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The season that was: Justin Smoak

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A look at Smoak's 2017 season.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Minnesota Twins Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

I think it is fair to say that Justin Smoak was not one of our favorite Blue Jays players before this season.

Last year I said:

If I was a MLB player, I’d hire Smoak’s agent. Smoak will earn $4.125 milion for 2017 and the same in 2018 (plus $250,000 buy out for 2019). I’d imagine his agent is some sort of magician.

The possibility of a 26-man roster is about the best news Smoak could get, but unless he suddenly learns to hit at age 30, I can’t imagine that he won’t be released at some point in the next couple of years.

Well, it seems like he learned how to hit.

                                                                              
Year   Age   G  AB  R   H 2B 3B HR RBI BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+ GDP HBP
2017    30 158 560 85 151 29  1 38  90 73 128 .270 .355 .529 .883  128  17   2

Baseball Reference has him at a 3.2 WAR (his career total is 4.7). Fangraphs has him at 3.4 giving him a value of $27.3 million to the Jays.

Fangraphs has him at a .371 wOBA and a 132 wRC+.

Justin walked at about the same rate as last year (11.5%, 11.7 in 2016), but struck out a lot less (20.1%, down from 32.8).

Compared to 2016, Justin hit fewer line drives (21.2%, down from 27.3), had more ground balls (34.3%, up from 30.5) and more fly balls (44.5%, up from 42.2). More of his fly balls left the park (19.7%, up from 17.7).

His hard contact rate was almost exactly the same as last year (39.4%, 2016 39.0_

His BABIP was down slightly (.285 from 295).

He hit left-handers (.331/.413/.565) far better than right-handers (.252/.338/.518)

He hit about the same at home (.271/.362/.531) as on the road (.269/.348/.527).

Justin hit very well with RISP (.278/.406/.478). Last year he hit just .167/.278/.310 in that situation.

He was better in the first half (.294/.360/.575) than the second half (.241/.349/.475)

Justin by month:

  • April: .273/.305/.506 with 4 home runs in 25 games.
  • May: .280/.374/.570 with 8 home runs in 27 games.
  • June: .333/.406/.677 with 10 home runs in 26 games.
  • July: .310/.410/.610 with 8 home runs in 27 games.
  • August: .240/.307/.481 with 6 home runs in 26 games.
  • September: .183/.315/.323 with 2 home runs in 27 games.

His slow end to the season is a bit worrying. The Jays say he was dealing with some aches and pains.

Defensively? He had a 1.7 UZR per 150. I’m not a big fan of UZR for first basemen. He seems to be good at the position. I guess my only complaint is that sometimes he goes for balls that are too far away, that other fielders have a better play on, and then, of course, there is no one at first to throw the ball to for the out. But it didn’t happen often. He seems very good at scooping up short hops. Officially, he made 2 errors, and had an Fielding Average of .998, for whatever that’s worth. Buck and Pat consider him a Gold Glove candidate and it’s possible he could get some votes. I can never first out Gold Glove voting.

Fangraphs has him at -3.2 as a baserunner. He’s slow. Maybe not Morales slow, but slow.

His longest hitting streak was 10 games, longest on base streak 19. He never went more than 14 games without a home run.

His favorite team to face? He had a great 3-game series against the Braves, hitting .375/.615/1.250 with 2 home runs. Among teams we played more, he had OPS over between 1.000 and 1.300 against the Angels, Red Sox, White Sox, Twins, A’s, Mariners and Rangers. He had 6 home runs in 18 games vs the Red Sox.

His least favorite? He hit .172/.226/.241 in 7 games against the Astros.

In games he started, Justin hit:

  • 3rd 51 times.
  • 4th 46 times.
  • 5th 40 times.
  • 6th 3 times.
  • 7th 5 times.
  • 8th 2 times.

It appears that his improvement was pretty much all in his cutting down of his strikeout rate. He wasn’t hitting the ball harder. He wasn’t hitting more line drives. He just struck out far less.

It surprises me that he didn’t walk more than in the past. You would think that pitchers would have been more careful facing him, especially considering the batters around him weren’t hitting well.

The $4.125 million question is ‘Can he do it again?’. Is this a one-off?

I don’t know. His downturn at the end of the season is worrying. I have no reason not to believe the Jays excuse that he was dealing with little nagging injuries, other than it is convenient.

He had a very poor finish to his 2016 season too. Maybe he tends to wear down as the season goes on?

The idea, going into the season was that Smoak and Steve Pearce would platoon at first base, Pearce hitting LHP and Smoak hitting RHP. As you can see, from his splits above, this would have been a very bad thing for Justin (and for us).

Smoak said:

Smoak credits backing off some of his swing work as one of the reasons his production has picked up and his ability to lay off bad pitches has improved.

"I feel like earlier in my career it was more of, I did the same amount of work from both sides," he said. "By game time, I was often worn out.

"This season, I've tried to minimize that and I feel it's something that's really paid off for me."

And there was a story that Ross Atkins suggested he speak to a sports psychologist. From a Shi Davidi story:

Midway through the off-season, Paddy Steinfort, the Blue Jays’ head of mental performance, headed to Charleston, S.C., where the two had lunch and it was there that things started to come into focus for Smoak.

Throughout his career, Smoak would spend countless hours in batting cages, swinging until his hands were blistered and bloodied, seeking a physical fix to his struggles at the plate. But what he really needed to fix was his mental approach to a relentless game of failure.

It does seem that swinging the bat until your hands are blistered would be counter productive. Clearing negative thoughts out of his head would be a good step as well. It’s hard enough hitting major league pitching, it can’t help if you have a voice in the back of your head saying you can’t do it.

He also said that he stopped trying to make both his left-handed and right-handed swings the same. I often think switch hitting doesn’t always help a batter. I wonder how many switch hitters would have been better off to pick one side of the plate and stick to it.

We had few pleasant surprises last year. Without Smoak, the season might have been totally unbearable.

We seem to have had a lot of luck with players becoming good after the age of 30. Maybe we have scouts who are good at seeing players who have talent that is just waiting to come out. Or maybe we are really lucky.

Guys with power that Smoak has tend to get many chances to prove they can play. This season shows why.