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What of Justin Smoak? (Part 1)

How could Justin Smoak fit into the Jays' plans going forward?

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

On October 28, the Jays claimed Justin Smoak off waivers from Seattle, a somewhat curious move given that the Jays already had plenty of options at 1B/DH with Encarnacion, Lind and Francisco in the fold at the time. Then there were his well documented MLB struggles, the reason he was available on waivers in the first place.

Though a former highly touted prospect, Smoak turns 28 this month and thus far has been a replacement level player in over 2,200 MLB PA. His hitting has not been abysmal with a 94 career wRC+, but a below average bat simply doesn't cut it for a 1B/DH who is not elite defensively and is a very poor baserunner. Compounding this, Smoak was owed a $150,000 buyout on his 2015 option; is out of option years; can elect free agency if outrighted to Buffalo; is arbitration eligible this winter (projected at $3-million by MLBTR); and only has two years of control even if he turned his career around with the Jays. All in all, not a terribly compelling cost/benefit proposition at first glance. Perhaps it was then unsurprising that the acquisition was generally received with indifference at best and plenty of scorn

The situation is now somewhat clearer, as the logjam has been resolved with Lind since traded to Milwaukee and Francisco lost on waivers to Boston. This would seem to leave Smoak directly in line for significant playing time at 1B/DH, though the Jays have suggested they'd like to use the DH to rotate other position players through.

A significant improvement over his career and especially 2014 season is needed for Smoak to be a viable option in the 2015 starting line-up. Steamer is somewhat optimistic, projecting a .240/.324/.414 line for a 106 wRC+. This would still leave Smoak as a below average player (under 1 WAR in a full season given position and baserunning), and given the ability to platoon cheaply and/or cycle regulars through DH is not sufficient to justify a roster spot. Below, I break down Smoak's production over his career to date, and make the case that he can provide sufficient value in 2015 to have on the roster. In Part 2, I'll dig a little deeper and look at whether Smoak is a breakout candidate.

Smoak's Overall Hitting Profile

Overall BB% K% BABIP ISO wRC+ LD% GB% FB% Pop/FB HR/FB
Justin Smoak 10.7% 22.2% 0.260 0.156 94 18.4% 39.4% 42.2% 11.5% 11.9%
MLB Average 8.2% 18.9% 0.299 0.147 100 20.2% 44.3% 35.5% 9.8% 10.2%

All the data is coming from Fangraphs. I'll be analyzing production using wRC+, but also four components to try and understand why production is changing: BB% and K% to explain outcomes where the ball isn't in play and measure plate discipline, BABIP and isolated power to measure what happens when the ball is put in play. In addition, there's batted ball data to provide additional context: line drive/fly ball/grounder ball rate; popup rate and home run rate per fly ball. MLB average is for non-pitchers from 2010-14.

Clearly, the major issue has been on balls in play. Smoak's career BABIP of .260 is significantly below average, 14th worst amongst the 338 qualified hitters from 2010-14. This gap is driven by a below average line drive rate (-1.8%) and a well above average flyball rate (+6.7%), compounded by very poor speed. Unfortunately, the fly ball profile has not led to strong power numbers, with Smoak posting an ISO just 9 points above average. He's converted fly balls into home runs at a decent (+1.7%) if unspectacular rate (2010-2014 MLB average for HR/FB rate among 1B/DH is 11-14%), offset somewhat by an above average popup rate. A low BABIP can be overcome by good-to-great power, or mediocre power can be overcome by superior contact (Lyle Overbay in his prime), but Smoak's combination-to-date just doesn't cut it at 1B or DH.

Turning to when the ball is not put in play, Smoak has demonstrated solid plate discipline, posting both above average walk (+2.5%) and strikeout (+3.4%) rates, a good marginal tradeoff. Given his struggles on balls in play, pitchers should be more inclined to go after him rather than messing around the edges. The implication of this is that improvement on balls in play can be further leveraged to better K/BB outcomes. A good example is Jose Bautista:

Bautista BB% K%
2004-09 10.8% 21.3%
2010-14 15.8% 16.0%

Bautista has strong plate discipline and strike zone recognition skills, but when he was a mediocre hitter that only had limited effect. Once he started mashing, he leveraged those abilities into elite results. Smoak has shown a good eye at the plate, chasing 27.7% of pitches outside the zone compared to 30-31% across MLB, so there's good reason to think his rates could improve with improved production on balls in play.

