Blue Jays counting on Justin Smoak to lead on and off field

Arden Zwelling and Nikki Reyes talk about the expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays this season and the interesting situation with Elvis Luciano.

TORONTO — As he searched for the words to describe the roster overhaul the Toronto Blue Jays have undergone over the last year or so, Justin Smoak settled on a simple snap of his fingers.

“Just like that. Honestly, I feel like we went from being one of the oldest teams in the game to one of the younger teams with, like, the flip of a switch,” Smoak said. “It’s different. This is my fifth year. And through it all there was always [Josh Donaldson,] we had (Troy Tulowitzki), we had Russ [Martin.] And then, all of a sudden, next thing you know, they’re all gone.”

Smoak’s one of the few remaining — one of only eight players on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster who were part of the team that went to the ALCS in 2016. Just 32, he’s the third-oldest player on Toronto’s 2019 opening day roster, and one of only four players with more than five years of service time.

That means that as valuable as Smoak will be to the Blue Jays on the field this season, he’ll be just as important off of it as one of the few veterans in a clubhouse full of young players experiencing their first extended taste of major-league life. It’s a role he’ll embrace.

“We do have a lot of young players. But we have a lot of good young players. We really do,” Smoak said. “Last year, getting to know some of these guys in September, and seeing them now and how they work — I think it’s something to be excited about, something to look forward to. Yeah, there’s going to be up’s and down’s. But, at the same time, a lot of these guys are ready for the challenge of a full big-league season. I’ll help them out any way I can.”

New Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo has said he’ll be leaning on Smoak to help set an example for his younger players, and calls the first baseman “one of the pleasant surprises” he’s experienced since taking over the job. Not for what Smoak brings a team with his bat or a first baseman’s glove, which Montoyo witnessed plenty of while he was on Kevin Cash’s staff with the Tampa Bay Rays. But for what Smoak does behind the scenes.

“He’s an outstanding guy — he’s taken a leadership [role] in the clubhouse,” Montoyo said. “Also, he’s a good player. That helps.”

It sure does. It’s hard to imagine how poorly the Blue Jays would have fared over the last two seasons if not for Smoak’s team-best contributions offensively. While his 2018 wasn’t quite as remarkable as his breakout 2017 season, he still led the Blue Jays in a host of offensive categories, including home runs (25), OPS (.808), and wRC+ (121), finishing with baseball’s 11th-highest walk rate (14 per cent). At a position rich with sluggers and highly-productive bats, Smoak was a top-10 MLB first baseman in 2018.

And he provided his club with tremendous value, as he earned far less than most of his statistical peers with a mere $4.125-million salary. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles paid Chris Davis more than $20-million to produce one of the worst offensive seasons in the modern era. And, in a less extreme example, the Philadelphia Phillies gave Carlos Santana $15-million to post an OPS more than 40 points below Smoak’s.

It’s striking to look back now at the contract extension Smoak signed with Toronto midway through the 2016 season, which has ultimately become a three-year, $16.5-million pact after the Blue Jays exercised a no-brainer club option on Smoak over the winter. The deal was widely panned when it was announced, as many wondered why the Blue Jays were committing to a player who had a .700 career OPS at the time, and had never posted even a one-win season.

But from where we stand today, with Smoak having been worth 5.3 wins above replacement over the two years since, the contract looks like a steal for the Blue Jays, who bought in right before Smoak’s stock soared.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment Smoak made was in his plate discipline. He went from swinging at 30.2 per cent of the pitches he saw outside the zone in 2016 to 27.2 per cent in 2017. He dropped the number even further to 25.1 per cent in 2018, despite a two percent increase in the amount of strikes he was thrown. That patience has allowed Smoak to draw 156 walks over the last two seasons, the 15th-most across MLB.

Justin Smoak’s Plate Discipline

Zone % Swing % O-Swing % Z-Swing %
2016 45.80% 45.30% 30.20% 63.20%
2017 43.70% 43.00% 27.20% 63.30%
2018 45.50% 40.20% 25.10% 58.40%

To put things in more simple terms — he stopped swinging at crap. Or perhaps more accurately, he swung at less crap. You can see it in the following heat map comparison. On the left are the curveballs at the bottom of the zone or below that Smoak went after during the 2016 season. On the right, the ones he’s offered at since.

But while Smoak was able to combine that discipline with aggressiveness on hittable pitches in 2017, he became much more passive last season, swinging at only 58.4 per cent of the pitches he saw in the strike zone, down from 63.3 per cent the season prior. It was a slight difference. But it’s something that has stood out to Smoak on film.

“Watching video from two years ago to watching video from last year, there’s a few things that were a little different. Not crazy different. But a little different,” he said. “Last year, when I started to get walked a bunch, it kind of backed me off of being aggressive. And it kind of got me into some lows instead of keeping things consistent. Of course, you’re going to struggle at times. But how long are you going to struggle for? I feel like being aggressive for me, tells me where I’m at. When I’m passive, it’s not a good spot for me.

“It’s something that I’ve tried to work on coming into this year to try to get back to the feeling that I had two years ago. That’s something that I want to maintain throughout the season. I feel like I was aggressive at times last year. But at times I also got away from it.”

Montoyo will certainly want Smoak to be more aggressive this season, particularly as he intends to pencil him in as the club’s everyday clean-up hitter in the hopes of getting him an early chance to hit with runners on base.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Smoak predominantly hit third last season, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that a team should bat its best hitters as high up in the order as possible. But while the players batting in front of him will likely rotate throughout the season, it seems like Smoak will be a constant in Montoyo’s lineups hitting fourth.

“Hopefully he’s going to have a great year. Because we’re going to have three decent runners in front of him,” Montoyo said. “He should be able to get some RBI’s. Drury, Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez — they run pretty good. So, if Smoak hits 40 doubles, he might get 200 RBI’s. That’d be great.”

In the event he doesn’t achieve baseball’s first-ever 200-RBI season,  you can bet Smoak will simply settle for another year with a lot of walks, a lot of homers, and the high OPS that combination creates. It’s what teams currently pay for and something you’d presume would be front of mind for a player who could be a free agent come fall. But Smoak doesn’t compartmentalize things that way.

“I don’t think about free agency. Honestly, I feel like whatever happens, happens. I can’t control it. All I can control is what I do on the field. That’s really all I’m worried about,” Smoak said. “My biggest focus this year is just being a little more aggressive, being ready to hit, being on time. And other than that, just trying to stay healthy and go from there.”

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