DINGERS FROM THE 6IX
by Quinn Sweetzir
With a record of 9-18, it’s safe to say that the opening to the season has not gone exactly how the Blue Jays had hoped. Even though this start has been rather atrocious, there have been a handful of bright spots on a team full of disappointments, most notably Justin Smoak. After being hailed as a low quality and replaceable layer by most fans and analysts in the offseason, Smoak has resounded by having a very good start to the season, with a .796 OPS and 117 WRC+ as well as batting fairly high in the order in most of his recent starts.
Although Smoak is a pleasant surprise for most of us, the fact remains that a single month of a 162 game season is far from a large sample size. This leads me to ask whether Smoak has actually been lucky or good to start the season.
On the surface, a .305 BABIP for Smoak doesn’t seem to high, especially considering the face that he recorded a .295 BABIP last year when he struggled dramatically. Additionally, his batted ball rates are at essentially the same level they were last season, so perhaps there is more to this than just some good luck early in the season.
For his career, 52.6% of the pitches Smoak has faced have been fastballs, however this is down by a large margin this season to just 44.0%. The fastballs he has faced have been harder too, with an average velocity of 93.7 as opposed to his career average of 91.9. To compensate, opposing pitchers are throwing Smoak significantly more breaking balls, with curveball usage up 4% and slider usage up 7.6%. This trend should be unsurprising however, since opposing fastball rates are down 5.1% as a team.
The eye test leads me to believe that Smoak generally struggles against breaking balls, but maybe there’s more to this which I haven’t realized. To investigate I pulled up some heatmaps for Smoak’s career in the hopes we’d all been fooled.
It turns out that the eye test was right in this case; Justin Smoak is not good as good at hitting breaking balls as he is at fastballs for his career. So, has anything changed this season? It would appear not, as Smoak is slugging .378 against breaking balls this season, which is both well below his career slugging against fastballs – which is .499 – and a rather small improvement on his career .235 slugging versus breaking balls considering the small sample size.
But if results against breaking balls are not the biggest reasons for a progression in performance for Smoak, then what is? Smoak’s biggest problem last season was his absurd 32.8% strikeout rate, a career high which would have been good for second in the MLB (behind only Chris Davis) had he received enough plate appearances to qualify.
Smoak has improved on that horrendously bad figure by a 10.7% to 22.1% to start 2017, and I have reason to believe this is somewhat sustainable since he never had a strikeout rate above 24% before he joined the Blue Jays. Interestingly enough, Smoak’s walk rate is down by 7% also, indicating that among the biggest improvements Smoak has made, has been the ability to put the ball in play at an elevated rate.
This leads me to ask whether Smoak is doing anything differently this season when he’s pitched a breaking ball. In fact, the biggest difference Smoak has made is a reduction in whiff rates, which have decreased by 0.90% against sliders, and a rather impressive 6.79% decrease versus curveballs. Although the sample size is quite small, it is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses, as a more disciplined Smoak could make a big difference going forward.
His approach has been different depending on whether he’s facing a slider or curveball however, as there are different causes for a reduced whiff rate in both cases. Against sliders, Smoak is actually swinging more often than he has for most of his career, however he has managed to foul off 6.48% more sliders than his career average so far. Even though a foul ball is an relatively unproductive result, it does increase the amount of pitches thrown in an at bat, which therefore increases the probability of facing a fastball; a pitch which Smoak excels at hitting.
Unlike with sliders, Smoak is taking 4.35% more curveballs early in the season, but is still fouling them off at a rate which is essentially the same as his career averages. It’s too early to tell whether this change is causing Smoak to strikeout looking more often or in fact shows an increase plate discipline, but if it is the latter, it could help explain why Smoak is such an improved hitter.
Although some individuals have chalked Smoak’s early season success to luck early in the season, I believe that to an extent, Smoak’s success is sustainable. It’s true that some things such as his BABIP are at a career high, however I argue that Smoak’s success is more a result of increased awareness about breaking balls which he’s being thrown, and an increased ability to avoid whiffing on these pitches should help Smoak dramatically in 2017. If Smoak can avoid striking out against breaking balls at a higher rate than in seasons past, it should lead to some continued success for the veteran 1st baseman.