Switch-Hitting Smoak has Significant Handedness Splits

Handedness BB% K% BABIP ISO wRC+ LD% GB% FB% Pop/FB HR/FB
v. LHP (as RHB) 8.6% 19.3% 0.255 0.135 82 18.9% 36.4% 44.7% 15.1% 8.0%
v. RHP (as LHB) 11.8% 23.7% 0.262 0.167 99 18.2% 41.1% 40.8% 9.3% 14.2%

Overall, Smoak has been a much better hitter from the left side, whereas from the right side he's been borderline unplayable. Against righties he both walks (+3.2%) and strikes out more (+4.4%), again a good marginal tradeoff. The other factor driving the difference in production is power, as his ISO is 32 points lower as a RHB despite hitting more fly balls (+4%). This is readily explained by the fact that from the right side, he pops out well above average while failing to drive the ball out of the park. By contrast from the left side he's hit home runs at a healthy clip while avoiding the surge in popouts. These results, subject to a caveat below, make him a platoon candidate.

Smoak has Been Much Better Away from Safeco Field

Home/Away BB% K% BABIP ISO wRC+ LD% GB% FB% Pop/FB HR/FB
Home 11.8% 21.3% 0.238 0.145 86 16.9% 37.7% 45.4% 11.9% 9.4%
Away 9.7% 23.1% 0.281 0.167 100 20.0% 41.0% 39.0% 11.2% 14.6%

It appears that hitting in Safeco did a real number on Smoak, as he's been roughly a league average hitter on the road. The biggest factor here is a putrid .238 BABIP at home versus merely below average .281 on the road, driven by a lower line drive rate (-3.1%) and much higher fly ball rate (+6.4%). Given Safeco's reputation for suppressing power, it shouldn't be surprising that Smoak was more successful at hitting balls out on the road (+5.2% HR/FB) while not showing a difference in popup rate. Unfortunately, his batted ball profile is essentially inverted to what would be optimal: in Safeco, it would be better to spray line drives at the expense of fly balls. Perhaps this is an issue of approach which could be improved. That said, at home his BB rate was higher (+2.1%) and strikeout rate was lower (-1.8%), which may suggest a conscious attempt to adapt to Safeco since it's hard to produce on balls in play.

Smoak has Interesting Split Splits

Fangraphs also gives split splits for handedness and parks, though small samples sizes starting limiting their inferential value.

Home as RHB 8.2% 19.9% 0.231 0.094 53 18.6% 34.2% 47.2% 16.5% 3.9%
Home as LHB 13.6% 21.9% 0.242 0.173 99 15.8% 39.8% 44.4% 8.9% 12.9%
Away as RHB 9.0% 18.6% 0.280 0.179 111 19.3% 38.6% 42.0% 13.5% 12.6%
Away as LHB 10.1% 25.2% 0.281 0.161 99 20.3% 42.3% 37.4% 9.8% 15.8%

The one interesting nugget here is that even from the right side against lefties, he's done fine outside of Safeco, in fact his best overall production (again, SSS caveat). In particular, though his popup rate remains high, he was able to drive the ball out for home runs at a comparable rate to what he did from the left side. This suggests to me that he'snot necessarily a lost cause from the right side, and the upside is there for an everyday player. Safeco is very tough on power to left field (pull from right side) but not bad to right field (pull from left side), and that shows up in Smoak's numbers to extremes (13% v. 4% HR/FB). There's the same paradox as above: his fly ball rate is higher the more hostile the environment for them. Perhaps this is pitchers exploiting a flaw, perhaps it's just a poor approach, hopefully it's something the Jays can work to fix. But even if not, just getting him out of Safeco should be a huge positive.

A Reasonable Base Case for 2015

Tying this all together, Smoak has bested by career 94 wRC+ by 5 points as a RHB and 6 points on the road. So if the Jays were to just use him against RHP, an additive expectation would be something like 105 wRC+, without accounting for the fact that the Rogers Centre may really help his fly ball tendencies more than the average player. A little bit of positive regression to components like BABIP, like Steamer is baking in, could push that a little higher, resulting in a base case something like this:

Overall BB% K% BABIP ISO wRC+ LD% GB% FB% Pop/FB HR/FB
Justin Smoak 10.0% 21.0% 0.280 0.185 110 19.0% 40.0% 41.0% 9.5% 15.0%

Granted, for a 1B or DH this is not a great line, though no team has unlimited dollars and would be decent value. But this is just the base case, and in Part 2 we'll dig deeper to examine the upside that might be unlocked.