New approach helped Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak finally reach potential

Toronto Blue Jays slugger Justin Smoak. (Tony Dejak/AP)

VANCOUVER — Doing less wound up getting Justin Smoak a lot more.

The Toronto Blue Jays first baseman set career highs in almost every statistical category last season after realizing he needed to take his foot off the gas over the winter to survive the rigours of what can be a gruelling major league schedule.

"I didn’t hit as much, which is crazy, you know what I mean?" Smoak said when asked how his preparations changed. "I tried not to do as much as I’d done in the past.

"That’s something that I feel like as a player — and guys will tell you all the time — (when) you take so many swings … at some point you get tired and your body’s going to get worn out, especially when you play 162 (games)."

Speaking with reporters in the basement of an elementary school in suburban Burnaby, B.C., prior to one of the Blue Jays’ winter tour events last week, the hulking six-foot-four, 220-pound Smoak, who had all the attributes to be a consistent power hitter after getting drafted 11th overall by the Texas Rangers in 2008, said the breakout campaign was something he always believed possible.

It was just a matter of everything coming together.

"At times I was just too hard on myself," said Smoak. "It wasn’t easy to go through that, knowing that I felt like I did have the tools to be that kind of player. I just tried to go back to having fun last year."

Toronto showed faith in Smoak’s potential a couple of seasons ago after first claiming him off waivers in October 2014, signing the switch hitter to a US$8.25-million contract extension for 2017 and 2018, with a $6-million option for 2019 — a team-friendly deal that now looks like a stroke of genius.

While the Blue Jays struggled to a 76-86 record last season, Smoak excelled in an expanded role following Edwin Encarnacion’s departure in free agency, leading the team in hits (151), home runs (38) and RBIs (90), while also setting new personal high-water marks for batting average (.270), doubles (29), runs scored (85), walks (73), on-base percentage (.355) and slugging percentage (.529) in 158 games.

Voted to his first all-star game in 2017, Smoak had never batted higher than .238 in his seven previous season, while he nearly doubled his previous career-high for homers (20 in 2013 with the Seattle Mariners).

"It was definitely a good year for me, but at the same time it’s something I’ve expected from myself for a long time," he said. "It just hadn’t been that way. Last year something finally clicked. I just want to keep that going."

The 31-year-old also saw a dramatic decline in his strikeouts, fanning 128 times in 637 plate appearances in 2017 after whiffing on a 112 occasions in just 341 trips to the plate in 126 games in 2016.

"I sat on pitches more," said Smoak. "I was able to do that being in there everyday and being in the swing of things and being in the rhythm of things. It’s just a matter of having a plan.

"My plan was better day in, day out than it had been in the past."

An easy-going product of Goose Creek, S.C., Smoak said he won’t be putting any extra pressure on himself to duplicate or surpass his numbers from last season even though he knows expectations from the outside will be a lot higher with spring training set to begin next month.

"I think I’ve failed plenty enough at this game," he said with a grin. "I’ve just got to keep having the right mindset of going out there and trying to compete."


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