.330 vs. the league average of .316).
Fast forward to 2017 and the optimism that Sullivan had highlighted has turned into improved on-field results. Smoak has appeared to sacrifice exit velocity and elevation for contact. This has moved him to the top of this group in contact rate. While it’s unclear to what extent this is a conscious decision, it does seem like he’s not trying to destroy the ball as much this season, focusing instead on making good contact. His estimated swing speed bears that out (63.1 MPH last year vs. 60.9 MPH this year).
The result of these changes is significant improvements in both outcome and process. Smoak has gone from bottom of the table in terms of wRC+ to fifth-best. In terms of xwOBA, Smoak has gone from third-lowest to third-highest. Moreover, that comparison to Freeman is no longer absurd, as Smoak is producing an xwOBA equal to Freeman’s 2016 mark (of course Freeman decided to increase his 2017 xwOBA into the stratosphere).
When this table was produced three months ago, even the most optimistic Jays fans may have doubted that Smoak truly belonged in this group of batters. Obviously, the 2017 season still has a long way to go. Baseball history is littered with players who produced exceptional two-month stretches. But Smoak is a guy who was always expected to do exactly what he has been doing this season (he was a first-round pick in the 2008 draft).
The Jays’ front office has long alluded to Smoak having strong underlying stats, which motivated them to lock him down last season. Sullivan’s analysis seemed to corroborate that idea. Smoak’s performance this season (so far) has rewarded the Jays’ front office for their patience and prescience.
Enough tweets, posts and articles have been written about the “terribleness” of Smoak’s two-year deal to fill the Rogers Centre many times over. The criticism was over the top even before this season, given that the average MLB starter earns roughly $16 million per season. It was also over the top because Smoak only had to produce about 1 WAR over the two-year deal to be fair value for his money. Teams generally value one WAR as being worth about $7 to 10 million, depending on how close to the playoffs the team is (the Jays value one WAR at $9 million).
What this means is that, two months into his two-year deal, Smoak has already fulfilled expectations. Anything he does at this point is icing on the cake. Hopefully that involves maintaining his current production level throughout the rest of his very affordable contract (which includes a very friendly team option of $6 to 8 million for 2018, depending on PA).
Bonus Stats—Smoak has made adjustments in his plate approach:
I think most fans’ eyeballs said that Smoak had a lot of trouble handling breaking pitches last season. The numbers bear that out, with Smoak performing very poorly against curveballs (-3.29 wCU/C) and sliders (-2.53 wSL/C). For some context, Smoak was effectively the fourth-worst batter against curveballs and the 14th-worst batter against sliders (among 268 batters with 300+ PA in 2016).
Thankfully, Smoak has made some serious improvements against these pitches. Again, our eyeballs have likely noticed Smoak commit fewer big swings and misses on breaking balls this season. In 2017, Smoak has improved to slightly below-average against curveballs (-0.70 wCU/C, 165th out of 285 batters with 100+ PA) and slightly above-average against sliders (0.28 wSL/C, 112th). It’s likely that these improvements have been key to his career-best 8.4% swinging strike rate.
Another key has been his improvement against four-seam fastballs, the single-most used pitch in baseball (one-third of pitches are four-seamers). Last season, Smoak did fine against them, his 0.18 wFA/C ranking 147th in the majors. This season, he has been elite, with his 2.78 wFA/C ranking 17th.
Finally, I mentioned earlier that Smoak seems to have sacrificed swing speed for contact this season. His other plate discipline numbers fit that story. Overall, he’s about as patient as he was last season (similar swing rates on pitches both inside and outside the strike zone) and getting the same number of pitches in the strike zone (similar Zone%).
However, it seems that by slowing his swing slightly, he has been able to boost his contact rate and decrease his swinging strike rate. Slowing his swing was a smart move, given that his swing speed was so high to begin with (63.1 MPH; 20th among 313 batters with 150+ balls in play in 2016). Even after shaving two miles per hour off of it, he still has one of the fastest swings in the majors (60.9 MPH; 77th among 257 batters with 75+ balls in play in 2017).
*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison- UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.