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?

The Catch

You can certainly feel free to say “Bullsh**!” to this, but I knew Kevin had that ball all the way.

And holy fricking heck, I was even in the park to see it. Second deck, just between home and third, with a perfect view of the whole thing. And what a thing it was.

The instant the ball was struck, I turned to Pillar and he was already on the move. Even before I’d shifted my eyes from the plate to the outfield, he was already running in a dead-straight even line to where the ball was going to come down, and as the ball dipped and the crowd sighed I was already standing and getting ready to cheer because Pillar had his eye on it, and was raising his glove and I knew he was going to get that sucker because the great outfielders, the truly extraordinary ones, just have a particular way of moving–of gliding–for those last few steps before they make the eye-popping catch and Pillar was gliding across the green like he was barely touching it.

And then he flew up, and tossed out the glove and…oh my goodness, but that is why I watch baseball and shell out the outrageous amounts of money it costs to take your kids to a ballgame. Because as Pillar came down with that ball in his glove and everyone else stood up to join me and the noise rose up all around, I got to look down at my boys and to see them looking down at the field in the same way that I was, and the way everyone else there was: eyes wide and white, smiles of awe and amazement from ear to ear, and a kind of bewildered air of the surreal surrounding everything.

“Did you see that?” my younger boy asked me. “Did you see?”

“That…was incredible,” offered the elder.

My wife tore her eyes from the field to look at me. “I can’t believe what I just saw. Did he really catch that?”

Yes. Yes, he did catch that.

And I was there to see it.

God, I love baseball.

 

The View From Thirty (One)

In which I gain the wisdom of a child and prove with numbers that Kendrys Morales is THE MAN!

In addition to winning their second series of the season over the weekend (and in Tampa Bay no less!) the Jays passed an important, if somewhat arbitrary, milestone: game thirty. It’s an old saw that you can only really begin to start taking stock of where your team is at after thirty games have been played, and at the moment, well, the Blue Jays are kind of where they’ve been all year: between a rock and something just a little less rock-like. Eleven and twenty is…not good. It’s not as bad as it could be, but still…not good. Are the Jays doomed? Are they still in this thing? Are these questions we should even be asking?

I dunno. But here’s the transcript of a conversation I had this morning with my eleven year old son that I believe pretty much sums up the interior life of every Blue Jays fan these days:

Son: Daddy, can the Blue Jays make the playoffs this year?

Me: Well, I’m not sure. They could but it’s going to be really hard for them to–

Son: Don’t say that! They can do it.

Me: Well, I didn’t say they couldn’t, it’s too early in the season to be sure. I’m just saying that they started really badly–

Son: But they’re playing really well right now.

Me: I don’t know if they’re playing really well. Bautista’s looking very old all over again and Travis isn’t really hitting yet; the pitching is a mess–

Son: They’re all injured, though. It doesn’t count. Who’s even in the lineup right now, anyway? They’re not even really the Jays. Tulowitzki and Donaldson are going to come back and they’ll be good again.

Me: Martin’s injured too now, you know.

Son: He’s no loss, he wasn’t hitting well anyway.

Me: Actually, he was coming round and he’s always good behind the plate. They were really depending on him.

Son: Doesn’t matter. They’re winning. They can still make the playoffs and you shouldn’t say they can’t.

Me: I didn’t say they couldn’t, I just said it would be har–

Son: They can make it.

Me: Maybe, but–

Son: They can.

Me: But–

Son: They can, Daddy!

And then it kind of went on like this for a while.

And: who the man? Kendrys, Kendrys is the man.

Here’s a statistically insignificant point which I am going to claim is significant:

In games where Kendrys Morales homers the Blue Jays are three and two. In games in which he does not hit a dinger they are eight and eighteen. Put another way, when Kendrys homers the Jays have a .600 win ratio, and when he doesn’t they’re playing .444.

By way of comparison, when we look at the team’s next-best tater-hitter, Justin Smoak (with five so far this year, compared to Kendrys’ six, which added together is still less than Aaron Judge but we’re not going to talk about that right now) the Jays are two and three (.400) in games in which Smoak finds the seats.

