Just under a month ago, the Jays announced that they had agreed to an extension with Justin Smoak covering the 2017-18. Considering that in the grand scheme the money committed ($8.5-million) is pretty small potatoes for the team, the reaction was quite negative, the most common being a justified "why?". After all, six full years into his major league career (and 1.5 years into his Toronto career), he hasn't even been a league average hitter. That simply doesn't cut it for a first baseman.
When the Jays originally acquired Smoak, I really liked the move. It basically boiled down to taking a cheap flyer on a guy with a history of decent plate discipline outcomes, but whose raw power was ill-suited for pounding fly balls into the marine layers that predominate the AL West, but well-suited for the parks of the AL East. That, and perhaps some adjustments to better tap into that power by a franchise that has had success doing so, made him a potential breakout candidate.
And the early returns were promising. Despite not playing every day, Smoak found his stride and by mid-June had a .275/.359/.516 batting line. As late as mid-July, he was at .254/.338/.522, before a deep tailspin in which he struck out a ton and seemed unable to adjust to secondaries pitches out of the zone. His overall production was decent, but it was not the hoped-for breakout, so I was surprised when he was brought back for 2016 at $3.9-million. Especially since there was some worrying trends and likely unsustainable positives.
That said, there was some sense in buying more time. After all, it took a full year after arriving in Toronto for Jose Bautista to become Jose Bautista. And it wasn't until the second half of 2011 - two full years after arriving - that Edwin Encarnacion emerged as a middle of the order threat. That fits with what Ross Atkins told Gregor Chisholm: "there's the potential of Justin being more than the complementary player he has been over the last couple of years."
So if one were trying to understand the extension, where might one look? Overall, Smoak's adjusted production has not been much better in Toronto (101 wRC+) than before (94 wRC+). But that high level data does conceal some big changes under the surface. And therein may lie something upon which to hang the extension.
We can divide plate appearances into two buckets: those that end with a ball is put in play (including home runs), and those which do not (walks, strikeouts, hit-by-pitches). The first group accounts for just over 70% of all PA, the second group just under 30%.
Because batters strike out so much more often then they get walked or hit, the average hitter does poorly in terms of run production on these outcomes. It varies from year to year, but over the last couple years batters are about 0.09 runs per PA below average on these outcomes, or a wRC+ around 20. (the MLB average is about 0.115 runs/PA, so in absolute terms the production is about 0.025 runs/PA)
On the other hand, on balls in play the runs created by singles, doubles, triples and homers far outweigh the value destroyed by outs. On these outcomes, in recent years the average batter has produced 0.04 runs per PA above average, or a wRC+ around 135.
A Tale of Divergent Outcomes
Prior to coming to Toronto, Smoak walked about 10% of the time, and struck out 22% of the time, slightly higher on both counts than the league average. Since a walk adds a little more run value than a strikeout destroys, Smoak was a little better than league average, managing a 35 wRC+ compared to the then league average of about 29. Not world beating, but a little better.
However, he struggled on balls in play, managing just a 121 wRC+ on balls in play compared to the then league average of 130 (note: these calculated wRC+ are NOT park adjusted). Thus, on balance, he was a slightly below average hitter.
But it's been a completely different story since the start of 2015:
On balls in play, Smoak has surged by 50 points of wRC+, while the league is up just 5. Again, this is park unadjusted data, so a good portion of that will be purely park effects. But not 45 net points worth. Unfortunately, a lot of that has been offset by what's happened on balls not in play. Smoak is still walking 10% of the time, but his strikeouts have increased to 29%. That's knocked him way below average on balls not in play.
It's all about the fly balls
What's even more remarkable that that Smoak's production on balls in play has increased despite the fact he's actually done worse on ground balls, and roughly flat on line drive production. But his production on fly balls is up spectaculrly Since he's come to Toronto, Smoak has hit over half the fly balls he's pulled out of the park. He's really taking advantage of the favourable hitting environment, and even better, his FB rate is up this year (though his pull rate is down, which isn't so good).
This is something of a double edged sword. Will he be able to sustain these rates? They're as good as the best sluggers in baseball (Bautista and Encarnacion, dead pull sluggers both, have never had 50% of their pulled fly balls leave the park). But it's not clear that Smoak's actually in that group.
Can the strikeouts be fixed?
Here's the reality: If Smoak had maintained his career strikeout and walk rates entering 2015, while benefiting from the same rate of production on balls in play, he'd be an above average regular. Those strikeouts have crowded out something like 7 singles, 3 doubles, and 3 more home runs. That might not sound like much over 1.5 years, but would give him a. 353 wOBA and something like a (park adjusted) 125 wRC+. In other words, just below what Devon Travis has done.
So this is what it ultimately comes down to. Personally, I'm not very optimistic. Smoak's contact rates have decreased significantly the past couple years; whether that's a byproduct of a more aggressive approach, pitchers being more careful since he can more easily do damage, or something else. I haven't seen any indication of an ability to recognize and lay off secondaries over at least the last year, and that may ultimately be his undoing. 30 home runs in the equivalent of a season is great, but it doesn't offset 180 strikeouts.
The best reason for extending Smoak is that he's finally living up to his prospect billing as a guy who would do significant damage when he contacts the ball, and it take time to make the adjustments to fully harness raw power in a good hitting environment. Unfortunately, increased lack of contact looks like it probably will be an unsurmountable obstacle.