Toronto Blue Jays fans don’t need to worry. Justin Smoak will not be second half of 2016 Michael Saunders
Blue Jays fans are worried that Justin Smoak will replicate Michael Saunders’ 2016 post-all star collapse. The premise is that they both seemed to come out of nowhere to have strong 1st halves. The thing is, while their results seem similar, their luck and performance stats make it pretty clear that Smoak’s 2017 season has been based upon a much more solid foundation than the first half of Saunders’ 2016 season.
Over roughly the same plate appearances, the two Blue Jays produced roughly the same overall offensive production (wRC+), batting average and on-base percentage. Smoak has, however, generated more power than Saunders (SLG and ISO). He’s done so without having to sacrifice plate discipline, walking more often and striking out far less often than Saunders did in his all-star first half last season.
Saunders’ .377 first half BABIP should jump off the screen. After entering 2016 with a career .290 BABIP, Saunders blew that mark out of the water. All else equal, if he had instead posted his career BABIP, Saunders would’ve registered a much less spectacular first half AVG of .246, below the 2016 MLB average (.255).
In comparison, Smoak’s BABIP is in the realm of normal so far this season, relative to his pre-2017 career (.262) and the MLB standard (.300). All else equal, if he had instead posted his career BABIP, Smoak would’ve still produced a first half AVG of .255, equal to the 2017 MLB average (.255). Given Smoak’s power (10th highest ISO in MLB), a league average batting average is more than acceptable.
Another aspect to consider is each batter’s home run-to-fly ball ratio. In general, higher HR/FB% imply more power luck, and Smoak has the higher ratio among the two Blue Jays. However, using the HR/FB% as a luck indicator requires some important context, as more powerful hitters can maintain higher ratios.
Prior to the 2016 season, Saunders maintained a career HR/FB% of 10.9%. So, even in terms of power, it seems Saunders was getting very lucky. Smoak’s pre-2017 HR/FB% is 13.7%, implying that he too has been the beneficiary of an inflated HR/FB%. That said, Smoak’s HR/FB% increased noticeably when he became a Blue Jay (11.9% before, 21.3% over the 2015-16 seasons). It might be more fair to say that Smoak’s HR/FB% is only slightly higher than his Blue Jay mark, in which case his power is much more sustainable.
Finally, let’s get into my bread and butter—the Statcast numbers. These stats make it very clear that Smoak’s underlying performance has been far superior to Saunders’ first half performance last year.
Based on exit velocity and launch angle, Smoak’s expected batting average (.312 xBA) and expected weighted on-base average (.417 xwOBA) have both been far higher than Saunders’ (.260 xBA, .347 xwOBA). Smoak has generated some of the best contact in the majors this season, ranking 3rd in xBA and 4th in xwOBA (among 206 batters with 200+ ABs).
Given those rankings, it shouldn’t be surprising that he has barreled with the best of them. Smoak has barreled the ball in nearly 11% of plate appearances, third most among that same group of batters. Statcast also counts two other types of productive contact—solid contact and flares/burners. Smoak has generated good contact (barrel, solid contact or flare/burner) in 34.4% of his plate appearances, ranking fifth in the majors. [Jays note: Kendrys Morales ranks fourth in good contact rate.]
Justin Smoak has been one of the league’s best hitters so far in 2017 and a fundamentally better performer than Michael Saunders was at this point last year. Ultimately, his results over the second half of the season will be determined by a combination of many factors, namely his performance and luck. But the numbers make me fairly confident that Justin Smoak will, at the very least, maintain his strong start to a much greater degree than Michael Saunders did.
*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.