Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak, now 31 years old as of December 5th, has had an inarguably disappointing career. Smoak, drafted 11th overall by the Rangers in 2008, was praised for his plate discipline and power, and was considered by Baseball America to be a top 25 prospect in baseball in both 2008 and 2009. However, his bat stalled in the upper levels of the minors and in his first couple years in the Majors, and he hit just 47 HR in his first 3 seasons (1400+ PA). And, for a first baseman who plays below average (probably worse) defense and can’t play any other position, that wasn’t going to cut it. Going into the 2017 season, Smoak had played for 3 teams and hit .232 with 106 HR in over 2500 AB, worth just 1.5 WAR. He was (and debatably still is) a bust by all measures.
But Smoak was a different animal in 2017, posting a .270/.355/.529 line while hitting 38 home runs, tied for 7th in the MLB. Out of 144 qualified hitters, Smoak was 25th in SLG%, 17th in ISO, 28th in wRC+, and 30th in wOBA, placing him in the 20th percentile or better in all of these. Smoak was the feared offensive bat that he was once scouted to be. But what changed?
In short, Smoak was finally competent against breaking balls. Below is a chart that shows Smoaks effectiveness against all type of pitches that he saw over 12.5% of the time, or 1/8th of the time:
The wXX/C statistic tells us exactly how effective a hitter was against a specific type of pitch per 150 pitches (of that type) seen, denoted as “C”. FB is a fastball, SL is a slider, CB is a curveball, and CH is a changeup.
Immediately, one thing sticks out. From 2014-2016, Smoak was utterly useless against breaking balls (SL and CB) while holding up pretty well against the fastball and changeup. In 2016, when Smoak posted a -3.13 wSL/C, only 2 players that qualified were worse against the slider. He also posted a -2.64 wCB/C that year, which would have been the worst in the league had he qualified. Assuming the spread around the league didn’t change much from year to year, it’s safe to say that for 2 straight years (2015-16), Justin Smoak was the worst hitter in all of baseball against breaking pitches. And you can’t succeed if you cant hit breaking balls; here’s quick little proof from all qualified hitters in 2017.
Smoak would have been right around -6 each year in 2015-2016, way worse than any qualified hitter in 2017. He was equally bad against cutters as well, but only saw the pitch 5% of the time. But that changed in 2017, as Smoak hit breaking pitches about as well as league average while still faring well vs. FB/CH.
These jumps are big and quite important, and very possibly the reason behind Smoak’s fantastic offensive season. And usually, I’d hypothesize that, based on these extremely noticeable improvements, Smoak was a changed hitter. Based on these improvements, the Jays might have made a nice little investment for themselves. Based on these improvements, you could probably draft him for your fantasy teams without fearing too much regression. But there is one concerning thing.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that, after the first paragraph, I’ve only mentioned years 2014-2016 as a comparison to his breakout campaign this past season, even though he had over 1700 AB from his debut in 2010 through the end of 2013. There’s a method to the madness. After over 1250 Major League AB in which Smoak struggled against breaking pitches (2010-2012), he made very similar improvements in 2013.
Smoak had been a bit better vs sliders from 2010-2012, but against the curveball, the 3rd most frequently thrown pitch this past season, he was just as atrocious. Then in 2013, his wSL/C and wCB/C both jumped to right about league average. He was a bit worse against the fastball than he was in 2017, and you could argue he was bad against the changeup, but when it came to breaking balls, Smoak had seemingly made adjustments before relapsing the very next season.
In the end, I like Justin Smoak to repeat (or come close to) his 2017 campaign in 2018. Sure, there is a history with Smoak that might suggest that these improvements aren’t here to stay. But I think Smoak genuinely saw the ball better this past season. In 2013 when his adjustments to curveballs first appeared, his O-Swing% was still 28.7% which ranked 80th out of 140 qualified hitters that year. In 2017, the O-Swing% dropped to 25.8%, a drastic improvement that was within the top 25% in baseball. Smoak didn’t just make better contact on breaking balls, he stopped swinging at the junk, too. He may never be what he was once expected to be, but he has some good years left, and I’m buying into the breakout campaign. He’s a (very) late bloomer, but at 30 years young, Justin Smoak has developed into the middle of the order power hitter that many scouts thought he would be.
Photo: LANCE IVERSEN-USA TODAY SPORTS