2016 Blue Jays Season Review: Justin Smoak

By: Jay Blue and @JaysGirlEmily

Blue Jays From Away

Now that the season is over, the crew at Blue Jays from Away will take a look at the Blue Jays one by one and review how each player’s season went, whether he met expectations (or not) and look at how he fits into (what we think of) the Blue Jays’ plans going forward.

Entering 2016, Justin Smoak was coming off a production season in terms of power production. He hit 18 home runs, just two shy of his career high, despite coming to the plate almost 200 fewer times than in 2013 when he hit 20. His .470 slugging percentage was a career high and, while his OBP was just .299, his .768 OPS was also a career high and he posted a positive WAR (0.6) for just the third time in his career.

While Smoak lost playing time in the 2015 postseason to Chris Colabello, Smoak’s spring training in 2016 (.341/.431/.727 with five doubles and four home runs) guaranteed him a spot on the Jays’ roster and Colabello’s April suspension seemed to clear the way for Smoak to break out with his best year yet.

Unfortunately for Smoak, things didn’t work out nearly as well as he had hoped. He was walking a ton so his .189/.375/.216 slash line for April wasn’t as disastrous as it could have been but, for a supposed “power-hitting first baseman,” Smoak didn’t hit a home run until May 3 and had only five over the first two months of the season despite playing 50 games.

That said, May was a big turnaround month for Smoak and he put up numbers more in line with his spring training numbers, hitting .309/.375/.521 with five doubles and five home runs. But there was a June swoon and, in 22 games, his batting average plummeted to .148 with just two home runs and, despite five home runs (and a .529 slugging percentage) in July, he still hit just .216, seeing his playing time diminish.

Even though he was struggling at the plate (and striking out over 30% of the time), Smoak signed a two-year contract worth $4.125 million each year with a $6 million option for a third year (with a $250,000 buyout). Whether the security of the deal affected Smoak or not, he played in just 36 games over the last two months of the season, hitting only 72 times (and was getting used as a late-game defensive substitute as often as a starter) and hit just .159/.264/.270 over that span.

Overall, Smoak had a 90 wRC+ (producing offense at a rate that was 10% below league average) while posting a -0.1 WAR (according to FanGraphs). He hit .217/.314/.391 with a great walk rate at 11.7% but a terrible strikeout rate at 32.8%. He hit 14 home runs despite more plate appearances than the previous season and was very streaky in his home run power.

Smoak played in the postseason, coming to the plate twice and striking out both times.

Going into 2017, Smoak is poised to play much more at first base thanks to the signing of Kendrys Morales (who has almost no defensive value) and Steven Pearce (who may be needed defensively more elsewhere). With the current set up of the 2017 Jays (in mid-January), Smoak is the everyday first baseman and the club is going to need much more from him if they’re going to get back to the playoffs.

Contract Status

Smoak has two guaranteed years at $4.125 million each for 2017 and 2018 on his contract.

Emily Says

Justin Smoak was supposed to be the starting first baseman after Chris Colabello’s suspension. Smoak hit .189 over 37 AB while platooning with Colabello in April, but had a .375 OBP thanks to ten walks. In May, after taking over at first base full-time, he batted .309, and again walked 10 times with an OBP of .375.

On May 3, he hit his first home run of the season in the 9th inning of a game at home against the Texas Rangers. The solo shot tied the game, and it went to extras. In the bottom of the 10th inning, Smoak came up again and sent the first pitch he saw over the left-field wall to win the game 3-1. He was the first player in franchise history to tie the game with a home run in the 8th or later and then walk it off in extra innings with another home run. He’d hit five total in the month.

At some point in June, Edwin Encarnacion began making regular starts at first base, which reduced Smoak’s playing time. He had only 54 AB in June and 51 in July, compared to the 94 in May when he was the starting first baseman. Smoak began to slump again in June, as he hit .148 and slugged just .296 in a month that included an 11-game stretch with only one hit. He hit two home runs and two doubles, walked seven times and struck out 21. His numbers saw a slight increase in July, where he hit five more home runs, but still only batted .216. On July 1st, he again tied a game with a home run – this time in the 6th inning against Cleveland – but the Jays would go on to lose that game in 19 innings.

In August, his downward trend continued with an average of .200 over 45 at-bats. He had nine hits, including two home runs, and struck out 24 times. One of his best games of the season happened in August though – he had a five-RBI day against Minnesota with three hits in five at-bats, one home run and two runs scored. He only walked three times all month, leading to a .250 OBP.

Smoak played even less in September, tallying only 18 at-bats and one hit. He struck out and walked five times each. His season numbers were .217/.314/.391, with 14 home runs, 10 doubles, and 34 RBI. His walk rate was 11.7%, while he struck out 32.8% of the time.

A switch hitter, Smoak batted .221/.325/.413 in 213 at-bats from the left side of the plate, and .209/.284/.337 in 86 from the right. The 30-year-old was signed to a mid-season two-year contract extension, meaning he’s signed through 2018 with a team option for 2019.

Smoak played 737.2 innings over 111 games (79 starts) at first base this season, making three errors for a .996 fielding percentage – fourth best in the AL at his position. He also turned 69 double plays.

He only played in three of the postseason games in 2016. He was originally left off the ALCS roster but reappeared as a substitute for the injured Devon Travis. Used only as a defensive replacement in ALDS Game 1, he had just two at-bats – one each in the Wild Card and ALCS Game 3 – and struck out both times.

Regular Season Grades

Jay: D+
Emily: C-

Postseason Grades

Jay: F
Emily: F