Playing the Average: Smoak’s Edge

If you think Justin Smoak’s contract is a joke, you should see my tables

Starting the season there were a whole lot of people getting themselves all in a lather over the decision by the Blue Jays’ front office in May 2016 to sign Justin Smoak to a two year, $10 million contract extension. “He’s a terrible player!” these people screamed. “He’s not worth that kind of money!”

Show me the money!

Smoak’s salary this year is $4.125 million which makes him the nineteenth highest paid first baseman amongst the forty one listed at Spotrac, meaning he is making pretty darned near the dictionary definition of the Major League average salary for a first baseman. The three players just ahead of him on that list are Wil Myers (Padres, $4.5 million), Mitch Moreland (Red Sox, $5.5 million) and Mike Napoli (Rangers, $6.0 million). Just behind Smoak are four players, each making $4.0 milllion this year: Eric Thames (Brewers), John Jaso (Pirates), Yonder Alonso (A’s) and Brandon Belt (Giants).

So how does Smoak stack up? Let’s start with their slash lines, organised by batting average:

Eric Thames 0.327 0.431 1.174
Yonder Alonso 0.309 0.378 1.079
Wil Myers 0.302 0.331 0.885
Mitch Moreland 0.271 0.355 0.804
Justin Smoak 0.255 0.288 0.741
Brandon Belt 0.222 0.359 0.761
Mike Napoli 0.164 0.218 0.546
John Jaso 0.154 0.243 0.551

So: Smoak is fifth out of the eight in batting average so far this season, and sixth in both On Base and OPS. Not bad…not great, either, but for a first baseman making average money he’s performing at about an average level.

Let’s look at some power numbers, this time organised by home runs:

Player HR RBI HR/PA RBI/PA
Eric Thames 13 24 0.094 0.173
Yonder Alonso 11 27 0.097 0.239
Wil Myers 7 22 0.048 0.152
Mike Napoli 5 13 0.037 0.096
Justin Smoak 5 17 0.045 0.153
Brandon Belt 4 14 0.028 0.099
John Jaso 2 4 0.027 0.053
Mitch Moreland 2 16 0.014 0.113

Tied for fourth with Napoli in home runs, all on his own in fourth place for RBI and for home runs per plate appearance, and third in RBI per plate appearance. Once again, amongst comparably paid first basemen, Smoak is producing at an about average level in every category.

And that’s what I find the most striking, really. Amongst comparably paid first basemen, Justin Smoak stands out as almost startlingly, solidly, average. He’s not at the top of any of the stats, but he’s not at the bottom either.

But just one more table (I promise), this time comparing plate discipline and organised by strike outs:

Player SO BB SO/AB
John Jaso 16 8 0.246
Yonder Alonso 24 12 0.247
Justin Smoak 25 5 0.236
Mitch Moreland 29 16 0.246
Eric Thames 29 20 0.257
Wil Myers 40 5 0.288
Brandon Belt 41 25 0.350
Mike Napoli 42 6 0.344

Third on the list for strike outs, and worst (with Wil Myers) in terms of taking a walk, but take a closer look and you’ll notice that amongst these eight comparably-paid first basemen Justin Smoak has the best rate of strike outs per at bat. So while Smoak may not walk a lot (at least compared to comparably paid first basemen) he also is cagier than most of his peers when it comes to strike outs which means he’s putting the ball in play more often than them.

A lot of people may be surprised to learn that Justin Smoak does not, contrary to popular wisdom, strike out every time he comes to the plate. In fact, with just twenty-five strike outs so far this season he is ninety second amongst the one hundred ninety players with at least one hundred at bats so far this season making him, once again, an average player making an average salary for his position.

Now, I get it: the season is not very old and all these numbers are based on what can and should be called a truly small sample size. But so far, at least, those numbers tell an interesting story. Justin Smoak isn’t Mike Trout…but then again, nobody’s Mike Trout (unless his name was Barry Bonds). But he isn’t Joe Crummy Nobody either. He’s a genuine major league first baseman, making standard major league first baseman money.

But here’s the statistic that makes him worth every penny the Blue Jays are paying him:

Thirty-three.

Justin Smoak has appeared in thirty-three games for the Jays: that’s every game they’ve played. The only other players to pull that off in this injury nightmare of a season are Kevin Pillar, José Bautista and Kendrys Morales (whose streak is about to come an end) which makes him an extremely valuable commodity for the team.

A dependable bat and fantastic glove who can be relied on to play every game, for league average money?

Sounds like a good deal to me.

So give the guy a break, willya?

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