It seems like a lifetime ago that the former 1st round pick Justin Smoak was dealt from Texas to Seattle as the centerpiece in a deal that landed the Rangers Cliff Lee.The switch hitting first baseman was touted as the second coming of Mark Teixeira in those days, but after three miserable years going back and forth between Tacoma and Seattle, the club decided to cut their losses and released the first baseman. Toronto claimed Smoak, hoping they could mold the former top-prospect into something special, but the initial results were not pretty.
In his first two seasons with the Blue Jays, Smoak combined to put up a 0.5 WAR, but was continually granted opportunities thanks to a rapidly fading pedigree. Thankfully for Smoak, Blue Jays patience has paid off in a big way. At the ripe age of 30, Smoak is enjoying a full-fledged breakout, posting an OPS of .961 and carrying the Blue Jays offense for pretty much the entire season. Entering the season, Smoak’s career WAR was 0.7, this year alone it is 3.7. Smoak has redefined the term “post-hype prospect” as his career season has been a heartwarming tale of perseverance.
So how has the Blue Jays first baseman gone from being a perennial disappointment to one of the most feared hitters in the American League? He has defied the league wide all-or-nothing trend and instead focused on putting more balls in play.
Let’s take a look at some of Smoak’s contact-oriented statistics this season compared to his career.
While Smoak’s batted ball data is almost identical to previous seasons, he has lowered his strikeout rate from 32.8% to 20.6% this season. It’s not complicated — more balls in play equals more hits, even if the quality or direction of those batted balls aren’t different in a significant way.
So we know that Smoak has eliminated some swing-and-miss from his game, but the question of how he did this still remains. After all, it is not as if he is swinging less, but rather just making contact more.
Thankfully for nerds like me, Baseball Savant has the answers.
Below is a heat map of the pitches that Justin Smoak swings at with two-strikes this season.
Notice that that majority of the pitches that Smoak chooses to offer at are right around the middle of the zone (pitches that any hitter has a high chance of making contact with).
Compare these two-strike tendencies with his two-strike approach prior to 2016.
As we can see, Smoak was swinging at pitcher’s pitches that he couldn’t reasonably expect to do any damage with. As a result of removing his hyper-aggressive two-strike approach, Smoak has drastically improved his results. In 2015 and 2016, Smoak posted a wRC+ of 29 and 32 respectively, which unsurprisingly are both marks that ranked in the bottom quartile of the league. In 2017, Smoak has improved this number to 88, which ranks 35th in the MLB.
Smoak has went from an undisputed disappointment to one of the best hitters in the American League at a time when most player’s career starts trending downward.