Look Here For Your Justin Smoak Optimism

I’ll admit from the top that this is just an experiment. But anyway, I won’t waste your time. Justin Smoak is 30 years old. He’s coming off a 90 wRC+ and a WAR of -0.1. He already has seven seasons of big-league experience, and in precisely zero of those has he measured in at even one win above replacement. Relative to what he was as a prospect, he’s been extremely disappointing. Last July, weirdly, the Blue Jays signed Smoak to a multi-year contract extension. Here’s a clip from his player page:

RotoWire News: Smoak, who was previously presumed to be in line for a platoon role, is the Jays’ preferred everyday first baseman, Shi Davidi of Sportsnet reports. (2/19/2017)

Strange! But maybe…not so strange? Stick with me. As a hitter, your primary skills involve how often you make contact, how hard you make contact, and where the ball goes after contact. I’ve messed around before with pitch comps, looking for similar pitches based on velocity, horizontal movement, and vertical movement. In this somewhat similar experiment, I’ve looked for similar hitters to Smoak based on 2016’s exit velocities, launch angles, and contact rates. Same methodology and everything — it’s all based around z-scores. In the big table below, the most similar hitters to Smoak last season, based on this method. I’ve included everyone with a combined comp score of 2.0 or lower.

Justin Smoak Comparisons
Player 2016 EV 2016 LA 2016 Contact% Comp Score 2016 wRC+
Justin Smoak 89.6 17.7 72.1% 90
Freddie Freeman 89.4 17.3 72.5% 0.3 152
Mark Trumbo 89.8 16.3 72.3% 0.5 123
Nick Castellanos 88.5 17.3 72.8% 0.7 119
Justin Upton 88.3 16.1 71.7% 1.0 105
J.D. Martinez 89.6 13.8 72.8% 1.1 142
Trevor Story 88.0 16.2 72.7% 1.1 120
Ryan Howard 90.5 17.2 67.2% 1.3 83
Joc Pederson 88.9 15.5 75.1% 1.4 129
Miguel Sano 90.0 17.1 65.7% 1.4 107
Randal Grichuk 87.4 15.6 72.0% 1.4 102
Evan Longoria 87.5 17.0 75.3% 1.6 123
Khris Davis 89.4 14.1 68.3% 1.6 123
Chris Davis 88.5 18.2 65.7% 1.7 111
Kris Bryant 86.6 19.8 73.0% 1.9 149
Chris Carter 88.7 18.8 64.7% 1.9 112
Pedro Alvarez 88.3 13.3 70.3% 2.0 117

The single best comparison to Smoak: Freeman, who was and is one of the best players on the Braves. You’ll notice there are but two below-average wRC+ marks out of 17. The overall average wRC+ in this group is 118. The median is 119. Last season, Jose Bautista’s wRC+ for the Blue Jays was 122.

I’ve never looked at players quite like this before, so don’t take this to mean more than it does. It seems, at least, modestly encouraging — Smoak’s exit-velocity numbers were quite good, and he didn’t struggle at all to generate lift. Maybe there’s just something about his approach that holds him back, but then, maybe he’s better than he looked. Given that he’s a slow-footed first baseman, he’s never going to top a WAR leaderboard. Yet perhaps the Blue Jays correctly identified that there’s upside still in there. The track record is what it is, but I can’t very well look at that table and dismiss it.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

This is the perfect, perfect preseason article. Jeff Sullivan purging angst from last year, promoting hope for the next.