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Blue Jays: Will Justin Smoak be that big of a black hole at first base?

Brendan Panikkar
Jul 10, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) reacts after hitting a double during the fifth inning in a game against the Detroit Tigers at Rogers Centre. The Toronto Blue Jays won 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 10, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) reacts after hitting a double during the fifth inning in a game against the Detroit Tigers at Rogers Centre. The Toronto Blue Jays won 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /
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What kind of season will Justin Smoak have at first base for the Blue Jays? If he can reach his potential, his upside would be a tremendous boon for an already powerful lineup.

The Toronto Blue Jays have a big challenge to figure out throughout the rest of spring and likely a month or two into the regular season. That is how they are going to get any sort of value out of the 1st base position as Justin Smoak is going to be the guy getting the majority of the at-bats at 1st base. They have options like Steve Pearce and the occasional game at 1st from Kendrys Morales to limit the amount of at-bats Smoak will get, but for now, it will be Smoak as the everyday 1st baseman.

Everyone has heard the story of how Smoak was once a highly touted prospect with the Texas Rangers, and was the top prospect going from the Rangers to the Seattle Mariners in the Cliff Lee deal, and more. It just simply has not worked out for Smoak thus far in his career. He has never had a season with an fWAR of higher than 0.7 and seems to alternate season to season at being below replacement level and slightly above replacement level. Last season, Smoak had an fWAR of -0.1.

It has been a bit of a wild ride for Justin Smoak thus far in his career. He simply has not lived up to his expectations as a once highly touted prospect with the Rangers. With Smoak being the guy who will be taking the reigns at 1st base for the Blue Jays in 2017, let’s look at his tenure with the ball club.

2015

In 2015, Justin Smoak formed a very productive platoon partner with Chris Colabello. Smoak’s production in the platoon was quite nice for a guy who logged 328 plate appearances:

  • 18 HR, 59 RBI, 8.8 BB%, 26.2 K%, .243 ISO, .226/.299/.470/.768, 108 wRC+, 0.6 fWAR

Defensively, Smoak was quite good in 2015. He had a DRS (defensive runs saved) of 4, which was 12th best of all MLB 1st baseman with at least 300+ plate appearances. In terms of dWAR, Smoak was 7th best of all 1st baseman. His lengthy wingspan and good glove came in handy in 2015 and helped his fWAR stay above replacement level.

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2015 wasn’t much of a roller coaster ride for Smoak. For a guy who strikes out as much as he does, Smoak was actually quite effective in the role he was used.

2016

Unlike 2015, 2016 was much more of a roller coaster ride for Justin Smoak. The platoon of Colabello and Smoak was extremely short lived in 2016 as Colabello was suspended in late April. Even before his suspension, Colabello was virtually useless with the bat.

Smoak took over as the everyday guy at 1st base when Colabello was suspended and he actually rewarded the Blue Jays with a very good month of May. In May, Smoak hit .309/.375/.521/.896, a very good slashline. From May onwards, it went very downhill for Smoak. June was abysmal as he hit .148/.246/.296/.542.

Midway through July, yet another month that Smoak was struggling, the Blue Jays turned heads by signing him to a contract extension. It was a curious move as outside of the month of May, Smoak was not having a good season. The extension was for $4.125 million in 2017 and 2018 with an option for 2019 worth $6 million.

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As the season went along, the extension looked worse and worse for the team as Smoak was basically useless. He finished the season with the following numbers in 341 plate appearances:

  • 14 HR, 34 RBI, 11.7 BB%, 32.8 K%, .174 ISO, .217/.314/.391/.705, 90 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR

Smoak was below replacement level. He hit for less power, drove in fewer runs, struck out more, hit for a lower average, and was below major league average in the wRC+ department.

As the off-season went along and spring training started, Smoak was anointed the 2017 everyday guy at 1st base, at least for now. The ire of Blue Jays fans at this decision was strong, and rightfully so. Smoak had a terrible 2016 season. However, how much of a black hole with Smoak be in 2017? Maybe not that much of a black hole. While there are many negatives with Smoak, let’s look at the few main positives he’s brought to this team in his 2 year tenure.

1. Power Potential

There is no denying the power potential that Justin Smoak has. If you combine his two seasons from a complete power perspective, it looks as follows:

  • 669 PA, 32 HR, 93 RBI

In his two seasons being largely a platoon guy, when you combine those seasons, the amount of at-bats totals what one could expect over a full season for an everyday guy. That’s a good power season. To put into perspective for Blue Jays fans, let’s look at Chris Carter‘s 2016 with the Milwaukee Brewers.

