The play of first baseman, Justin Smoak, has been an unexpected surprise this season, as he went from being on the bubble of making the team in spring training, to being the team leader in most offensive categories. The question is, is this production sustainable?
For a few years now we’ve heard about the potential that Justin Smoak possessed, and how patience would eventually pay off with the switch-hitter. If the fan base had been polled during the offseason and spring schedule, there would have been overwhelming votes to cut the 30 year old completely, with repeated calls to eat his salary and send him packing, despite the extension he signed last year.
Now? That extension looks like one of the most brilliant baseball moves we’ve witnessed in a few years. Smoak signed a two year, 8.25 million dollar extension, which covers the 2017-18 seasons, with an option for 2019 with a 250,000 buyout. Chump change for the kind of production he’s given the Blue Jays thus far.
As of this writing, Smoak has a slash line of .291/.353/.597 with 17 home runs, and 42 RBIs in 196 at bats. He’s currently worth 1.8 WAR on the season as well, which makes up over half of his career 3.3. He’s tied for 2nd in home runs in the American League, and tied for 3rd in RBIs, and is tied for 21st among hitters in WAR, an impressive placement considering he’s a first baseman.
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All of these things are music to the ears of Blue Jays fans, and he’s even exceeding pretty much any expectation we’ve had for him since he’s been in Toronto. Last year he managed just 14 home runs and 34 RBI on the entire season, and he’s surpassed those marks with ease in early June. This is not the Justin Smoak we remember at all, and that’s a very good thing.
However, I can’t help but think of another Blue Jay who was on his way to a career year, only to crater in the second half. It was just last year that Canadian outfielder, Michael Saunders, was named to the AL All-Star team, and looked like a lock to be given the qualifying offer from the Blue Jays last offseason. Then of course, the second half happened.
Let’s take a look:
As we can see, Saunders numbers are eerily similar to what Smoak has done in 2017, though the first baseman has offered basically the same power numbers in less games. By no means am I suggesting that Smoak is destined for the same fate, but it does offer some valuable perspective. Justin Smoak is a player that Blue Jay fans were relentlessly hard on, especially this offseason. Did he really make that drastic of a transformation, or is he due for a correction sooner than later?
The answer likely lies somewhere in between, as it’s probably not realistic to expect Smoak to finish in the MVP conversation, as he’s currently situated at the moment. However, I don’t think we should expect a catastrophic downfall like what took place with Saunders last offseason. He seems to have legitimately turned a corner, and looks as confident as he ever has in the big leagues.
Smoak has been a much more complete hitter this season, relying less on pulling the ball and using the whole field, which has bumped his OBP from a career mark of .311 to the healthy .353 mark he stands at as of this writing. The biggest difference would have to be his strikeout totals, which ties into his modified approach at the dish. Last year he struck out 112 times in 299 at bats. This year, he’s whiffed just 39 times in 196 at bats, nearly cutting his percentage in half.
Assuming he can continue to make contact at the rate he’s been displaying, it’s hard to imagine him regressing back to the Smoak we’ve been frustrated with over the past few years. If he falls somewhere in between there and where he is now, he’s still well worth the investment of his extension, and is another example that there are no guarantees in baseball.