Justin Smoak’s Strange Season

Justin Smoak’s time with the Blue Jays is all but certain to come to an end when Toronto plays its final game this season. The rebuilding Jays will want to get a look at Rowdy Tellez, who has already begun to cut into Smoak’s playing time, and Smoak is set to become a free agent for the first time in his career.

As far as contract seasons go, Smoak surely can’t be thrilled with his results. He’s hitting .206/.342/.398 with 21 home runs on the year. At a time where seemingly everyone in the league has morphed into a power hitter, Smoak has cleared the fences 17 fewer times than he did in his 38-homer 2017 season. Waning playing time and a brief stint on the injured list have impacted that total, but the overall results aren’t ideal with free agency looming.

Smoak’s season, though, is also among the stranger you’ll come across when sifting through this year’s class of free agents. No one likes a .206 batting average, of course, but there’s also quite a bit to like about Smoak’s 2019 campaign. His 16.1 percent walk rate is the highest of his career by a long shot and is the sixth-highest of any qualified hitter in baseball. Smoak’s strikeout rate (21.1 percent) is down more than five percent from its 2018 level and is the second-best mark of his career. Only eight qualified hitters in baseball — Mike Trout, Alex Bregman, Mookie Betts, Joey Votto, Carlos Santana, Shin-Soo Choo, Tommy Pham and Daniel Vogelbach — have chased fewer pitches outside the strike zone than Smoak and his 22.9 percent clip. He ranks in the top 30 in terms of pitches per plate appearance (4.10). He’s been extremely disciplined at the plate.

A notable portion of Smoak’s struggles could be tied up in the fact that he’s had some poor luck on balls in play (.220). When looking into particularly egregious BABIP erosion, it’s common to see some trends that would portend to fewer balls dropping for hits — an uptick in infield flies, for instance, or for a player with Smoak’s skill set, perhaps a sharp increase in ground-balls. That hasn’t been the case, though. Smoak’s seven percent infield-fly rate is the second-lowest of his career, and his 36.9 percent ground-ball rate is actually down nearly three percent from 2018. His line-drive rate, correspondingly, is up nearly three percent. His fly-ball rate is right in line with his past four seasons.

So perhaps Smoak simply isn’t making good contact anymore? Not the case. Smoak’s overall percentage of balls hit at 95+ mph is down from 41.9 percent last year to 38.9 percent in 2019, but he’s upped his average exit velocity, improved his launch angle and very slightly improved his barrel rate, per Statcast. Smoak’s expected batting average of .242 and his expected slugging percentage of .472 (also via Statcast) dwarf his actual output. Among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances, the -.041 difference between Smoak’s actual wOBA (.325) and his expected wOBA (.366) is the ninth-largest. Put another way: Statcast considers Smoak among baseball’s unluckiest hitters in 2019. Not great timing for a player who’s about to hit free agency.

Of course, a poor season can’t be entirely blamed on rotten luck. Some of the struggles in terms of batting average are tied to aggressive shifting against Smoak — particularly when he hits left-handed (where he’s vastly better than from the right side). Smoak is MLB’s fourth-most shifted player when he bats lefty, and teams are shifting him 12 percent more often than in his monster 2017 season. As such, it’s barely been worth the effort for him to leave the box when he puts the ball on the ground. (I joke for the sake of hyperbole — run out your grounders, kids!)

Smoak is hitting .139 on grounders as a lefty and a ghastly .105 from the right side. Shifts are becoming more aggressive, more universally adopted and more precise; that’s going to hurt your plodding first basemen of the world, and Smoak is no exception. He’s already top-25 among qualified hitters in terms of fly-ball rate, but it’s easy to argue that he should strive to elevate even more. It’s also worth noting that Smoak is hitting .583 on line-drives, which sounds nice but is substantially south of the league average (.686) and his career rate (.711). Shifting likely plays a role there as well — but to a lesser extent. That’s one area where he seems likely to improve moving forward.

Given the leaguewide uptick in shifts over the past few years and Smoak’s decreasing speed, he’s probably never going to hit .270 like he did in 2017 (.270/.355/.529). But Smoak is also still making good contact and is more patient at the plate than he’s ever been before. He’s only been narrowly above replacement level this year by measure of wins above replacement, but there’s good reason to expect his bat to bounce back in 2020. The free-agent market has been particularly harsh for first base/DH types in recent winters, which could lead to someone getting themselves a nice bargain on Smoak.