Blue Jays’ Year in Review: Good, Bad & the Ugly – Justin Smoak
By Craig Borden
Jays Journal takes a look back at 2017, and the good, bad, and the ugly of each individual performance from the roster. Today we move on to Justin Smoak.
Justin Smoak was a polarizing player heading into the 2017 season. With a line of critics that could pave the streets around the Rogers Centre, Smoak has finally found a way to tune out all of these naysayers. Smoak put together a season that many had thought he would do many years ago. I admit I was one of his biggest critics but mostly because I thought if he was more patient at the plate it could lead to good things. He has always had plenty of talent to be a strong hitter, but was for some reason not finding something that worked for him.
After seven seasons of being regarded as one of the best young talents to come, he eventually become a waiting to click candidate, and then what seemed to be a reclamation project. The Toronto Blue Jays liked Smoak for his defense mostly, but knew something could always wake up with his powerful bat. After offering him a team-friendly two year deal Smoak took the first baseman job and never let go of it.
Justin Smoak came into the season with low expectations so him being the team’s offensive MVP was basically unheard of. If you hopped in the Delorean with Doc Brown and time traveled back to Spring Training, and told Blue Jays fans they were only going to win 76 games this season and Justin Smoak was going to be the teams best hitter, you would have been slapped without pause. Smoak’s lash out performance in 2017 is a continuation of Blue Jays hitters breaking out at the age of 30. He had career highs in doubles, home runs, RBIs, walks, and batting average during an All-Star season.
Smoak was the most consistent bat throughout the season in a lineup that was in dire need of some help. Smoak proved to be the team’s rock during a time when the offense was without Josh Donaldson and any sign of thump. The team struggled to score runs, but Smoak proved to be a thorn in the American League pitchers as he batted .300 much of the season. A new philosophy at the plate has blossomed into more fun in baseball for the switch-hitter. He is no longer trying to be a power hitter and just trying to make good contact. This has translated to Smoak hitting the ball and lighting up American League pitchers.
While he found his stride at the plate, he continued to show off his fine Corinthian leather at first base. In 151 games he committed just two errors. Justin Smoak had a defensive runs saved of 1.0 which was good for the 11th best in the Majors this season. Joey Votto lead all of baseball with 11, but Smoak was tied with three other players with 1. Wil Myers, Logan Morrison, and Matt Carpenter were tied with him, but only Myers played in as many innings. Smoak played 1301.1 innings where his close competition barely played 1000 innings at first.
Smoak had a breakout season at the age of thirty but much of this performance went to waste as the Blue Jays struggled to stay relevant all season. He was the Blue Jays main source of offense in an injury riddled campaign. Smoak played in 158 games and has become a staple in the lineup. A performance like he had this season could have been the difference if he broke out a season earlier. Having Smoak’s 2017 numbers along side the projected numbers for the rest of the team could have lead to something special on offense.
Smoak has one year left on his contract with the Blue Jays and has now presented a wonderful problem for the Jays brass. Do you hold onto the budding slugger or sell high on a player that everyone has waited to hit this kind of success? Smoak currently anchors a position that has little contention throughout the Blue Jays Minor League system. The closest prospect is Rowdy Tellez, but he is fresh off of a rough season in Triple A with the Buffalo Bisons. So with little replacements the Jays would be wise to hold onto Smoak and not rock the boat. He does represent a solid trade chip though that will be hard to ignore.
Everyone knows about Justin Smoak’s strikeout totals and how they have plagued him throughout his career. This season was no different as he had 128 of them in his breakout performance. This ranks him in the top 60 in the Majors in the category. This has been pretty much par for the course for Smoak. He did see some better pitches by taking more free passes. He recorded a career high 73 walks which is substantially higher than his yearly average prior to this season. He had passed 55 walks in a season just once prior to this year.
Justin Smoak had two very different halves of the 2017 season. In the first half he was an All-Star that batted .294 with 23 homers and 56 RBI. The second half he batted .241 with 15 homers and 34 RBI. Oddly enough his walk totals and strikeout numbers were basically identical. One could guess that the league had adjusted to his hitting patterns more and shifted accordingly. The issue with that theory was that his BABip (Batting Average on Balls In Play) dropped from .304 in the first half to a rough .264.
This one is a hard one as far as predictions go. Which career path do you look at because the bulk of Justin Smoak’s baseball history would paint a picture of a rough batting average with a decent amount of home runs sprinkled on top. If you follow the trend of what he did this past season he looks like one of the better hitting first basemen in baseball. I am going to say that Smoak follows more of the Jose Bautista mold more then the Michael Saunders regression. Look for Smoaky to hit around the .275 area and hit 35 home runs while eclipsing the 100 RBI mark with the Blue Jays and this production while he continues to perform a solid first base defensively. Look for him to be a Blue Jay for the entire season as well as he has finally found his comfort zone.