Where there’s Justin Smoak, there (could be) Fire


Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, is generally a sort of warning, meaning that if something seems wrong it usually is. However, for the Toronto Blue Jays, that saying has the ability to take on a completely different meaning. The team has Justin Smoak, and if he manages to catch fire, the team’s opposition better watch out.

Jose Bautista. Edwin Encarnacion. Jose Reyes. The 2015 Jays roster is lined with big names. It’s not hard to imagine an MVP award coming to Toronto at the end of the upcoming season. The team could field one of the most powerful lineups of all time, and there is a chance that they will come close to the 1997 Seattle Mariners team record of 264 home runs in a single season. While three of the Jays offseason acquisitions (Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, and Michael Saunders) have received plenty of hype, there’s a fourth that could play a key role in the club’s success. That player? Justin Smoak.

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

It feels like going into the season, nobody is talking about Smoak. Perhaps that’s because people have been talking about him for so long, and there have been no new results to discuss. He’s dangerously close to acquiring a label that all once top prospects dread: Bust. In 2010, Smoak was rated by Baseball America as the 13th best prospect in the game. He had a bright future and a huge bat; essentially he was a can’t miss prospect. Unfortunately for the Seattle Mariners, who acquired Smoak when they dealt Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers, his minor league numbers never quite translated to the majors.

There has never been any question about Smoak’s ability to hit for power. Given 600 at bats, he’s always averaged at least 20 home runs. And while he won’t ever win a gold glove, you could do (and Toronto has done) worse defensively at first base. He isn’t a speed guy, but then again, what first baseman is. This covers 4 of the 5 major tools. That fifth tool, hitting for average, has been Smoak’s kryptonite throughout his MLB career. Even getting on base has been a challenge. He’s never gotten on base at a rate higher than .300, with his high coming back in 2011 at .273. That’s the bad news. The good news is that last year, over 249 plate appearances in AAA, Smoak got on base at a .422 clip, and wasn’t even forced to his sacrifice power: He hit 7 home runs over that stretch, the same amount he hit in 27 more plate appearances with the Mariners.

Safeco Field, Seattle’s home ballpark, has a reputation as a pitcher’s park. When looking at Smoak’s home/road splits, a fairly obvious trend begins to show up. Over his career, Smoak has been a much better hitter away from his team’s cavernous field. On the other hand, Rogers Center is much more of a friendly location for hitters. In fact, on ESPN’s 2014 Park Factor rankings, Safeco is listed as the hardest field in baseball to score runs at. Rogers Center shows up in the top 10. For Smoak, that has to be music to his ears. Also, take it how you will, in recent years Smoak has consistently performed better hitting 6th or 7th in the batting order (which is where he will likely start in Toronto) opposed to hitting cleanup or in the 5 hole. Smaller sample size, yes, but it’s definitely worth noting.

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As previously mentioned, the Jays’ lineup is dangerous. Lethal. Deadly. There’s no shortage of words to describe it. Now, take that already menacing lineup, and add another guy to it who has the potential to go deep every time he steps up to the plate. That’s what Smoak can do for Toronto. Really, all he needs to do is achieve an on base number over .300 to be effective. Hitting behind Bautista, Encarnacion, and company means that he will more often than not be stepping up to the plate with runners on base. Pitchers don’t like having runners on base, and, in case you don’t know baseball, they really don’t like it when those runners score. These pitchers won’t have the option to work around Smoak with guys on base. They’ll be forced to come right at him, since nibbling on the corners would have the potential to result in a walk, putting more men on base. It’s as simple as saying that when he gets his pitch, Smoak needs to capitalize. And that pitch will come, no doubt.

What’s scarier than 5 strong hitters at the top of a lineup? 6 strong hitters at the top of a lineup. Suddenly, the pitcher needs to be perfect for two straight innings, as one mistake can easily result in a game changing rally. The Blue Jays don’t need Smoak to blast 40 home runs, or play like a former Baseball American posterboy. They don’t even need him to hit .260. As long as Smoak gets on base enough (judge for yourself how much ‘enough’ should be), he will retain a spot in the lineup. He has the power to punish his opponent, and he knows that this could be his last shot to stick in the MLB. He will be motivated. If he gets hot, the Jays’ lineup is that much more dangerous. Like fire, it won’t be something to be played with. Amazing what a little Smoak has the ability to do, isn’t it?