Things get even more interesting when you look at the RBI for each, with Smoak at seventeen and Morales at twenty. So while Morales does have a slight edge in RBI, meaning we could perhaps chalk up his greater win ratio to there simply being more men on base for Morales than for Smoak, I’m not sure that’s going to fly given that the difference is just three runs.

The fact is, when Morales hits home runs, the Jays tend to win games. So this really isn’t rocket science, is it? What should Morales be trying to do in almost every single one of his at bats, particularly with men on base?

That’s right: swing, baby, swing!

 

 

 

Looking For (And Finding) The Good News

There really are things to be happy about right now…for example, Kevin Pillar and Justin Smoak

Blue Jays 4, Angels 5

It’s becoming almost as frustrating as it is familiar: the Jays losing by a run after a late inning rally. Amongst the positives that I perpetually seek amongst the tea leaves:

  • Casey Lawrence looked very OK, that grand slam not-withstanding. Statscast apparently supports the eye test on that one—it had no business getting out of the park. Chalk that one up to bad luck and a tailwind. Still hurts, though.
  • José Bautista hit that ball hard in the eighth which is so very nice to see the day after his late inning heroics. Again, some bad luck from the unlikely glove of Kole Calhoun made the difference there. Still hurts, though.
  • They scored four runs again which is, as I have pointed out before, the magic number for success this season. Maybe not last night, though. Which is why it still hurts.

Oh well.

On the up side, of course, the game gives me an excuse to highlight a couple of players I’ve wanted to write about a bit more fully for a few days: Kevin “Superman” Pillar and Justin “Not So Terrible” Smoak, who together combined (again) to provide the bulk of the Blue Jays offence.

Superman, for real?

There was a lot of buzz in the Blue Jays/Rogers friendly-press during spring training about Pillar’s “new approach” at the plate and for those weeks in March it sure looked like he was keeping away from the crap off the plate and swinging harder at good pitches. I remained unconvinced, though, since it is very rare for a crappy hitter to suddenly become good. I even (and to my eternal shame) scoffed at the venerable Tao of Steib for suggesting that Pillar would “flirt with .300 for most of the season”.

Tao…mea culpe, mea maxima culpe.

I have to admit, I’m becoming a true believer, and it wasn’t just the home run last night (although that certainly didn’t hurt). He has looked different at the plate this season and it shows no sign of going away. He’s more patient with borderline pitches, more aggressive with the good ones and only rarley makes one of his patented dives across the plate trying to smack at garbage low and away. I’m not quite yet at Gideon Turk level of adulation for Pillar, but, well, I can admit that there may be grounds for at least some of his boundless faith.

But one word on Pillar before I move on, and it may prove to be the word too far, but I’m sorry, as great a centre fielder as he may be, the greatest centre fielder in the American League is Kevin Kiermaier. I’m ready for you, so bring it if you wish…

He’s actually OK, like I’ve been telling you

Waaaaaay back in February I had the following exchange on Twitter with Jonah Jeri

Now, putting aside for the moment that I apparently forgot how to do a slash line and accidentally put in a projected OPS where SLG should go (perhaps occasioning Mr Keri’s brief reply: “LOL”), I’m feeling pretty smug about that tweet, because beside my projected (and corrected) slash of .270/.320/.430, Smoak’s current .269/.309/.558 looks positively conservative.

Now, I can practically hear Keri’s voice in my mind reminding me that it is very early for individual stats and that we really do have to wait until at least the All Star break before any conclusions can be drawn and that for some stats you can’t really be sure of a statistically useful number of at bats until virtually the end of the season. And he’s right, of course he’s right, I know that.

But, oh what the heck, nyah nyah nyahnyah nyaaaaah! Justin Smoak isn’t terrible, he isn’t! He and Pillar are doing really well, and it’s for real!

So there.

The Ballad of Joey Bats

The fate of this season is on Bautista’s shoulders now

Blue Jays 1, Red Sox 4

Another hard loss to put alongside all the rest. Going in against Chris Sale you’d be nuts to expect a win no matter who you are; playing like the Jays have been playing, you can’t really have anything more than a faint hope of success.

