Last July, the Blue Jays signed Justin Smoak to a two year, $8.5 million contract extension with a club option for the 2019 season. While the deal wasn’t particularly expensive, it was met with almost unanimous criticism from the Jays fanbase. Smoak seemed like a player with little upside whose skill set would eventually block a more talented option, either in house or out on the market.
Well, we’re a third of the way into the 2017 season, and now it’s looking like Smoak might not only be worth the contract, but a downright bargain. He leads the team in home runs, RBI, OPS (.918), and wRC+ (145). In other words, he’s been better than anybody realistically could have hoped for given his career line.
So how did this happen? One word: contact.
Last year when Smoak was at the plate, there was a 28 percent chance he was going to swing and miss. This year, he’s only coming up empty 19 percent of the time. The results are even more pronounced with pitches inside the strike zone. In 2016, Smoak swung and missed 17.8 percent of the time. This year, 5.9 percent of the time.
Thanks to the wonderful folks at Brooks Baseball, we can show you what that looks like in visual form. First, here’s Smoak’s 2016 whiff chart:
And now, Smoak’s 2017 whiff chart:
Again, focus on the nine boxes inside the strike zone. The improvements Smoak’s made here are nothing short of incredible, and he deserves a ton of credit.
This is the entire key to Smoak’s success. There’s no other tricks. He’s not swinging more often, he’s not laying off more pitches outside of the zone, he’s just not missing pitches when they come into his happy place. Last year pitchers could come after Smoak in the zone and get away with it. This year, the ball’s going in play, and many of them are getting destroyed.
In just 50 games, Smoak already has 12 home runs, which puts him on pace to reach his career high total of 20 home runs set back in 2013 somewhere around the All-Star Break.
What’s particularly exciting for the Blue Jays about this transformation from Smoak is that it’s happening on hittable pitches almost entirely within the strike zone. Oftentimes when hitters make some sort of adjustment, they have to trade power for contact or contact for power, but so far this year, Smoak is making so much more contact in the zone, it’s actually leading to more power by default. When a guy as strong as Smoak starts squaring up that many more pitches within the strike zone, many of them are bound to go for extra bases.
The other important thing to note here is that Smoak is now 181 plate appearances into his season, and usually we see strike out rates normalize around 200 plate appearances. Since strike outs are obviously largely an extension of making contact, we’re getting pretty close to a point where we have to take what we’re seeing from Smoak at least somewhat seriously. If he keeps making contact at this rate while striking out at a career low 18.2 percent for another few weeks, there’s a serious possibility he’ll keep doing it for the rest of the season.
I’m sure he’ll tail off at least a little bit from his current clip, but if the guy Justin Smoak’s been to this point in the season is anything like the Justin Smoak the Blue Jays are going to have going forward, their lineup if going to be terrifying now that it’s getting healthier.
So far, Smoak’s been a surprisingly pleasant glue that’s proved essential in holding the middle of the lineup together while other big names couldn’t contribute. However, if this truly is a new Justin Smoak, he’s going to not just hold the middle of the lineup together, but extend the bottom of it to a point where this offense will be a lethal carousel reminiscent of 2015.
At this point, the biggest bucket of cold water someone could realistically throw on this is that he’s built much of these results on bad pitching. The last six Toronto opponents have been Seattle, Atlanta, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Texas and now Cincinnati. Before that stretch, Smoak had a .745 OPS, so it’s possible he’s just really good at crushing bad pitching.
However, even if that’s the case, Smoak’s already given this team a much needed boost by helping keep them in the race while they weathered a stretch of games with about half of their payroll on the Disabled List. If he can keep making this kind of contact now that the team is getting healthy, pitchers are really going to hate trips to the Rogers Centre this summer.
Will Justin Smoak continue to be a different / better hitter this year?
This poll is closed
Yes, those improvements at making contact will stick and lead to a career year.
No, he’ll revert back to his old form before the season is over.