Justin Smoak’s fly ball tendencies a good fit for Rogers Centre?


The Toronto Blue Jays’ front office has found themselves quite busy over the past few days, working the waiver wire, deciding on several player options and completing two trades.

It’s still early in the offseason and it’s likely much will change when it comes to the Blue Jays roster between now and Opening Day 2015. However now that 1B/DH Adam Lind has been shipped out of town for RHP Marco Estrada, it’s opened up more flexibility for the Jays to choose how they deploy their DH spot (and first base position) going forward.

Hopefully the DH spot will be used, at least partially, to keep some of the Jays’ veteran players off the turf but in the lineup. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Reyes could all stand to from benefit days off the dreaded Rogers Centre cement.

However, I’ve digressed. This piece isn’t about how the Blue Jays should use their DH position in 2015 but rather one of the new additions who is a candidate to receive at least some of these ABs, which is Justin Smoak.

Smoak, 27, was a former top prospect and is probably best known for being the key piece going back to the Seattle Mariners in the Cliff Lee trade of 2010. He’s shown flashes of potential but obviously never turned into the player Seattle hoped they were getting. That being said, Smoak says he does do one thing fairly well – hit fly balls. He explains in a piece by Shi Davidi of Sportsnet:

"“I’ve always been a guy that’s able hit the ball in the air and when you hit the ball in the air in Seattle, not too often does it go out of the ballpark and get in the gaps,” Smoak, recently claimed by the Toronto Blue Jays on waivers, said during a conference call Wednesday. “It’s something that’s going to be a change.“It’s more of a confidence thing, too. You play in the AL East, all those are pretty much hitters’ ballparks and I think it’s a confidence standpoint, knowing when you go to the plate you expect good things to happen.”"

The Rogers Centre, as most Blue Jays fans know, is a launching pad for home runs. According to ESPN MLB Park Factors, Rogers Centre induced the third highest rate of home runs in 2014, behind only Yankee Stadium and Coors Field. When it comes to total runs, the RC ranked as the ninth best scoring environment in baseball last season.

The fences at Safeco were moved in two years ago, which enabled hitters to go deep more often but it’s still an extreme pitcher’s park (fewest runs according to ESPN MLB Park Factors 2014). As those who live on Canada’s west coast could tell you, baseballs don’t seem to travel very far at parks located near the ocean. Safeco, according to SportingVenueInfo.com, sits just 17 feet above sea level.

So it does sound like Smoak was on to something when he mentioned his skill set wasn’t a fit for the crippling offensive environment of Seattle. But how much will the Rogers Centre (and the rest of the AL East) help him going forward?

Smoak was dreadful in 2014 and posted a 77 wRC+, which means he was 23% worse than league average taking into account league and park factors. Was it Seattle’s environment that held him down last season or was it something else?

Looking at Smoak’s batted ball profile at FanGraphs, he’s absolutely right about being a fly ball hitters. His GB/FB average is 0.93, which means he’s hit more fly balls than ground balls over the course of his career. In 2013, which was probably Smoak’s best season, his GB/FB rate of 0.76 was ninth best in the league and his ground ball rate was a career-low 34.8%. This helped lead to a 111 wRC+ (and .179 ISO) for the switch hitter, which isn’t great considering he plays first base but also made him far from a weakness for the M’s in 2013.

However 2014 was a different story. Smoak’s ground ball rate shot up from 34.8% to 42.4% while his fly ball rate decreased to a career-low 39.1%. More balls on the ground killed Smoak’s production as his BABIP dropped nearly 30 points from .275 to .243 while he also walked less and hit for less power.

On the surface, it doesn’t appear as though Smoak’s regression had anything to do with the field conditions at Safeco. Looking a little deeper, in fact he had a higher wRC+ on fly balls in 2014 (150) compared to 2013 (128), which means when he did hit the ball in the air last season, on average it did more damage. He just put the ball in the air far less often and was also slightly less lucky on ground balls and line drives compared to the season before. Regardless it’s worth noting that Smoak’s wRC+ at home (52) was significantly less than on the road (99).

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Much of Smoak’s power comes when he’s hitting left-handed and to the pull side, which allowed teams to shift heavily against him in 2014. This strategy became even more effective when Smoak started pounding more balls into the ground than usual.

That’s not to say Smoak shouldn’t be able to rebound, at least a bit, in 2015. Early Steamer projections expect his BABIP to normalize to .269 and forecasts his WRC+ close to league average (103). And if he’s able to hit the ball in the air more often again, I wouldn’t be surprised if he slightly exceeded those benchmarks.

That’s hardly Adam Lind-type production but considering he contributes from both sides of the plate and will likely cost the Blue Jays about half as much, it’s not a huge drop off in actual production and, as Anthopoulos hinted at yesterday, hopefully it will allow the Jays to pursue upgrades elsewhere (and not just pocket the difference for Rogers shareholders).