Article Written by Adam Corsair (@ACorsair21)
With the amount of attention that was given to both Justin Smoak's contract extension and the loss of our previous primary first baseman, it was easy to be a bit discouraged with the aspect of having Smoak be inserted into the lineup on an everyday basis prior to the start of the season. For most of Spring Training, the conversation regarding the position was centered around a preference of having either Smoak or Steve Pearce at first base, with a good chunk of people vocalizing their trust in the latter due to the performance that Smoak gave in 2016. With Pearce having some experience at the position, plus the possibility that Kendrys Morales may be able to fill in from time to time, the choice seemed simple enough; with the type of offense that we expected the Jays to produce, Pearce could mitigate the hole that they clearly had at the corner well enough that it wouldn't cause too much of an issue. Further, having a new player that we weren't really familiar with (Pearce), it was a bit easier for us to throw our eggs in his basket rather than wrapping our heads around the thought of having someone we've seen time and time again play on a daily basis.
Full disclosure: I was one of those people.
However, with Smoak taking the reigns at first base for the vast majority of the season thus far, I think it's only fair that we (well... I guess... I) man up and admit that he's exceeding the expectations that were vocalized and, given enough playing time and at-bats, he has been and still may be better than we anticipated.
Numbers don't lie. We hear this often, but given that Smoak has been pretty reliable since the beginning of the year, it's worth looking into a bit more. Granted, it's only been two months of the season thus far, so perhaps it's best to compare his April & May numbers from 2016 to those of 2017. However, by doing so, we must also be aware that Smoak didn't have as many at-bats and didn't play in as many games as he has thus far, for obvious reasons. Maybe that throws this whole analysis off more than a little bit, and that's fair, but it's still worth looking into. So check it out, via Baseball-Reference.com -
Smoak played 21 games, started 10 of them, with 37 at-bats and 48 plate appearances. He had a line of .189/.375/.216 with an OPS of .591. He produced only 7 hits, 3 runs, 0 home-runs, 4 RBIs. 10 walks (21%), and 18 strikeouts (37.5%),
Not that great, but again, with only 48 plate appearances, it's fair to expect him to fail to fall into a groove and be unable to produce as well as we'd like him to, ideally. Smoak only played first base in 16 games that month, while only logging 5 complete games at the position. It did get better in the month of May, however.
Smoak played 29 games, started 24 of them, with 94 at-bats and 104 plate appearances. He had a line of .309/.375/.521 with an OPS of .896. He produced 29 hits, 12 runs, 5 home-runs, 9 RBIs, 10 walks (10%), and 27 strikeouts (26%).
The production spiked perhaps because his usage did as well. Smoak played 27 games at first base, starting in 23 of them at the position. It's important to remember that he wasn't the only player that was available and capable of playing first base, as we all know.
What may be surprising to some, his numbers thus far have been eye-opening and his production from this time last year has been quite the jump. To boot -
Smoak played 25 games, started 19 of them, with 77 at-bats and 82 plate appearances. He had a line of .273/.305/.506 with an OPS of .811. He produced 21 hits, 7 runs, 4 home-runs, 12 RBIs, 4 walks (5%), and 19 strikeouts (23%).
The polarity between '16 & '17 is evident. It's fair to suggest that Smoak may have been motivated with his contract extension and perhaps put in some extra work in the off-season to tweak a few things. But perhaps being the only real option to rely on at first base, he took the ball and ran with it; using it as motivation and is riding it as long as it can. Also, it would have been fair to assume that Smoak would have fallen back to earth, as he did after May of '16, but that has not been the case. In fact, he's improved.
Smoak played 27 games started 26 of them, with 93 at-bats and 107 plate appearances. He had a line of .280/.374/.570 with an OPS of .944. He produced 26 hits, 22 runs, 8 home-runs, 22 RBIs, 14 walks (13%), and 14 strikeouts (13%).
Currently, Smoak leads the team in home-runs (12) and RBIs (34), and has a WAR of 1.0, which is quite the jump from his WAR in 2016 (-0.1). Further, he's only 2 home-runs shy of his total from 2016, has the same amount of RBIs already and it's only been two months in the books. Arguably, Smoak has been the Jays most consistent and productive hitter since the start of the season, with Pillar being the only one you could use to counter this claim. With this type of production, it's hard to find reasons to complain about the extension that was offered to him last season and maybe, just maybe, Smoak has found some sort of groove that he can more or less ride for the remainder of the year.
Now, I don't want to get in over my head here. Of course we would assume that this type of success and consistency is not sustainable. It's fair to expect a regress as we would with any other player. However, it cannot be denied that Smoak has more than exceeded our expectations and, along with Morales, is helping us cope with the loss of our beloved bird carrier quicker than we ever thought before the season began. Again, I was part of the camp that didn't want anything to do with Smoak being the starting first baseman, going so far as vocalizing my displeasure with thought while texting Ryan from Jays Droppings right at the dawn of the season. At the time, Pearce was the player to roll with in my mind, while also trying to rationalize a way to get Bautista into the mix to supplement the load. Looking back at it, I'm not sure why I was so dead-set on finding reasons for Smoak to not be included in the Jays everyday plans. I mean, could you imagine where we would be if the Jays actually did go with Pearce on an everyday basis? We'd not only be down one more everyday fielder to the DL, but the offense wouldn't be nearly as productive as it has been, leading to more games being lost, leading to us not experiencing this current sense of optimism for the Jays being back in it. Make no mistake - despite being in last place in the AL East, they are back in it.
Obviously I don't consider Smoak to be the main reason the Jays are where they are right now. That's a stretch, I think. But if you told me that Tulowitzki, Donaldson, Martin, and Pearce would all be on the DL at some point in April and May, and Smoak would be one of the - if not the - most productive bat in the lineup producing the aforementioned numbers, I'd say you were crazy. But here we are. Apparently, not so crazy.
So with that, it seems a bit more than necessary to acknowledge that I was wrong about Smoak and how productive he would be in this lineup. Hopefully he can carry over this success in June and help propel the Jays up standings now that they're only 1 game under .500. This 4-game series against the Yankees this weekend is huge, I'm much more confident in Smoak starting at first and batting in the 5-spot of the lineup.
Humbly, I will eat my words.
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