Unless you have Marco Estrada on the mound. He shouldn’t be this good, he really shouldn’t. But oh my goodness, he really is. It was thanks to him and to him alone that the Jays were even in this thing until Xander Boegarts put the Sox ahead in the ninth, at which point you would be excused for giving up all hope because Craig Kimbrel is really good (for all that he looks like a broken backed crab when he gets in his stance), but then another bit of magic in the form of yet another really big and wonderfully dramatic home run by Kendrys Morales put them right back in it.

Who’s the man? Kendrys. Kendrys is the man.

Then, well, Grilli came out and grunted his forty-year old way to a loss against a team filled with faster, younger, better hitters who (let’s face it) are far and away the better team here. Still, it would have been nice to scrape out another win…but like I said, I wasn’t really expecting one today in any event.

Speaking of older ball players…

José Bautista.

I have come to the inescapable conclusion that the fate of this team now resides almost entirely on the shoulders of Joey Bats. He, and his struggles, have become something of a theme for me in these columns, and for good reason: the Jays need fewer easy outs, more hits, and more power.

Josh Donaldson, when he returns, will address some of that, but he can’t do it on his own. Morales is the man, but he’s already giving everything he can. Russell Martin, as is now abundantly clear and has been since last season (even if it is with the benefit of hindsight) will never again be a player who can give you a lot of hits or power: I’m hoping that he can at least cut down on the number of cheap outs he gives away. Tulo is already giving the team just about the best that can be expected of him at this point of his career. Devon Travis has the potential to get a lot more hits, but he’s never really going to be a big power bat.

Carrera, Goins, Barney, Smoak, Saltalamacchia…they are what they are.

Kevin Pillar is providing offensive numbers well beyond what I had expected: the only way he has to go at this point is down, which is a truly unique situation on this team this year.

Which leaves us with Bautista. He may not be the player he once was, but he should be getting on base almost as often as Pillar (lifetime, Bautista is .367; this year, Pillar is .368) while hitting as many bombs as Morales (who averages twenty-five home runs per 162 games to Bautista’s thirty-three). He should not be striking out 35% of the time; he should not be slugging .157 with no home runs and just two doubles through fourteen games.

And yet, somehow, in this bizzarro-universe of a season, he is.

And because of this, he’s the key to it all. It’s really as simple as this: if Bautista starts hitting like he should be hitting, the Jays may actually be able to pull this out of the fire. If he doesn’t, then there could very well be a July fire sale instead.

So what’s wrong with Joey and is it fixable?

I sure wish I knew the answer to that one, but I have this sneaking, sick feeling that maybe Major League Baseball has already decided that Bautista is no longer anywhere close to the player he once was and never will be again. And that really scares me because while a lot of fans like to pretend they’re smarter than all thirty of the front offices in baseball, I’m not one of those fans.

Nobody but Bautista and his agent know all the details of the deals he may or may not have received during the off season, but it’s obvious enough that there weren’t many, and none of them were particularly attractive, otherwise he would have signed a multi-year deal somewhere other than Toronto; in point of fact, the only reason he’s back with Toronto at all would appear to be because Edward Rogers put pressure on Shapiro (and gave him the money he needed?) to bring Bautista back to try and mitigate some of the bad press they got in the wake of “losing” Edwin.

How much of this is true, I don’t really know, but it is clear that ownership intervened on Bautista’s behalf to help finish the deal…meaning, even the guys who ended up signing him didn’t necessarily believe in him; and this would be the same guys who have access to every scrap of his medical reports and more statistical analyses of his performance than anyone else on Earth.

They know everything there is to know about Bautista, and they had to be convinced—by their employers—to hire him back as their plan C after plans A (Dexter Fowler) and B (Jay Bruce) fell through.

But you know what? In spite of everything I still believe in José Bautista. I believe in his uncanny ability to tell ball from strike right out of the pitcher’s hand. I believe in his baseball IQ and in his steely determination to be great. I believe that his eye isn’t quite so sharp as it was, but it’s still sharp enough…that his hands aren’t as quick, but neither are they slow. I believe in his power, in his swing, in bat flips.

I believe in Joey Bats.

 

 

BJ Bye-Bye

Bye-bye BJ Upton, the man who couldn’t or wouldn’t change his swing as easily as he changes his name.

