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The First Base Platoon: Justin Smoak

An attempt to dispel the narratives surrounding the Blue Jays First Base platoon. Episode 1: Justin Smoak

Justin Smoak; one half of the polarizing Blue Jays First Base Platoon
Justin Smoak; one half of the polarizing Blue Jays First Base Platoon
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For much of the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays season one argument/debate has ruled supreme over all others. Many a thread here, be it Game Thread, Game Summary, or random article, have seen their comment sections derailed and thrown into chaos by what was, before the Trade Deadline, the most polarizing topic within our little community.

No. Not Prospects vs. MLB Regulars. Though, there have been many of those, as well.

Justin Smoak vs. Chris Colabello

The argument, on the surface, appears simple. Which one of the two should be the primary starting First Baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays. The answer, as it has turned out, defies simplicity.

In it we have two very different players, with very different styles, and extremely different pedigrees. However, as we've seen on both sides, the fans can be equally as passionate when debating who deserves the majority of playing time.

This, the first of two articles, will focus Justin Smoak. I will be attempting to dispel two narratives surrounding him as well as give you an idea of his career and season thus far.

Justin Smoak (The Journey so far...)

Justin Smoak; a former eleventh overall pick by the Texas Rangers and a Top 50 prospects as recently as 2010, was acquired by the Blue Jays in October off waivers from the Seattle Mariners. At the time he had been replacement level at the plate earning a 94 wRC+, with a triple slash of .224/.309/.380. The majority of which earned playing in Safeco Field, a notorious pitchers ballpark said to repress power. His defense, though hyped, was basically average (more later).

His 2015 season has been one of ups and downs. An inconsistent amount of playing time didn't appear to hurt his production early as, through April and May (73 PA), he had a .266/.356/.438 (122 wRC+) line and had finally looked to have put it all together. This, combined perhaps with his perceived defensive excellence, had many fans calling for increased playing time.

However, recently the bloom has fallen off the rose as, since becoming the primary First Baseman having seen more plate appearances since the beginning of July (76 to Cola's 69) and vastly more in August (23 to 8) his numbers have looked bleak. His numbers since July 1st are .203/.276/.449 (98 wRC+) but where we really see the drop off is in his post-All Star Break numbers where they crater to .180/.226/.340 for a 51 wRC+ in 52 PA. 

For August he has been better at .227/.261/.409 (81 wRC+) but still not particularly good. Though, one cannot say he hasn't made what production he has contributed count, and full credit to him hitting the Grand Slam against the New York Yankees. 

At this point of the season he has .228/.305/.450 (107 wRC+) slash and has given the team 9 Home Run's in that time. Though his K rate (27.5) is a bit troubling, he walks a good percentage of the time and when he eventually breaks out of this slump (which has to happen. August is trending upwards, I hope) it'll go back up a little.

The Myth of Justin Smoak's Defense

At the time of the signing MjwW had this to say:

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.

I mention this specifically for the part where he clearly points out "not elite defensively". And yet if you were to ask around you might probably expect Smoak to be, if not elite, at least above average defensively. That is, after all, the book on him.

This is not the case.

From 2000-2015 when looking at all First Basemen who have at least 4'000 innings at the position Justin Smoak is 24th of 43 in UZR (1.7) and he is 35th in DRS (-16). This season, his 0 DRS and 1.7 UZR are actually the high water mark for his career. His UZR/150 is 7.6 points above his career totals. So, unless Safeco has some weird way of suppressing First Base defense then what we have is a narrative unsupported by facts.

(no, seriously... MjwW if that is a thing you need to let me know. You are the only person on the site equipped to figure out those kind of numbers).

So, where exactly does the idea (or Myth, as it were) of Smoak's defense come from?

Admittedly, part of it probably comes from the hype surrounding him when he was a prospect where he was touted as an elite defensive 1B. Another might be his first MLB season where his 1.6 UZR was good enough for 8th, had he qualified to be rated. Though his DRS of -3 had him closer to 15th. But, that is how Myth's are created.

And as we all know, it is easier to create a Myth than to dispel it.

In 2011 he was 11th (of 21) with a 0.7 UZR but 13th with his -1 DRS. 2012 saw him at 1.4 and sitting 9th (of 18) and 12th with a 0 DRS while 2013 he was 18th of 19 with his -4.2 UZR (as well as 18/19 with a -8 DRS). He did not qualify last season (though he was 15th of 27 among 1B who played 600 innings in UZR). All very much average or below.

One thing I will say, and have said, Justin Smoak is fantastic at digging bad throws out of the dirt. If he has any exceptional value at 1B, as he appears to me to be a bit slow at the position (which is to say... he looks like a 1B), this is it.

But He Can't Hit Lefties!


Okay, I'll start by saying that while it might be easy to look at his 2015 season and point to his .400/.438/.800 (243 wRC+) vs. Lefties as a proof against or as some kind of turnaround for him, his 16 PA's vs LHP is telling me to slow your role.

The major reason that people have suggested that Smoak is a better candidate for platoon than a true everyday starting position is his career numbers against Lefties. And, in their defense (and mine), it isn't entirely unwarranted. He is worse against LHP than he is RHP (where he is far closer to league average).

To this point of his career he boasts a .227/.294/.368 (85 wRC+) vs LHP.

Not as bad as you may have been expecting. Not fantastic, I grant you, but hardly the worst we've seen (see: Lind, Adam and also Francisco, Juan). His power, the best part of his arsenal at the plate, is limited batting right handed it appears, though that could be explained somewhat explained due to Safeco Field.

Allow me to educate (credit to MjwW, I think, who first tipped me off to this weeks ago). Versus LHP Away (meaning away from the power zapping pitchers park in Seattle), Justin has a slash of .259/.327/.443 with a 116 wRC+ (373 PA, so a SSS beware)...

Let that sink in. I know I am. The numbers surprised me, and I knew they were coming.

[In order to be fair and balanced (since I know someone will take those numbers and run with them before reading the companion article...) and since the vs. LHP angle isn't going to be represented in the companion article, Cola in his 100 PA's vs. LHP away from home (Target and Rogers) has a .300/.370/.478 (136 wRC+) so... I mean... Apparently both like hitting away from home against lefties... I don't know, man. Baseball.]

So, to answer the question of this narrative... Maybe. 

If he's truly a 116 wRC+ hitter vs. LHP than yes, he could easily be used against both sides. But, to ignore 385 PA's (Home vs LHP) to make that assertion seems faulty. Safeco may repress power, but does it repress BA and OBP? Of which Smoakie the Bear has a .197 and .262 number? You can maybe say his 56 wRC+ isn't indicative but where in the middle is the truth?

Either way, we've seen far worse and it appears perhaps Smoak may somewhat wrongfully be painted as a vs. RHP only bat.

Where Do We Go From Here?
You, my dear reader, will be going to the next article. As this article has begun to go a bit long I think I'll send you all to the companion article (link below) where I look at Cola, his narratives and season. I, on the other hand, will be going down the rabbit hole dissecting the Beautiful Soda's play and trying to make sense of it all...

(Please Note: The stats were taken at 11:13AM on August 8th. So, the numbers may have changed by the time I post this. Especially since the Sunday afternoon game will have played by the time this is posted..)

The companion article to this discusses Chris Colabello's season and can be found here.