There Is Urgent Need for a Justin Smoak Article

There are a couple good stories beginning to emerge in the American League. Just last night, the Mariners crawled their way all the way back to .500, despite suffering through a rash of significant early-season injuries. And, similarly, although the Blue Jays aren’t quite also at .500, they’re close, despite encountering a similar problem. There’s been talk of whether the Mariners and Blue Jays ought to sell. With their play much improved, each team is firmly back in the race, vying to contend for the wild card.

With any team in such a position, success is dependent upon there being some surprises. And when you look at the Jays, there may be no bigger surprise than the offensive performance of Justin Smoak. Before the year, there were 14 Jays projected to play at least semi-regularly, and Smoak stood as the eighth-best hitter. At this writing, there have been 14 Jays who have played at least semi-regularly, and Smoak has been the second-best hitter. By wRC+, he’s above Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Daniel Murphy, and Kris Bryant. Smoak has a career WAR of 1.8. This season alone, he’s been worth 1.5.

As you know, Smoak is a former top prospect. Plenty of hype, for plenty of years. He’s also 30 years old, and until now, he looked like a replacement-level hitter. When the Jays signed him to a modest extension a year ago, it was met with mockery and disappointment. Welp. There was no putting off this post any longer.

The story of what Justin Smoak has seemingly become is pretty simple. He hasn’t overhauled his body through diet and exercise. He hasn’t overhauled his swing, and he hasn’t meaningfully adjusted his average exit velocity or launch angle. Counter to the greater trend, Smoak now is actually hitting fewer balls in the air. Smoak’s contact quality is fine. And the whole key is he’s just making more contact.

Still drawing walks. Still hitting homers. Also just hitting the ball more. This right here — this explains the phenomenon.

Earlier in his career, Smoak didn’t have a massive strikeout problem, but he still struck out more than the average. Then the strikeouts went up, and up, eventually peaking at last year’s 33%. So far in 2017, that rate has been cut almost in half. Smoak has batted a couple hundred times, so the sample’s not too small. There’s a change that’s taken place, with Smoak sacrificing little in other areas.

How, exactly, have the strikeouts disappeared? It’s time to really break this down. To begin with, here’s a plot showing the rate of Smoak’s plate appearances that have advanced to two-strike counts. In the same plot, the rate of those two-strike counts that have turned into strikeouts.

Compared to last season, Smoak has gotten to two strikes a little less often, but that doesn’t explain it. Smoak hasn’t been avoiding deep counts. If that blue line has done anything, it’s only gone *up*. The red line is the moneymaker. Smoak, a year ago, struck out 60% of the time that he got to two strikes. The year before that, 52%. He’d never before been below 45%. This season, he’s at 35%. The toughest strike to get against Smoak has been the third one. He has, very simply, become a much better two-strike hitter.

To further break things down, let’s examine Smoak’s year-to-year swing rates. Here, you see his swing rates in non-two-strike counts, and his swing rates with two strikes against him.

I don’t think there’s anything to see. In non-two-strike situations, Smoak has swung a tiny bit more often than he used to. Nothing huge. With two strikes already in the bank, Smoak’s swing rate is normal. Here’s where the real difference is. Let’s convert those swing rates into contact rates:

When Smoak hasn’t had two strikes, and when he’s swung, he’s hit the ball 79% of the time. That’s an improvement from the last few years, but not by a whole lot. When Smoak *has* had two strikes, and when he’s swung, he’s hit the ball 81% of the time. That’s a massive improvement from the last few years. Smoak has never had so much two-strike success before. In terms of two-strike contact rate, between 2014 – 2016, Smoak ranked in the 4th percentile out of all players. So far in 2017, in the same statistical category, Smoak ranks in the 73rd percentile. that right there is enormously significant, as Smoak is just tougher than ever to put away.

What’s happened in two-strike counts as a consequence? Baseball Reference tracks a stat I like, called sOPS+. It’s just regular OPS+ — which is similar to wRC+ — except it’s adjusted to a specific split in question, such that the league average is always set at 100. Here is Smoak’s year-to-year two-strike sOPS+:

Smoak had long been a below-average two-strike hitter. Before this season, his best mark was 92. Right now he stands at 185, which is double that previous best. Smoak, before this year, had 28 two-strike home runs, topping out at six, in 2012. So far this season he already has six two-strike home runs, putting him on track to shatter his high. Smoak is tied for eighth in baseball in two-strike homers. Last season he was tied for 118th.

There’s just one more thing to try and tie this all together. I noted that Smoak hasn’t changed his overall two-strike swing rate very much. The changes have come in contact, and in contact quality. How might that be explained? Here’s where Smoak has swung with two strikes, over the years:

It is, in short, a shift in perspective. A shift in selectivity, where Smoak now is more reluctant to go down and chase. He’s long been vulnerable against softer stuff down, and it’s no coincidence he’s drawn his lowest-ever rate of fastballs, but Smoak has managed to stay more disciplined. He’s stayed on the pitches he’s been looking for, and he’s been caught flailing less often. It’s not necessarily the kind of adjustment you could spot within one game, or even one week, but the bigger-picture numbers betray the reality. Smoak’s approach looks like it’s matured, just as the broader baseball community was ready to be rid of him.

And so Smoak has lifted himself, and he’s lifted a struggling team around him. The question is always whether a different approach can sustain, and as pressure mounts, some players slide back. Smoak has a long track record of poor two-strike hitting, and that isn’t yet something we can ignore. What we can say is that it seems like Smoak has put the work in, and he’s gotten the results he’s wanted for a couple of months. It looks like a productive version of Justin Smoak, at last. We can re-visit in a month, and we can re-visit a month after that, to see whether the gains have held up. But the Smoak the Jays have had so far has been a high-level hitter. He’s made that third strike tougher than ever to get, and that’s made all the difference.

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

I’m glad you get to write the Smoak article! Are you enjoying seeing him have success?

5 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

First you got to do the draft success article and now this….

So what exactly DID you do to piss Dave off?

Aaron Judge's Gavel
5 years ago
Reply to  paulkrugman

He never wrote the Jason Vargas article