Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak’s 2017 Success: Breakout Year or Unsustainable?

Apr 30, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) at bat during MLB game action against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 30, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) at bat during MLB game action against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports /
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Justin Smoak has always had the potential to succeed at the big league level with his raw power and switch-hitting abilities. After 7 mediocre years at the MLB level with the Mariners and the Blue Jays, 2017 has finally brought a glimpse of Smoak’s abilities. Is this the start of a breakout season or just an unsustainable hot streak?

Traditional Stats

2017 (129 PA): .264/.302/.471, 6 HR, 14 R, 21 RBI

Career (129 PA average): .225/.308/.395, 5 HR, 14 R, 17 RBI

In traditional stats, Justin Smoak is outproducing his career numbers by a significant margin. So far in 2017, Smoak has shown marked improvement in average, slugging, and home runs and his spot in the middle of the Blue Jays lineup has brought a plethora of RBIs as well. A small caveat in Smoak’s surface stats is his reduced on-base percentage, which should have improved with the increase in average.

Patience, Aggressiveness, Power, and Luck

2017: 5.4 BB%, 20.9 K%, .207 ISO, .292 BABIP

Career: 10.4 BB%, 23.8 K%, .170 ISO, .264 BABIP

A slightly more in-depth look at Smoak’s stats paints an interesting picture. In 2017, Smoak has been less patient but has somehow struck out less than his career averages. This can be attributed to a different approach at the plate by Smoak.

In an interview with the Toronto Star in spring training, Smoak said:

"“I’ve done things to try to shorten my swing, just trying to feel more comfortable”. This was then explained in more detail by hitting coach, Brook Jacoby: “We’ve been working on how he’s loading his backside and his upper body. He tends to really get twisted up and doesn’t allow his swing to have a clean back-path to the ball.’’"

With regular at bats and a better, more consistent approach at the plate, Smoak’s smart aggressiveness and compact swing have led to reduced strikeout numbers and a higher ISO (a measure of raw power), albeit at the expense of walks. Meanwhile, a .292 BABIP, only .028 off from his career norm, suggests that his success so far at the plate is not because of unsustainable luck.

Plate Discipline and Batted Balls

2017: 95.8 Z-Contact %, 81.7 Contact %, 8.6 SwStr %, 11.6 Soft %, 43.2 Hard %

Career: 86.6 Z-Contact %, 76.6 Contact %, 10.2 SwStr %, 16.4 Soft %, 34.8 Hard %

An even more in-depth analysis suggests that Justin Smoak is a changed man. Starting with plate discipline, in 2017, Smoak has made more contact in general and has especially been hitting every baseball that’s in the strike zone (although a 95.8 Z-Contact % is realistically unsustainable). Smoak has also reduced his swinging strike percentage, a big factor in a hitter’s strikeout totals.

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Another area that Smoak has shown improvement is his soft and hard hit percentages. Compared to his career numbers, Smoak has made less soft contact and is instead hitting the ball with more authority. Compared to other years where success was more attributed to luck than skill, Smoak’s improvements in plate discipline and batted balls further backs up his success so far in 2017.

The New Statcast Era

2017: 90.3 mph Avg Exit Velocity, 16.22 Avg Launch Angle

MLB Average: 87.75 mph Avg Exit Velocity, 12.90 Avg Launch Angle

Francisco Lindor: 91.2 Avg Exit Velocity, 16.5 Avg Launch Angle

Still a relatively new means of analyzing a hitter’s abilities, the Statcast statistics also support Smoak’s breakout in 2017. Compared to the average MLB hitter, Smoak hits the ball harder and at higher launch degree, resulting in more line drives and extra base hits, rather than weak ground ball outs. In another comparison, Smoak’s Statcast numbers are very similar to that of Francisco Lindor’s, one of baseball’s rising young superstars.

Verdict

With an improved swing, better approach at the plate, and consistent playing time, Smoak has finally translated his raw tools into success at the MLB level in 2017. Backed up by Sabermetric statistics, including plate discipline and batted balls, to go along with the new era of Statcast numbers, Smoak’s success can finally be pointed to his skill, not luck.

Next: Blue Jays: 6 Prospects Dominating on the Farm

If his improvements at the plate are permanent, then Smoak’s success is a breakout season, not a hot streak. Blue Jays fans can continue to expect Smoak to be a strong regular at first base with the potential to truly grow into a switch-hitting, powerful slugger. Oh, and did I mention the Blue Jays can keep him until 2019 (at the quarter of Encarnacion’s salary)?

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