The Toronto Blue Jays are not lacking star power as they enter the 2015 playoffs a World Series favorite. From MVP candidate Josh Donaldson to Cy Young candidate David Price, the Blue Jays are rich with known commodities. Players who have produced at a consistently high level throughout the 2015 season and give little reason to expect a lesser effort in October. Where their coming series against the Texas Rangers may be won and lost, though, is in the more unpredictable areas of this roster.
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When we talk about an X-factor in sports, I’ve never believed that to be a term indicative of straight talent or ability. Instead, I treat that term as something which highlights a player whose potential outcomes have the widest range. The greatest gap between their ceiling and their floor, if you will. This brings us to our first of five X-factors, the boom-or-bust slugger Justin Smoak.
Signing back with Toronto on a $1 million salary in an effort to salvage his once-promising career, Smoak has delivered fantastic value on the dollar. Occupying a steady place in the 1B/DH rotation with Chris Colabello behind Edwin Encarnacion, Smoak has produced a .226 average and hit 18 home runs, a total that would be well into the 20s if he’d been a full-time starter. He’s also given Toronto a plus glove in the field, adding to an already stellar defensive core.
On the other hand, Smoak knows how to lay an egg, and I fear that the onslaught of top-end starters and specialized relievers in the postseason may be particularly unkind to him. Especially when the sharp breaking balls get involved. Texas is expected to feature multiple left-handed starters, and while Smoak does own an impressive .839 OPS against lefties in 2015, Chris Colabello tops him at .935. A small sample to draw from, of course, but there’s not an clear and undeniable starter to extract from the two.
In one way or another, Smoak will also be called upon as a primary pinch-hitting option during games where he does not start. While he offers Toronto great pure power potential, I’d have very little inclination to put him at the plate in situations that are not home-run-or-bust. Should a runner need to be driven in from third with one out, I may prefer a bat like Dioner Navarro to put a productive ball into play.
Thankfully, Smoak has been trending upwards throughout the latter half of the season and has adjusted to pitching as well as they’ve adjusted to him. His .861 OPS since September 1st is strong, but the potential always remains for an 0-for-4 night with three strikeouts. As is always the case in playoff baseball, rolling with Smoak as a starter involves a certain measure of luck, chance and timing.
While the big names do their thing at the top of the lineup, Smoak will be one of the names worth watching towards the bottom. This is where unlikely playoff heroes come from, and if the ever-unpredictable Smoak clicks at the right time, that job could be all his. If.