He really should have stuck with BJ. I don’t care that he didn’t like it (apparently his father was called “Boss Man” and so everyone took to calling Melvin “Boss Man Junior” which is a bit silly but still a heck of a lot better than Melvin), “BJ” is much cooler and maybe could have cemented him with the B(lue) J(ays) (in case you missed that) a bit more permanently.

I said in yesterday’s blog that I was glad to see Upton off the roster, and since there was no game yesterday I’ve had some more time to think about that. It wasn’t that he was a terrible player…I mean, sure, yes, he was kind of complete garbage with the Blue Jays last year (.196/.261./318) and through the entirety of spring training, but his career numbers aren’t terrible and he’s a perfectly serviceable fourth outfielder, maybe even platoon guy…and it wasn’t that he struck out in what seemed like every second at bat (OK, it wasn’t that bad, I know, but 49 Ks in 148 at bats is still striking out 33% of the time), that can also be OK in the right lineup and with the right match-ups (as in: it’s really not the end of the world that Smoak is on the team, so chill).

No, what makes me glad Upton is gone is what it tells me about the direction the team is taking. They’re clearly indicating that players who are utterly incapable of changing or learning, of adapting to new roles, have no place on this team. Upton’s swing was, each and every time I saw it, Upton’s swing. Leading with the hips, swinging from the shoulders, straightening out those arms: it didn’t matter where the pitch was over the plate (or, far too often, off the plate) he’d swing like it was batting practice and if he happened to run into one, give it a ride. Never once did I see him shorten up, try to turn something inside out, drop the bat head. With his speed, you’d think that he’d at least toy with the notion of putting something in play into an infield gap but, nope, forget about that. With Melvin it was always and apparently forever either the fences or go back and sit on the bench.

Which points toward a sort-of second reason I’m glad he’s gone, which is really more aesthetic than anything else. A big swing that connects hard is a fine sight: not beautiful (think: Ted Williams) and not really awe-inspiring (Babe Ruth) but still a fine sight…like a lumberjack felling a tall maple with just a few well-placed blows of the axe, hitters like Melvin (and, yes, Smoak) wail away and pretty much to their own and everyone else’s surprise will occasionally make some contact and boy but does that baby fly. But when that big swing doesn’t connect, when the bat is just a hunk of wood riffling past the ball and the batter is left staggering in the batter’s box, clothed in nothing but failure, well, that’s a really ugly sight. It just looks bad and every swing Melvin took that didn’t connect looked like that.

Yes, I know, Smoak: but if you actually watch the guy you’ll see that he does change his approach from time to time, and he does alter his swing to match the situation…-ish. Maybe not enough to give him a lot of success (yet) but certainly more than Melvin ever did. And given that even a one of something is infinitely greater than a zero of that same thing, in this particular and limited comparison Smoak is literally infinitely better than Melvin.

So, anyway, back to the team philosophy thing. It seems to me eminently plausible (and entirely desirable…which means I really really want this to be true) that Upton is gone because he just could not or would not adapt. Smoak is back because he’s at least trying (or, in fairness, he’s trying because they actually brought him back…either way, result is the same). Changing approaches seem to be all the rage with the Blue Jays these days: Pillar, so far, seems like a different guy at the plate; Steve Pearce is working out in entirely new ways to keep in shape and healthy; Russell Martin went out over the off season and got himself a whole new physique; heck, even Jose Bautista has moderated his tone and self-presentation in the wake of the free agency humbling he received during the off-season (I don’t think this last one has anything to do, directly, with a new direction in the team philosophy, but it does fit or at least reinforce the appearance of the overall pattern of Adapt To Our Needs Or We Will Not Use You that I’m hoping I’m detecting here).

Interestingly enough, Gideon Turk has a report that they let Upton go partly because they were confident nobody else would want him and they could re-sign him easily enough to a new free agent contract. So…OK…sure, maybe, I guess. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense for a team to strategise their way toward re-signing someone for more money than they are already paying because he’s so terrible nobody else wants him, but heck, sure: Gideon’s been at this blogging thing longer than I have so who knows? I still don’t think it will happen, but if it does it will be interesting to see if Melvin can do with his swing what he’s done so often with his name: change it.