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Why spend $3.9 million on Justin Smoak?

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Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

In an at least somewhat surprising move last night, last night the Blue Jays not only tendered Justin Smoak but signed him to a $3.9-million 2016 deal, near doubling MLB Trade Rumors' projection of what he was in line for through arbitration. I'm not bothered by that gap, as Smoak's unusual circumstance of taking a big pay cut in an arbitration eligible year is the type of case that is very difficult for a system to accurately forecast. But that aside, it's still a considerable and curious outlay considering his production, the multitude of other first baseman/ designated hitter options, other important roster holes to fill, and the likely limited budget dollars left. So I wasn't thinking it made much sense to tender Smoak, even at $2 million.

This might seem incongruent with the fact that last year I was quite in favour of having Smoak as a 1B/DH at a projected salary of around $3 million (right before they non-tendered and signed him even cheaper), based on reasonable base case projection and the potential to unlock upside. With a 107 wRC+, Smoak landed right about that base case, and in a half season posted around 1 WAR (averaging out 0.6 per FanGraphs and 1.3 per Baseball-Reference), while posting a career high in power. So why the change in tune?

One obvious reason is the emergence of Chris Colabello, who is clearly limited to the same 1B/DH positions and wasn't in the picture last winter. Even if one expects a lot of regression, he still projects ahead of Smoak ahead by Steamer and has earned the opportunity, not to mention he's still pre-arbitration and has optioned if they needed some roster flexibility (ie. interleague). Moreover, the Jays have several veteran position players  who could use regular time off in the field to keep them fresh but also keep their bats in the line-up: Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, but especially Jose Bautista who was pretty bad defensively in the second half.

Beyond that, while Smoak did produce at a reasonable clip in 2015, there were several flags that make me less optimistic on both the base case for next year, as well the true potential for a breakout. So let's drill into his 2015 season.

Plate Discipline

Coming into 2015, Smoak had posted solid plate discipline numbers, with an 11% walk rate against a 22% strikeout rate. My hope was that better power numbers could be leveraged into improved metrics at the plate as pitchers were more careful, but even with the increased power his walk rate fell to 9% while his strikeout rate ballooned to 26%.

Relative to his ZiPS and Steamer projection of 10% and 22% respectively, this cost him about 13 points of wRC+, of about five runs (~0.5 WAR) of production alone. So this is a pretty big deal in terms of his future performance. What surprised me was that his second half numbers were actually slightly better, considering how utterly futile he looked late in the season against offspeed pitched when he got behind in the count.

Indeed, this was the big reason why his strikeout rate spiked. When Smoak is in pitcher's counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2), he's always had trouble making contact, with low-70% contact rate that's about five points below the league average in those counts. But in 2015, this fell to the low-60% range, and the strikeouts just piled up. It's not that he was in these counts more often—he's actually got a good eye for the strike zone—but he seems to have major issues laying off chase pitches.

I don't think this is something at which hitters generally improve much, it seems more something that is an innate ability. I'd probably expect a little improvement over last year, just because he's never been nearly as bad in 2015 and I doubt pitchers found an undetected flaw 2,000 PA into his career (though it can't be ruled out—he was at a Juan Francisco-level of hopeless when he got behind in the second half). But it's also pretty clear it will always be an issue, which limits the upside ability beyond what I figured a year ago (lacking the ability to drill down).

The Power Surge

The saving grace of Smoak's 2015 campaign was his breakout in power, with 35 extra base hits in 328 plate appearances representing a .243 ISO compared to .156 pre-2015. Some of that will be contextual, moving from the parks of the AL West to the AL East. But even here there's some warning flags. Over the past five years, MLB hitters have a 30% HR/FB ratio when pulling the ball, and that was very close to Smoak's pre-2015 level in 2015 of 31% (though a significant portion in power/home run suppressing parks).

In 2015, Smoak's HR/FB was 62.5% when pulling the ball - almost double the league rate. It should not be surprising that this is a huge outlier that is very likely to significantly regress. Over the last five years, there are only three players above 50%, and they are premier sluggers in Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, and Chris Davis. For comparison, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion check in around 40%. Smoak had a spike to just under 40% in 2014, and considering his profile and history, 40% could well be sustainable true talent. That's still a lot of backwards regression.

But it gets worse. If you're pulling the ball, you want to get it up in the air, as ground balls (especially for shiftable lefties) tend to end up as outs. But Smoak's pull fly ball rate has been declining for several years, setting a new low in 2015:

smoak pull fb

Smoak used to be good at pulling balls in the air, but neither the absolute levels recently or the trend are good. Needless to say, this is not helpful to unlocking any potential upside. Smoak also managed to hit quite a few opposite field home runs from the left side, with a 16% HR/FB rate, compared to 3.3% pre-2015 and roughly the same league average. So I'd expect him to lose a few of the five opposite field home runs he hit as well.

The BABIP

One potential offset is that Smoak posted another very low BABIP of .254, which isn't that far off his .259 career mark. But here I think there's some room for a little optimism. His BABIP on line drives and fly balls was quite in line with with league average. But ground balls balls were a different story.

In 2015, Smoak hit .089 on ground balls. That's not a typo, 8 hits on 90 ground balls. That's the lowest rate in MLB, minimum 50 groundballs. Yes, he's very slow and a victim of the lefty shift, but that's still less than half his .189 career rate pre-2015, which was already below MLB average. Even figuring for increased shifting, he probably got shortchanged out of a half dozen singles.

That will help going forward, but it's only a small offset to the expected regression in HR/FB.

* * *

All in all, this obviously isn't a terrible, crippling deal. But all things considered, it doesn't seem like a great allocation of scarce resources, both budgetary and playing time. It just seems odd to give that much money to a 1B/DH who was losing RHP at bats to Dioner Navarro last year. In that sense, it seems like a continuation of the theme of this winter: moves that are generally okay at best, with downside while not obviously fitting into a coherent 25 man roster.