  • 644 PA, 41 HR, 94 RBI

There is obviously a lot of flaws in the offensive production both Justin Smoak and Chris Carter bring to the table. Last season, both of them struck out over 30% of the time. They had very low .200 batting averages, and barely above .315 OBP’s. Smoak and Carter are quite similar in nearly every aspect. Many fans were pining for the Blue Jays to cut ties with Smoak and add Carter. However, in adding Carter, you’re not gaining much more than you would with a full season of Smoak. In the end, Smoak only will cost $1.125 million more.

The Blue Jays likely see the power potential of Smoak and like what they see for a guy who will bat in the bottom 3rd of the order. You combine 2015 and 2016 from a pure power perspective, for a guy batting 7th or 8th, that is fine production.

2. Base on Balls

Despite the high strike out percentage, it’s surprising to many that Smoak actually has a decent eye at the plate. In 2015, Smoak walked 8.8% of the time. He bumped that up to 11.7% in 2016. He does have the ability to take a base via the walk.

For Smoak’s career, he has a BB% of 10.6%. Making that comparison to Chris Carter, and he is at 11.6% for his career. Smoak has also struckout much less in his career than Carter.

The plan is for Smoak to play 5-6 innings in nearly every spring game. For a guy with a long swing, this could help Smoak get into a rhythm early on and carry it into the start of the season. This could also help Smoak with his eye. He just never seems to be able to lay off the breaking ball. The ability for him to play often and early in the spring could help with his eye and get into an early rhythm. Perhaps we see another uptick in base on balls in 2017.

3. Defense

The defensive aspect of Justin Smoak’s game has largely been touched on already. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked.

During his Blue Jays career, Smoak has been a borderline top 10 defensive first baseman in all of baseball. As mentioned above, Smoak in 2015 was 7th best in dWAR and he was 12th best with 4 defensive runs saved. In 2016, Smoak was 20th in dWAR and he was 34th in defensive runs saved. It was a down year for Smoak defensively but his often discussed wingspan is something that intrigues the Blue Jays to Smoak.

If Smoak is somewhere in between 2015 and 2016 defensively, he can get back to being a top 10 defensive 1st baseman in all of baseball. That does contribute value and should help Smoak stay a bit above replacement level.

4. Batted Ball Profiles

Despite the low batting average, Smoak’s batted ball profiles actually look quite good and potentially promising going forward. When looking at it all, it is a mystery why he just can’t seem to put it together.

For Smoak’s career, the batted ball profiles break down as follows:

  • 19.9 LD%, 38.9 GB%, 41.2 FB%, 13.7 HR/FB%
  • 48.3 Pull %, 31.5 Center %, 20.2 Oppo %
  • 16.6 Soft %, 49.0 Medium %, 34.3 Hard %

Smoak does seem to be able to spray the ball at a decent rate as he isn’t extremely pull heavy. When he does make contact, it’s usually very solid contact as evident by the contact rates. He also puts the ball in the air at a decent rate and when he does that, nearly 15% of the time in his career, the ball leaves the yard.

Smoak’s batted ball profiles don’t look so terrible. They’re quite interesting and could bode well for a full season. He does have quite a long swing and has stated multiple times that he needs consistent at bats as he is quite a streaky hitter. The more at bats he gets, the quicker his swing tends to get. The fewer at bats don’t do Smoak any favours and we’ve seen prolonged slumps when he doesn’t play much.

The Verdict

Justin Smoak as the everyday 1st baseman. That is a sentence that should have almost every Blue Jays fan skeptical at what to expect. Rightfully so. Smoak never has put it together and really hasn’t shown much during his time as a Blue Jay that inspires much confidence.

However, as evidenced above, there is some potential for a somewhat productive season. His bat is very similar to that of Chris Carter in the power department and base on ball department. He is only making $1.125 million more. Plus, Smoak can bring a decent to good glove at 1st base. An added bonus.

For a guy batting 7th or 8th in the order, the production you might be able to get is slightly intriguing. 30 home run potential in the bottom half of the order is exciting. However, the strike outs will not go away. They will always be there.

At only $4.125 million, his salary doesn’t hamper the Jays payroll. I am on board with giving Smoak all of April and most of May to be the everyday guy and re-evaluate on June 1st. If Smoak isn’t the answer, the team could cut ties with him or they could bring him back to the bench and late inning defensive replacement. Steve Pearce could take over as the everyday guy at 1st. The other option is the call-up of Rowdy Tellez. The Blue Jays will act on Smoak accordingly based on how he’s doing as the season goes along.

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For now, I would recommend every Blue Jays fan hold off on judgement until June 1st. Let’s see how Smoak does and go from there. There is potential, but like I will be, you should remain highly skeptical at what you will get.

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