Justin Smoak could be in the final months as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, and he continues to show his value
Justin Smoak is in the third and last year of a contract extension he signed back in the summer of 2016. As a veteran on an expiring contract, there stands a good chance that Smoak is traded at some point over the next few months. Given the lack of notice before the Morales and Pillar trades, every game could potentially be Smoak’s last for the Blue Jays, so it’s important to enjoy and celebrate his continued contributions to the team while he’s a part of it.
There is a stark contrast in how Jays fans viewed Smoak when this contract began in 2017 and how they view him today. In the season and a half that Smoak spent with the Jays prior to signing this extension, he was a solid part-time first baseman/designated hitter, producing a 105 wRC+ over 574 plate appearances. He produced plenty of power (.212 ISO) and drew more than his fair share of walks (10.5% BB rate), but also struck out on a regular basis (28.6% K rate). Unfortunately, the second half of the 2016 season was a train wreck for him, with strikeouts an even more regular occurrence (35.8%), his power slightly diminished (.181 ISO) and a severe bout of bad batted ball luck (.217 BABIP) hurting his overall production (69 wRC+).
Fans did as fans do, and assumed that what just happened will continue to happen. The fact that Smoak had two guaranteed years left on his newly-signed contract just made fans more frustrated (most assumed the 2019 club option wouldn’t be relevant).
By any relevant metric, Smoak has not only been more than fair value for his money since Opening Day 2017, he has been one of the best hitters in the majors.
Let’s start with the aggregate—since 2017, Smoak ranks an impressive 29th among MLB hitters with 48.1 batting runs above average. This output is the result of both quantity—Smoak has been a workhorse for the Jays, with his 1437 PA ranking 42nd among big leaguers over the last two and a half seasons—and quality.
Smoak’s quality at the plate has been the result of a few key factors. Power is a big one, with his .238 ISO ranking 22nd among the 175 MLB batters with at least 1000 PA since 2017. His 74 homers rank 20th. His plate discipline is another important factor. He’s always been effective at drawing walks, but has taken it to a different level in recent seasons—his 13.4% walk rate ranks 15th in the majors. At the same time, he’s gotten his 2016 strikeout problem under control, striking out in only 22.5% of his plate appearances since 2017. Combined with his strong walk rate, Smoak’s 0.59 walk-to-strikeout ratio ranks a solid 42nd among the aforementioned group. Lots of extra base-hits and walks, combined with a modest number of strikeouts has propelled Smoak to a 127 wRC+, 31st-best among qualified batters.
Smoak’s effectiveness at the plate also shows up in his Statcast numbers. Capturing his plate discipline and the quality of his contact, Smoak’s .374 xwOBA ranks 23rd in the majors since 2017. Barrels have been a particularly important part of Smoak’s repertoire—he has produced the 12th-most barrels (116) and owns the 13th-highest barrel rate (8.1%).
Smoak has also displayed an impressive level of consistency over the last two and a half seasons, both in terms of overall production and his primary strengths (power and walks). Only 74 major leaguers have accumulated 150 PA this season, along with 500 PA each in 2017 and 2018. Of them:
- Only ten have produced at least a 120 wRC+ in each of the three seasons: Smoak, Alex Bregman, Andrew McCutchen, Anthonys Rendon and Rizzo, Cody Bellinger, Freddie Freeman, Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado and Tommy Pham.
- Only ten have produced at least a .210 ISO in each of the three seasons: Smoak, Rendon, Bellinger, Trout, Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, Edwin Encarnacion, Joey Gallo, Khris Davis and Trevor Story.
- Only ten have produced a barrel rate of at least 6.2% in each of the last three seasons: Smoak, Encarnacion, Freeman, Gallo, Davis, Trout, Jose Abreu, Marcell Ozuna, Mike Moustakas and Trey Mancini.
- Only ten have walked in at least 11% of their plate appearances in each of the three seasons: Smoak, McCutchen, Gallo, Trout, Pham, Carlos Santana, Joey Votto, Matt Carpenter, Paul Goldschmidt and Shin-Soo Choo.
- Only two have met all four benchmarks in each of the three seasons: Smoak and Trout.
All told, Smoak has produced 6.2 fWAR and earned about $11 million during his current contract, so far. At a cost of $1.76 million per win, Smoak has been an absolute steal—among all position players who have been on veteran contracts each of the last three seasons, none cost his team fewer dollars per win than Smoak. Right after him are Jed Lowrie ($1.8m per win), another above-average player on a reasonable contract; Chris Iannetta and Kurt Suzuki ($1.9m per win), a pair of solid and affordable catchers; and Andrelton Simmons, Anthony Rizzo ($2m per win) and Paul Goldschmidt ($2.2m per win), three stars on team-friendly deals.
Given Smoak’s continued production, some have discussed the merits of extending him. The slow market for over-30 free agents in recent off-seasons suggests that an extension would be very affordable from the team’s perspective. The main drawback is that the team wouldn’t receive any prospect(s) in exchange for Smoak. Moreover, he would take up a roster spot and playing time, splitting the 1B/DH duties with Rowdy Tellez. Without Smoak, Tellez would get the lion’s share of playing time at first base and various players could be shuttled through the DH position (for a day half-off). Plus, the team gets a prospect or two in return.
The kind of prospect package Smoak might garner is tricky to pinpoint, as I’m struggling to think of very similar players who have been traded in recent seasons (there are bat-first players with expiring contracts and then there are guys like Justin Smoak). Using the surplus value approach might help. If he gets traded around mid-season, his new team would expect to get about 1 WAR of production from Smoak during the regular season. If we assume that the Jays would eat Smoak’s remaining salary, his surplus value would be 1 WAR. FanGraphs’ updated prospect valuations suggest that 1 WAR of surplus value equates to one 45+ FV position player prospect (think Jordan Groshans before his torrid start to Class A this season). Perhaps the Jays go for volume instead and opt for a package of one 45 FV pitcher (like a Sean Reid-Foley) and one 40+ FV position player (like a Billy McKinney). Setting aside the details, these are roughly the kind of packages that Smoak might fetch this summer.
Justin Smoak has been one hell of a producer for the Jays and has ranked among the league’s best hitters since his extension kicked in. His combination of power, patience and consistency is particularly special. Regardless how his future with the Blue Jays plays out, his past and present are worth celebrating.
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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.