Justin Smoak Is Quietly Having a Career Year
The first two months of the MLB regular season has been nothing short of a gigantic roller coaster ride for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Upon waking up on May 1st, they found themselves in the American League East basement with a horrendous 8-17 record while staring at an 8.0-game deficit between them and first place. But now with May about to officially be in the books, their outlook is quite different -- yes, they're still in last place and 6.5 games behind first place, but they're on the brink of .500 with a 25-27 record (and just 3.0 games out of the second AL wild card spot).
It's amazing how quickly things can change, right? This is why the regular season is 162 games long.
While the pitching staff has mostly performed the same between April and May, it's been the offense -- without Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki for a period of time -- that's done an about-face from one month to the next.
By the end of April, their team wRC+ of 73 was the third-worst mark in baseball, and important cogs like Jose Bautista, Devon Travis, and Kendrys Morales were all struggling mightily. The past month has gone much better, with each of these three hitters turning it around as the offense's team wRC+ of 116 is the third-best mark in the league this month.
You know who's been consistently solid, though? First baseman Justin Smoak -- just like everyone expected.
Among the League Leaders
Upon scrolling through the MLB leaderboard in various offensive categories, we expect to see names like Mike Trout (who we're still sad about losing for now), Bryce Harper, and Paul Goldschmidt. And even though it's still early, we can be surprised about seeing names we didn't expect, like Zack Cozart, Corey Dickerson, Aaron Altherr, and Avisail Garcia, to name a few.
Smoak is among this group, as his 141 wRC+ and .382 wOBA both rank within the top-30 qualified hitters at this point in the season.
His 1.0 fWAR doesn't rank within the same range as his first two statistics, but we can see how significant his start has been by looking at past performance. This is Smoak's eighth big league season, and that fWAR is already a single-season career high. In fact, it took him 824 games played and 2,887 plate appearances to accumulate 0.2 fWAR during those first seven seasons. He's easily surpassed it through just 51 games played and 185 plate appearances in 2017.
When the rest of the Blue Jays' offense was struggling, he was one of the very few bright spots. Kevin Pillar got a fair amount of attention for his hot start (team-leading 126 wRC+ and .360 wOBA in April), but Smoak wasn't far behind him with a 112 wRC+ and .340 wOBA. For a player not generally known for consistent production, it's been surprising to see him be just that this year.
Fewer Strikeouts and More Power
One of Smoak's calling cards as a hitter is that he provides decent power and a fair amount of strikeouts. That's evident since he's landed north of the border, but things have gone in the opposite direction so far in 2017.
The below table compares his home runs, Isolated Power (ISO), walk rate (BB%) and strikeout rate (K%) since the 2015 season.
He's basically provided a year's worth of production in the power department in about half the plate appearances. Now that's what you call a return on investment for a player making just over $4 million this season.
We can look at his uptick in contact as one of the reasons for this success. Smoak's 8.1% swinging-strike rate is on pace to be the best in his career, while his 81.7% contact rate is also on track to be a new personal best, and it's a stark difference from the 73.8% and 72.0% marks he's produced in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
When looking through the rest of his plate-discipline stats, he's having incredible success within the strike zone -- his contact rate in this situation is 94.2%, which would easily be another career high if he can sustain it, along with being within the top 10 in baseball right now.
Having more success against fastballs certainly helps, too. According to Brooks Baseball, Smoak is currently hitting .355 with a .436 ISO against fastballs in 2017, with 8 of his 12 homers coming against that pitch. Once again, this is quite the difference from what he did last year, which included a .279 average, a .244 ISO, and just 6 homers.
How Sustainable Is This?
For a player who entered 2017 with a career OPS of .700, should we be expecting him to keep up his current .906 pace? He's made some substantial changes in his approach at the plate, but it's also worth noting that his batted-ball profile could be a cause for concern. Despite amassing a hard-hit rate of 42.5%, his ground-ball rate (GB%) is higher than his fly-ball rate (FB%), which normally isn't a good thing for power hitters.
However, what he's doing looks similar to 2015, when he hit 18 homers and produced a wRC+ of 108 with a .331 wOBA. The below table compares his ground-ball rate, fly-ball rate, line-drive rate (LD%) and home-run-to-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB%) over the past three seasons.
We can point to that as an opportunity to remain somewhat optimistic if these batted-ball trends continue, but he'll also be working against a couple other scenarios where he's outperformed his career numbers by a wide margin thus far.
One area is his platoon splits, which look awfully lopsided. While his exposure to left-handed pitchers has been limited over his career, he's posted a 227 wRC+ against them through 39 plate appearances. This is coming on the heels of a 67 wRC+ against them last year, and only posting a mark higher than 100 twice since debuting in 2010. However, 8 of his 12 homers have come against righties, and his 118 wRC+ is more in line with his performance since landing in Toronto (105 in '15, 99 in '16).
Even once he crashes back to reality against southpaws in the future, we can still be confident that we'd care about -- his power production -- wouldn't totally crater.
The other situation he'll need to deal with is sustaining his current success at the Rogers Centre. While the Blue Jays' home park is typically a solid place for offense, Smoak has seen a significant spike in his performance. After posting a 121 wRC+ in 2015 and a 100 wRC+ in 2016, it's traveled all the way up to 182 so far this year. And once again, 8 of his 12 homers have come in front of the home crowd.
This early-season surge comes with a lot of caveats, but his constant presence in the middle of Toronto's has been an important piece to them climbing out of the hole they dug themselves into throughout April. And with our metrics giving them just a 24.9% chance of reaching the playoffs come October, manager John Gibbons and his squad need all the help they can get.