Jays From the Couch rewinds the clock and pretends it is July, 2016 and looking at what went into signing Justin Smoak
[I only started blogging about the Toronto Blue Jays in February 2017, so I didn’t have an opportunity to write about the Justin Smoak contract extension when it was signed. While Jays from the Couch has thoroughly detailed Smoak’s exploits this season and the awesome value of the contract, I thought it would be fun to write about the extension using data from that time. Key numbers like Smoak’s soft- and hard-hit batted ball rates and barrel rate were publicly-available at the time. On the other hand, Statcast’s xBA and xwOBA for 2015/2016 were only made publicly-available this season. Nevertheless, I chose to include them in this exercise as I feel they give us a window into the internal data the Blue Jays had available when making their decision to extend Smoak. All that said, I do know what’s happened since, so take this as the bit of fun it was intended to be. Also, while two posts about Justin Smoak in two days might seem like overkill, his 2017 performance is arguably the story of the season so far.]
The Toronto Blue Jays extended first baseman Justin Smoak for two more years at $4.1 million per season (2017-18) with a team option for 2019. The option is worth $6 million, but would increase to $7M with 950 PA between 2017 and 2018, $7.5M with 1000 PA, and $8M with 1100 PA.
Digging into Smoak’s Blue Jay career so far and comparing him to other first basemen helps to highlight just how solid a signing this is. In particular, if Smoak simply maintains his modest performance thus far, the deal would be fair value. However, if he makes some improvements (particularly lowering his strikeout rate), this deal has the potential to be an absolute steal. And, if things don’t end up working out, his contract isn’t big enough to prevent the Jays from making an upgrade.
First, some financial perspective. 39 batters have had 250+ plate appearances over the 2015 and 2016 seasons (so far), while playing first base. Among them, the average annual salary is $8.5M per season. Full data on this group of first basemen can be found at the bottom of the post.
When taken as a whole, Justin Smoak’s results (wRC+, BA and wOBA) as a Blue Jay has been well below-average (due to issues with time/position splits on Fangraphs, I’m unable to report WAR totals). However, his Statcast numbers (xBA and xwOBA) suggest that he’s been a little unlucky when it comes to turning good plate appearances into tangible results. In terms of xwOBA, in particular, Smoak is only slightly below-average and ranks among the top half of his peers.
His decent xwOBA suggests that, in terms of the quality of his plate appearances, Justin Smoak is (roughly) an average first baseman. If he maintains that xwOBA over the course of his contract (and his wOBA doesn’t lag too far behind), he’ll be an average-hitting first baseman getting paid much less than the average first baseman. Fair value.
His potential to be an absolute steal can be seen in his peripheral stats. He walks just as often as the average first baseman, but has been striking out far more often. This is a bit of an anomaly for Smoak. In 2119 career PA at first base prior to joining the Jays, he struck out 22.1% of the time, a fairly standard strikeout rate for a first baseman.
On the other hand, Smoak is a beast when he puts the ball in play. He generates above-average production (10th best wOBA) and above-above-average exit velocities and launch angles (7th best xwOBA). He hits very few balls softly (5th lowest Soft%) and hits a whole lot of them with authority (3rd highest Hard%). And he barrels (6th best Barrel/PA).
Focusing on plate appearances that result in a walk or ball in play (and excluding strikeouts) encapsulates Smoak’s potential to be an absolute steal. In these plate appearances, Smoak produces at an above-average rate, whether we focus on results (11th best wOBA) or underlying quality (9th best xwOBA).
Putting it all together, if Justin Smoak can get closer to his pre-Blue Jay strikeout rate, while maintaining his average walk rate and strong performances on balls in play, his extension will go down as a master stroke by the Blue Jays front office. If he simply maintains his current production level as a Blue Jay, the extension will still be a solid value move by the team. And, worst-case scenario, this is a very cut-able contract (two-thirds of his fellow first basemen earned larger salaries in 2015 and 2016, while most of the group of lesser paid players were under team control and, thus, imperfect contract comparisons).
[Fortunately, he has managed to do all the right things since the 2016 All-Star Break. He’s lowered his strikeout rate (down to 23.7%), while maintaining his walk rate (9.9%) and performance on balls in play (.424 wOBA/.450 xwOBA), resulting in an overall improvement at the plate (.350 wOBA/.368 xwOBA). Obviously, the picture only gets rosier if we focus on the 2017 season: 9.3% walk rate, 18% strikeout rate and .439 wOBA/.470 xwOBA on balls in play combining to produce a .384 wOBA/.406 xwOBA overall.]
*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.