Justin Smoak Has a Rebound in Him

The Brewers may have gotten themselves a gem after Smoak's down 2019.

The signing of Justin Smoak by the Milwaukee Brewers early in the offseason was one of little fanfare. The team opted to decline the option of Eric Thames and were always hesitant to play Ryan Braun at first base every day, so they needed another option. The Brewers, being a team that is usually looking for lower-priced options, ultimately decided on Smoak, coming off a down 2019 season that was his worst by wRC+ since 2016. Smoak has enjoyed an unlikely career resurgence upon arriving in Toronto after being best known as a draft bust, after being the headline piece in the trade that sent Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers from the Seattle Mariners once upon a time. After scuffling for a handful of years in Seattle, he was picked up by the Toronto Blue Jays and reinvented himself and was a solid cog in the lineup for some great Blue Jays teams.

In the final year of his contract with the Jays, Smoak experienced a decline in performance in 2019 with a .208/.342/.406 slash line with an average 101 wRC+. And now at age 33,  Smoak is perhaps on the back end of his career. Still, he signed with the Brewers relatively early in the offseason, with his deal becoming official on December 10th. It hasn’t been the case for the past couple of offseasons for aging veterans coming off of weak seasons to be signed at that stage of the offseason, but the Brewers felt it was necessary to snag him at that moment in time.

After all, just because the slash line looks weak, it doesn’t mean that the team is getting that same player and will have that player forever. That’s important to note because overall, Smoak’s Statcast peripherals were still quite strong despite the poor results. Looking back to 2017, Smoak’s 2019 profile is actually better than his 2018 one, when he managed a 121 wRC+, and not all that far off from his 2017 breakout:

Justin Smoak: Statcast Metrics by Year

While 2017 was definitely the peak of Smoak’s offensive capabilities, his 2019 doesn’t look bad by any means, and still ended up with xSLG and barrel rates that were in the 75th-percentile, an average exit velocity mark that was in the 71st-percentile, and thanks to still strong plate discipline, an xwOBA that placed him in the 86th percentile. This certainly doesn’t look to be the profile of a hitter that had the season that Smoak had in 2019, but still, the slash line is the slash line, so what gives?

It is not very often where the answer appears to be as simple as the answer is in the case of Smoak. His BABIP is 2019 was low. I mean, really low. Not only was his .223 BABIP last season the second-lowest among qualified hitters, but it is also really low in another context. I went looking for the hitters with the lowest single-season BABIP marks from 2015 to 2019, and Smoak’s ranking here is noteworthy:

Ten Lowest Single-Season BABIPs 2015-2019

We see here the only other hitter from 2019 that had a lower BABIP than Smoak is Jurickson Profar. However, we also see that since 2015 Smoak’s 2019 BABIP was the 5th-lowest single-season BABIP among all hitters with at least 400 plate appearances in a single season. You also probably notice that there is a theme here in the type of hitter that shows up here. For the most part, the hitters in this table are or were aging veterans at the time with diminishing skills. Perhaps then, Smoak’s 2019 was just showing that more of the same could be expected in the future. I don’t believe that this is the case as if you recall, Smoak did still have strong peripherals in 2019. How do the other hitters on this table fare when looking at some more advanced stats?

Low BABIPs with Statcast Metrics

It is important to see that among these ten hitters, Smoak is on another level when it comes to expected slugging and expected wOBA. Smoak can clearly still hit the ball well, so I’m not yet sold on him being completely in decline, as was the case for several other hitters he’s lumped in with on this table.

So Smoak is not as bad as these ten hitters, that’s good to know, but it doesn’t really help us get a clearer picture of what happened to him in 2019, and what we should make of him in the future. Using the same dataset that unearthed the previous ten hitters, I went looking for some other hitters that had a season where they were in a similar case to Smoak: low BABIP, but still hit the ball well, and a pretty significant discrepancy between actual and expected stats. You can call these “unlucky” hitters, as in most cases, they did a lot of things right, but it ultimately did not end up in their final stats. Some querying finally netted the following eight hitters:

