The Toronto Blue Jays are a team in the midst of a rebuild. Part of that process is deciding whether or not to retain veteran players who have made positive contributions to the organization in the past but may not be core players as the team ascends into its competitive phase.
Justin Smoak is one of those players. Shi Davidi recently described him “as a loyal and important professional on and off the field.” If this is Smoak’s final season with the Club, I thought it appropriate to examine his record with the Blue Jays.
The short Smoak history
Smoak was a 2008 first-round pick of the Texas Rangers; he was subsequently traded by Texas in July 2010 to the Seattle Mariners. He did not succeed as a Mariner, as evidenced by his 96 wRC+ and 0.2 fWAR. In October 2014, Smoak was placed on waivers by the Mariners and later claimed by the Blue Jays.
Smoak’s career as a Blue Jays has been solid. Table 1 shows that during his tenure as a Blue Jay, Smoak has produced a wRC+ of 116, which is slightly better than both the median and average of first basemen. For his position, he has been about average in terms of fWAR. However, his 2017-2019 seasons have been much better than the 2015-2016 campaigns.
The 2016 contract extension
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Smoak was signed to a one-year, USD 3.9 million contract in December 2015. On July 16, 2016, it was announced that the Blue Jays had signed him to a two-year, USD 8.5 million contract extension; the contract included a club-option to retain Smoak for USD 8 million for the 2019 season.
When the contract announcement was made, it was a head-scratcher for many. Why would the Blue Jays sign Smoak at that point? He was generating a 101 wRC+, which is pretty well average for an MLB player but below that of a first baseman. Certainly, the Blue Jays had a potential roster opening with the impending free agency of Edwin Encarnacion at the conclusion of the 2016 season. But why Smoak? Why then?
Well, it was a terrific deal for the Blue Jays.
The 2017-2019 Smoakin’ version
2017 was the career-to-date best season for Smoak. The notable accomplishments include a 133 wRC+, which was by far the best of his career; his 3.6 fWAR was also his career-best. Of note, his 20.1 K% was markedly lower than the 29.6% he had averaged in his first two seasons as a Blue Jay. In recognition of his 2017 excellence, Smoak received an invitation to the 2017 All-Star Game.
The 2018 season was another good season for Smoak. Although his fWAR decreased from 2017’s 3.6 to 1.7, it was still 12th best among first basemen. Smoak’s 121 wRC+ placed him in the number 9 slot of first basemen.
So far, 2019 has been a struggle for Smoak. He has battled some neck and quad ailments; Smoak’s fWAR (0.6) and wRC+ (108) tallies are very similar to the yucky Smoak of 2015.
2017-2019 Smoak summary
Taken as a whole, the 2017-2019 seasons have been successful for both Smoak and the Blue Jays. As Table 2 illustrates, Smoak’s performance compares favourably to the field of first basemen and Encarnacion in particular. Smoak’s fWAR of 5.9 is slightly better than Edwin’s (5.6) and better than the median (4.5) and average (4.9) for his position. Similarly, Smoak’s wRC+ (122) trails EE’s 124 by a slim margin but is better than the mean and median of first basemen.
Even if you want to go old-school and look at runs batted in, Table 3 demonstrates that Smoak’s production with men on base, and specifically with runners in scoring position, has been nearly as good as the Edwin’s. Particularly, if you adjust for the fewer opportunities that Smoak has had compared to Encarnacion.
From the Blue Jays perspective, the questionable extension of 2016 has produced terrific value for the team. Paying USD 16.5 million to a player that has generated a 5.9 fWAR over three seasons is a bargain considering that fair value for a free agent would have been approximately USD 48 million (USD 8 million per fWAR). This is a rough estimate of the excess contract value captured by the Blue Jays from Smoak’s production vis-a-vis the USD 16.5 million contract. Furthermore, this is a crude calculation given that Smoak was not eligible for free agency. However, one would be hard-pressed to reasonably claim that Smoak was overpaid in the context of the current MLB salary structure.
There are intangibles to mention as well. By all accounts, Smoak is a very good teammate and, as Davidi noted, a professional on and off the field. The 2017-2019 contract was a piece of good business by the Blue Jays.
The last word
If this is Smoak’s last season with the Blue Jays, I think that the Club, the fans, and he can look fondly upon his 2015-2019 tenure as a Blue Jay. Smoak came to Toronto looking like a first-round bust. However, he turned his game around and became a solid MLB first baseman. If this is indeed goodbye, I have no thoughts to express other than to say thank you, Justin Smoak.