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Smoak and mirrors?

In his age 30 season, is the former top prospect finally figuring it out?

MLB: Texas Rangers at Toronto Blue Jays
Justin Smoak
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Jays have started to play some good baseball again. Flipping over the calendar from April has the team sitting at a respectable 28-29 (as of June 5th), with players like Jose Bautista and Devon Travis starting to come around while Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki return from the disabled list. This bodes well for Toronto, as now they have the deep line up they were supposed to deploy all along, with Tulo and Travis at times hitting 7th and 8th.

However, in what has been an injury-ravaged season thus far, Justin Smoak and Kevin Pillar have been the two most consistent players who have carried much of the offense when the rest of the team was scuffling. I covered Kevin Pillar at length on this website a few weeks ago; today we’ll look at Justin Smoak, and ask: is he finally turning a corner?

I must admit, I was one of many fans who shook their heads in disbelief when the Blue Jays signed Smoak to a two-year extension last year. I had always questioned the value of Justin Smoak to a major league ball club, and despite his safe glove and lengthy wingspan, Smoak’s defense could not offset the subpar offensive contributions that were the story of his career at that time.

However, this year Smoak seems to have turned a corner. As of June 5th, he’s slashing .283/.346/.560. His wOBA is a stellar .379, and his wRC+ of 139 means he’s hit roughly 37% better than the average player. Contrast this with his career line of .227/.311/.403 with a .313 wOBA and 98 wRC+, and it’s easy to see why we’re interested in what Smoak has done, and in whether what we see is a mirage.

Analyzing some of the advanced numbers, Smoak’s walk rate and strike out rates are a notch below his career norms. He’s walking 9.3 percent of the time while striking out 18.0 percent of the time in 2017; for his career, he’s posted rates of 10.5 percent and 23.5 percent respectively, which suggests that he’s making better contact.

If we move to his plate discipline, Smoak’s rate of swings in the strike zone is 67.1 percent, just slightly above his career rate of 65.6 percent. However, his contact rate on those swings in the zone is up from a career rate of 86.6 percent to 93.0 percent.

This increase in contact has resulted in an increased number of balls in play, but at the same time, Smoak’s BABIP is up from a career figure of .264 to .281. He’s not just making more contact; he’s making better contact, as reflected by Smoak’s improved hard contact rate, up from 34.9 percent in his career to 41.6 percent in 2017.

So the question is: what has Smoak done differently this year that has improved his rate and quality of contact so dramatically? Smoak’s whiff rate on hard pitches is in line with his career numbers; however, his whiff rate is down substantially for both breaking and offspeed pitches, which could be a result of improved pitch recognition.

Lets look at his overall whiff rate in 2017 compared to his whiff rate from the start of his career through the end of 2016.

2017 whiff rate
brooksbaseball.net
2010–16 whiff rate
brooksbaseball.net

There had been a hole in his swing, particularly low in the zone; Smoak appears to have patched it.

Another indication of improved contact comes from Statcast data.

Statcast Data

Year Avg. EV Avg FB/LD EV % of BB over 95mph Brls/PA
Year Avg. EV Avg FB/LD EV % of BB over 95mph Brls/PA
2017 89.3 94.5 43.8% 9.6%
2016 91.4 94.6 42.2% 6.5%
2015 91.0 97.6 46.4% 8.2%
baseballsavant.mlb.com

Although there’s a slight decrease in Smoak’s overall average Exit Velocity (while his EV on line drives and fly balls is consistent), his rate of barrels per plate appearances is up from last year. In fact, it is the highest rate for Smoak since Statcast started collecting this information. He might not be hitting the ball harder on average, but he’s combining solid contact with good launch angles at a higher rate.

But really, it’s the increase in his contact rate that’s most important, as Justin Smoak can hit for power. The more contact he makes, the greater the likelihood of him smashing a ball for extra bases. Although his 2017 home run to fly ball ratio is significantly higher than his career numbers (23.3 percent vs 14.4 percent), balls tend to fly in Toronto, and his home run to fly ball ratio as a Blue Jay is much higher (21.9 percent). It is also important to remember that his career rate might have been suppressed, due to him playing the majority of his games at Safeco Field during his first 5 seasons. This might be a sustainable Smoak that we’re seeing.

Justin Smoak has always shown that he can clear the outfield fence, and that he could take his share of walks. His problem had mostly been looking lost on breaking pitches. This year, it seems he has figured that out. If he can continue to make contact as consistently as he has these past two months, then the Blue Jays might have found themselves with another incredibly team friendly extension.