Will Justin Smoak perform up to par as a starting first baseman for the Blue Jays?
No MLB player is “bad at baseball” however, some fans love using this particular hyperbolic phrase. Perhaps it’s because they can’t articulate a better argument but often it seems as though they truly believe it. These types of sentiments, along with nastier ones, are frequently directed at the Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak. As with many players slung with this label, he’s not “bad,” he’s miscast. Perceptions of players change drastically depending on the context.
If Smoak was on the Bisons, no one would have a problem with him, he’d probably be one of their more popular players but as it stands, his context is: MLB starting first baseman on a two year, $8.5m contract. It’s just not who he is and there doesn’t seem to be any solid evidence to suggest that will change—Not impossible, just improbable.
Sure, Jose Bautista didn’t break out until he was 29 and in his 7th season, but that was extremely rare and Smoak has already played his 7th season. Whatever Smoak is now is what he will likely remain.
Justin is a solid backup first baseman with power, a good eye, and a plus glove. He should be making about $2m per year. Yet, the Blue Jays seem determined to keep him in a role beyond his scope.
It would’ve made some sense if the club had extended him after his positive 2015 but he was extended in the middle of the 2016 season (July). What was the urgency? If they had waited they would have seen his year end numbers were essentially career average. But the money isn’t much of an issue compared to the role.
Fast forward to spring training 2017, management adamantly believes Smoak can take the starting job and run with it. The team has several other options at first base and yet seems especially reticent to consider a platoon there, let alone tap Smoak as the backup.
What numbers are the Blue Jays looking at? Do they know something we don’t?
Smoak slashed .217 .314 .391 in 2016. The batting average and on-base percentages aren’t unheard of for a starting corner infielder but if the BA and OBP are in that range, a .391 slugging percentage doesn’t cut it. Was luck to blame? Not really, his BABIP was .295, significantly higher than his career average of .262. His 17.7 HR/FB also suggests that he actually benefitted from luck.
His solid plate discipline remained consistent. He had an 11.7% walk rate (league average is 8%). However, his strikeout woes moved from bad to awful: 32.8% strikeout rate. Breaking balls remained his Achilles heel. Against curveballs for example, he managed just 3 hits (all singles) in 45 at bats.
It takes some pair of rose coloured glasses to see a starting first baseman in those numbers.
Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs has collected the only data that suggests improvement is possible and the author readily admits the limitations of his data.
Perhaps the Blue Jays’ continued faith in Justin Smoak will be rewarded and their confidence justified but the evidence is scant. As a fan, one should always wish for the best case scenario however the projections are not optimistic. In a more talent-appropriate context, Smoak can be a positive contributor and in time management will likely be forced to concur.
N.B — Smoak’s spring numbers, while ugly on paper, are not good evidence one way or the other. Consider last year in spring training he had an 1.159 OPS. Spring numbers mean little and less.