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.
Justin Smoak was given a two-year contract extension by the Blue Jays in the middle of the 2016 season. Many fans (myself included, admittedly) did not see the point of the move and were reluctant to have him on the team for a few more years. However, in 2017 Smoak had a breakout year and more than proved his worth, becoming one of the most valuable position players on the team.
As the team struggled offensively right out of the gate, Smoak had one of the best performances in April. He hit for a .273 average over 77 at-bats, with a .506 slugging percentage, though he took a season-low four walks and had an OBP of .305. He hit four doubles, four home runs and one triple, which was just the second of his career.
He had a six-game hit streak at the end of April and into the next month, including one game where he went 3-for-3 with a home run. The walks returned in May, as he hit .280/.374/.570 thanks in part to eight home runs. 22 was his highest monthly RBI total of the year.
June was Smoak’s best month at the plate, in terms of both average and slugging. He had ten home runs and two doubles, and in the process passed his own career high in homers, hitting 20 with Seattle in 2013. Smoak was also the 4th-fastest player in team history to reach 20 home runs in a season. It took him 227 at-bats to reach the milestone. He had a ten-game hit streak in June as well, and the numbers reflected it: a slash line of .333/.406/.677 for the month, and his season average spent nine days at or above the .300 mark.
Another remarkable moment Smoak took part in was hitting the 1,070th home run in MLB in June. That set a new record for home runs in a single month, eclipsing the mark of 1,069 set in May 2000. (It would eventually reach 1,101 before the end of the month). He set a new Blue Jays record for home runs hit by a switch-hitter before the All-Star break with his 22nd of the year.
Thanks to his stellar performance at the beginning of the season, the fans voted Smoak into the All-Star Game as the starting first baseman for the AL team. Smoak played first base for three innings and had two plate appearances, reaching base both times. In his first trip to the plate, he hit a single off Pat Neshek in the 2nd inning, and then took a walk against Carlos Martinez in the 4th. After the game, the usually-stoic Smoak gave an emotional interview in which he said that he thought how his father would have felt to see him as an All-Star (his father died from cancer in 2011).
In July, Smoak struck out the most of any month (27), but he also took the most walks (17). He slashed a tidy .310/.410/.610, and had two more hitting streaks – one that lasted seven games, the other which lasted nine and spilled over into August. On July 26th, he hit a ninth-inning home run against Oakland which tied the game, then allowed Kendrys Morales to walk it off on the very next pitch. On July 29th he had his 108th hit of the year, tying his career high.
Smoak experienced a bit of a downturn in August. He collected 25 hits in 104 at-bats, for a .240 average. He still hit for power though, with six home runs and seven doubles, resulting in a .481 slugging percentage. On August 23rd he tied the Jays record for most HR in one season by a switch-hitter (34), then broke the record two days later. His walks took a dip once more, but he still struck out a lot.
By the end of the season, Smoak claimed to be fatigued rather than suffering from any particular injury. He’d already set new career highs in games played (158), plate appearances (637) and at-bats (560). So that could be responsible for his .180 batting average in September, but the .318 OBP to go with it shows his plate discipline hadn’t gone away. He only hit two home runs, finishing the year with 38, but also collected seven doubles – over half of his 16 hits in the month were for extra bases.
With a pleasantly surprising All-Star season, Smoak was one of the highlights for a struggling Blue Jays team in 2017. He was worth 3.2 Wins Above Replacement per Baseball-Reference, fourth-highest on the team and better than every hitter except Josh Donaldson. All three percentages in his slash line of .270/.355/.529 are career bests, as are his totals in hits (151), doubles (29), walks (73), and RBI (90). While his walk rate of 11.5% is not a career best, his strikeout rate of 20.1% was, and is also a significant improvement over his 2016 season, when he struck out 32.8% of the time. He also led the team in hits, RBI, and home runs. Nothing in baseball is certain, but I’m hopeful Smoak can apply whatever improvements he made last year and continue to contribute to the Blue Jays in the future.
Smoak is under contract for 2018, and has a team option for $6 million in 2019.
Regular Season Grades:
Jay Blue: A-
Wesley James: A-
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