I was not a believer in Justin Smoak when this season began. When the Blue Jays signed him to a two-year extension at $8.5 million I figured it was a good price to pay for a backup first baseman, and guy to slot in at DH to give guys a day off here or there. What he has done thus far in 2017 has been nothing short of extraordinary.
He has already surpassed his RBI and extra-base hit totals from last year and has done so with 123 fewer plate appearances. Many have pondered the reasons why.
Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler (referred to as Tabby from here on out) have discussed ad nauseam why he is doing so well this year. Is it the consistent play? Is it the fact he has the security of a contract? Is it his approach at the plate? I figure it’s a combination of all three because each one plays into the other.
With the security of the contract (and the lack of an alternative at first base) comes consistent play, and with the consistent play comes a more patient approach at the plate.
But there’s more than just that because he has had consistent playing time in the past (news flash, he is 30 years old and this is his 8th season in the MLB, only one year with less than 100 games).
Something changed in the way he comes to the plate this year, and the only real answer I can think of is Blue Jays batting coach Brook Jacoby.
Since Smoak joined the Blue Jays he’s been a relative afterthought. Edwin Encarnacion was going to be our first baseman, and our hitting coach would be more focused on getting our starters as ready as they can be for an MLB season. Smoak had power, was a switch hitter, and a useful bench guy, but Jacoby wasn’t spending sleepless nights thinking about how to get him to breakthrough as a batter.
When Encarnacion wasn’t re-signed, and it was clear Smoak was, at the very least, going to start 100 or so games at first, I’m sure Jacoby put in some time to figure out why his ability to hit wasn’t coming through consistently.
And as I said he has had several seasons with over 480 plate appearances (2011-2013 in Seattle) and none have come close to what he is doing right now.
His best batting average in those three years was .238 in 2013 (he is at .291 right now). His career-high in homeruns also came in 2013 at 20 (he’s at 17).
Justin Smoak has the most RBI’s of AL first basemen, and is fifth in the Majors. Justin Smoak has the third-best average in the AL among first basemen. Justin Smoak is tied for first in home runs among first basemen IN THE MAJORS.
If you can’t tell, I did not think Justin Smoak was going to be doing what he is doing.
The biggest difference at the plate this year is patience, at least compared to last year’s K-hole (and not the cool rock n’ roll kind).
Up to this season in his career, Smoak struck out in 24 per cent of his plate appearances. This season it is 18 per cent. On top of that he is actually averaging more than one walk for every two strikeouts, something he’s only done once before in guess what year….2013.
So this becomes a question of whether the big Smoak is for real, or whether we’re in for a Michael Saunders-style regression in the second half of the season.
It is hard for me to now step on the train to believing-town, when for months I was on the platform waiting for dumpster fire station, but here’s why I want to think I was wrong.
Smoak has put up these numbers with no one helping him out. If there was a time when he might abandon a patient approach, you would have to think it would be with no clear protection. Think of how much easier it was for Bautista when Encarnacion was waiting on deck. He has been our number five hitter all year long, and until Troy Tulowitzki came back from the DL, that means he actually had Devon Travis, Steve Pearce and Russell Martin on-deck behind him.
Those guys have had good streaks, and helping Smoak out, since May 1st Travis and Pearce were both tearing the cover off the ball before they both went on the DL (Travis was batting .352 with a .974 OPS and Pearce .276 with a 1.092 OPS).
We never know what is to come, but let’s hope Smoaker becomes the Dart Guy for the Blue Jays.