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What to expect from Justin Smoak

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David Stearns replaces Eric Thames with a similar slugger who may possess more upside.

Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

David Stearns raised some eyebrows when he opted to decline the club option on his starting first baseman, Eric Thames. After all, Thames authored a 118 wRC+ and .848 OPS while launching 72 long balls across his three seasons in Milwaukee. The surprising departure of Thames left a hole at first base.

Roughly a month-and-a-half later, that hole has been filled by the signing of Justin Smoak. On the surface, the 33-year-old looks like a near exact clone of Thames. This is evidenced by their slash lines since the start of the 2017 season:

Thames: .241/.343/.504, .355 wOBA, 118 wRC+
Smoak: .243/.350/.470, .350 wOBA, 120 wRC+

Like Thames, Smoak’s greatest skills are drawing walks and hitting dingers. He has taken the base on balls in 13.6% of his plate appearances over the past three seasons and left the yard 85 times.

The veteran first baseman had a solid run with the Toronto Blue Jays, yet they opted to let him walk in free agency. On the surface, his production appeared to decline significantly in 2019. His home run total dropped to 22, and his 101 wRC+ was barely league-average.

Those numbers do not come close to painting the true picture of Smoak’s 2019 season, and there is no doubt that the Brewers looked past his overlying stats. By all other accounts, he was as solid as ever at the plate last season. His BABIP sat anywhere between .285 and .297 over his previous three campaigns, but it cratered to .223 last year. Sometimes a drop in BABIP can be explained by decreasing quality of contact. That was not the case for Smoak, however. His average exit velocity (90.3 miles per hour), barrel rate (11%), and average launch angle (16.8 degrees) all represented improvements from his 2018 marks. He decreased his ground ball rate by three percentage points, replacing those grounders with line drives.

Additionally, the slugger’s plate discipline reached new heights in 2019. His 15.8% walk rate was a career-best, and it enabled him to get on base at an above-average .342 clip despite a .208 batting average. He swung at just 23% of pitches outside of the strike zone, which ranked 10th among all hitters with at least 500 plate appearances. He cut his strikeout rate down from 26.3% the previous season to 21.2% last year.

Smoak’s surface-level numbers declined, but it seems to be largely due to bad luck. He continued to make solid contact and actually improved his plate discipline. Statcast believes that he was one of the most unfortunate hitters in baseball last season. His .366 xwOBA placed him in the 86th percentile of hitters and was notably higher than his actual .323 wOBA. That -.043 differential was the second-highest among players with at least 250 plate appearances. DRC+ also gave him a more favorable review than his bottom-line results did, rating him as 11% better than a league average hitter. There was no drop off in his offensive abilities.

Not only is Smoak due for plenty of positive regression, but he is also moving into a ballpark that is a perfect fit for him. As a switch-hitter who is at his best from the left side of the plate, Miller Park’s 112 home run factor for lefties is a boost from the 101 of the Rogers Centre. Smoak clubbed 38 long balls in 2017 and still hit over 20 homers in each of the following seasons. It would not be surprising to see him reach 30 with his new club.

If Milwaukee’s new first baseman has any weakness, it’s that he has a tendency to become pull-happy at times. His 47.3% pull rate from last season is right in line with his career mark. Teams have responded by heavily shifting him, which likely played a role in his BABIP dropping. Smoak faced a notably modified infield alignment in a whopping 91.4% of his plate appearances as a lefty last season and in 42.2% of his plate appearances from the right side of the plate. However, that does not fully explain the significant decrease in hits.

Justin Smoak Against the Shift

Year-Handedness Shift% Pull% Exit Velocity Launch Angle BABIP
Year-Handedness Shift% Pull% Exit Velocity Launch Angle BABIP
2018-LHB 89.5% 52.4% 91.2 MPH 16.0° .293
2019-LHB 91.4% 50.8% 91.9 MPH 17.1° .214
2018-RHB 16.7% 43.2% 87.1 MPH 8.9° .348
2019-RHB 42.4% 42.7% 89.3 MPH 14.8° .227

As a right-handed hitter, the increase in shifts and drop in Smoak’s BABIP imply that teams figured out how to position him. Facing more shifts means more opportunities to hit directly into those shifts. That is not the case from the other side of the plate, however. The frequency of shifts and his quality of contact against them largely remained the same, yet his BABIP dropped by nearly 80 points. This supports the notion that he ran into his fair share of poor luck.

In swapping out Thames for Smoak, the Brewers have positioned themselves to get equal production at first base to what they received last season. However, there is reason to believe that their newest import could prove to be an upgrade over Thames. It doesn’t take more than a quick comparison of peripheral stats to illustrate that Smoak has more upside than Thames does.

Justin Smoak vs. Eric Thames (2017-present)

Player BB% K% SwStr% Exit Velocity Hard Hit xwOBA wRC+
Player BB% K% SwStr% Exit Velocity Hard Hit xwOBA wRC+
Smoak 13.6% 22.5% 9.1% 89.8 MPH 41.5% .366 120
Thames 11.1% 30.5% 14.0% 89.6 MPH 41.1% .331 118

Smoak has displayed better bat control than Thames over the past several seasons. He has shown slightly more patience and done a significantly superior job of putting the bat on the baseball, all while matching Thames’ quality of contact. This is why xwOBA heavily favors Smoak. Both players are entering their age-33 season, and the one who is more patient and makes more contact while still providing plenty of power certainly appears to be the safer bet moving forward.

Cutting ties with Eric Thames was a questionable decision, but if there was any free agent target to replace him with, it was Justin Smoak. His underlying production remained strong last season, and it’s likely that some better fortune on balls in play will fuel a bounce-back season. Placing him into a platoon with Ryan Braun at first base ought to help minimize the effect of improved shifting against his right-handed swing. David Stearns has gotten great value from bargain deals before. There is a strong chance that Smoak will be his next success story.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus.