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Don’t Worry About Justin Smoak (too much)

Or if you’re going to worry, focus on the right thing

Detroit Tigers v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Justin Smoak was one of the few bright spots among Blue Jays regulars in 2017, with a breakout season that was very much the exception on a team where most players slid backwards. Yet there was been much angst among Blue Jays fans this winter about whether he will continue to produce, after he slumped in the last two months (.213/.311/.409, 89 wRC+) and had a slow spring (.209/.306/.395).

I don’t know if his offensive production will quite reach last year’s level, but digging into the numbers, I don’t see much to worry about. Spring Training is Spring Training, and digging into the numbers, it’s the last couple months that stand out as a outlier.

Last July I took a deep dive into Smoak, and the critical insight is to look separately at his production on balls in play (including home runs), and his plate outcomes (K, BB, HBP).

Let’s start with production on balls in play (about 70% of PA across MLB in 2017). Below is a chart showing Smoak’s production compared to the league for each year of his career.

Smoak BIP 2010-17

Before coming to Toronto in 2015, Smoak was above average only once. Overall, from 2010-14, Smoak was about 10% below league average on these outcomes, which is sort of a problem for a first baseman whose job is to drive the ball.

But since coming to Toronto, he’s been well above average in each of the three years. Even before last year’s complete breakout, he was already among the elite in MLB at mashing balls when he put them in play. So critically, in terms of production on balls in play, 2017 was not some fluke or outlier. He’s been consistently 20-25% above average for three years as with the Blue Jays.

So why then did Smoak’s breakout only occur in 2017? That’s thanks to his plate outcomes, where his strikeout rate spiked and production plummeted in 2015-16. In 2017, his contact rate drastically improved, one of the biggest turnarounds in the last 15 years for which we have data. If we were inclined to worry about something being fluky for Smoak, this is where to zero in.

So let’s break down Smoak’s 2017, breaking it into three equal parts (April/May, June/July, August/September).

In that first two months chunk, he walked in 9.5% of his plate appearances and struck out 17.5%, with a 167 wRC+ on balls in play. So his balls in play were right in line with the previous two years, the plate outcomes were much improved, and so his overall production was much better.

In June/July, his strikeout rose to 22%, but that’s pretty close to average and still much better than before. Moreover, his walk rate increased to 13%, offsetting the increased strikeout rate. But the big difference was a ridiculous 243 (!) wRC+ on balls in play. For a two month stretch in the middle of 2017, Justin Smoak went completely bonkers.

Now the final two month stretch, where his overall production cratered back towards the levels of the bad old days. Over this period, he walked in 12% of PA and struck out in 22%, almost bang in line with when he was mashing in June/July. The difference was that his wRC+ on balls in play fell down to 111, significantly below league average.

So to begin with, part of the reason it seemed he was so bad down the stretch was that it came immediately on the heels of an unbelievable stretch that was well beyond his longer term production. Regression was virtually inevitable, and going in the complete opposite direction compounded it.

But at the end of the day, we’re looking at two bad months on balls in play when he was banged up, against a backdrop of over two and half years prior to that of consistently strong production. It’s the last months that stand out as the outlier.

By contrast, when it comes to the plate outcomes where he really struggled until 2017, he maintained the positive outcomes. This is the area where one should (or at least I would) be worried about Smoak backsliding as pitchers made in-season adjustments to his own adjustments (as well as old fashioned regression). But we didn’t see that.

At the end of the day, baseball’s baseball and who knows what 2018 has in store. But Smoak’s poor finish to 2017 is little reason to doubt him in 2018.