“Unlucky” Hitters 2015-2019

While some of the more notable names like Joey Gallo in 2018 and Marcell Ozuna in 2019 were able to still get extremely solid results despite their low BABIPs and outpaced expected stats, the other hitters here were not to that same extent. In the case of Smoak, it certainly appears that his low BABIP did not do him any favors and is actually not all that unlike Kole Calhoun in 2018, and conveniently located directly below him on this table. Calling back to 2018 for a moment, Calhoun had an extremely odd 2018 season in which he ultimately hit .208/.283/.369, but had a Statcast profile that didn’t suggest that he was that type of hitter, and one of the biggest culprits for him in that disastrous 2018 season was his low .241 BABIP. Calhoun ultimately did recover in 2019 and enjoyed a career-best season in terms of power in 2019. Smoak already hits the ball better than Calhoun does, so he could enjoy a similar bounce back now in 2020, and end up closer to the hitter we have seen him be not all that long ago. It’s not a perfect comparison, but there should be more hope now that Smoak can enjoy a nice rebound season this year.

Although, it’s not simply enough to say “Smoak had a low BABIP and good peripherals in 2019, so he should be better in 2020”. A closer look at his BABIP is then warranted. You probably know that Smoak, although a switch hitter, sees most of his time as a left-handed hitter, and that should be the case as a Brewer this season. Smoak also has tremendously low sprint speed at 23.5 feet per second that placed him in the bottom seven percent of the league last year. Also, while he is not an extreme pull hitter, he still is primarily a pull hitter, at 45% last season, a figure that is above the 36.6% league average. These factors combined make Smoak a good candidate to see a lot of shifts. This was the case in 2019, as he saw 91.4% of his plate appearances as a left-handed hitter come against a shifted infield, which is up 20% from where it was in 2015, and has constantly risen since during that time span. He also got shifted a bunch more as a right-handed hitter last season, at 42.4% which is a huge jump from the 16.8% rate he saw in 2018. This has definitely had an impact on Smoak’s BABIP, as has been the case for so many others over the years. Smoak is not likely to see fewer infield shifts in the future, but Smoak is also not a primary groundball hitter. Smoak has never really had an issue with groundballs in his career. In fact, Smoak put fewer balls on the ground in 2019 as compared to 2018, as his groundball rate dropped from 40.6% to 37.9% in 2019, a rate that is much better than the 45.5% league average. While I’m sure that the shift has been eating into his BABIP, is that enough of an explanation for such a low BABIP and a big drop from where Smoak had usually been in his career? I’m guessing no, and that there is something more to this.

Fortunately, we can break Smoak’s BABIP down into the three batted-ball types and compare him to the rest of the league (minimum 400 plate appearances), which should provide us some more clarity:

Justin Smoak: BABIP by Batted-Ball Type

We knew that Smoak’s groundball BABIP was likely to be low, so it isn’t so surprising to see him second-lowest in that area. Also, a low BABIP on fly balls isn’t something I feel is important to worry about, as they are generally going to be low anyway. What is most notable here is Smoak’s low BABIP on line drives. It is a little bit surprising to see Smoak so low on this leaderboard since we know that he hits the ball well, but perhaps we now have a better explanation for his lower 2019 BABIP. Going back to 2015 and doing this exercise for Smoak, we see how significant of a drop this has been for him:

Justin Smoak: BABIP by Batted-Ball Type 2015-2019

While Smoak’s drop off in fly ball BABIP from 2017 and 2018 to 2019 is also pretty large, the drop in his line drive BABIP is most significant here. It is a bit odd to know that Smoak was generally hitting the ball well last season, but also saw a big drop in line drive BABIP.

Honing in on his line drives, perhaps he just wasn’t hitting his line drives all that well, so maybe this drop was justified. That was not the case as it turns out, as Smoak did have a strong profile on his line drives last season compared to the rest of the league:

Justin Smoak: 2019 Line Drive Profile

From this, it does not appear that Smoak’s .542 line drive BABIP was justified, as Smoak’s expected stats were quite strong and towards the top of the league. While his slow speed referenced earlier likely plays a factor in some should-be doubles staying singles, I’m not sure that slow speed alone explains the drastic difference, as Smoak has had slow sprint speed for a while, but didn’t fall victim to a low line drive BABIP. This just seems like a simple case of bad batted-ball luck. Some visual evidence is called for here, as there are some examples of some bad batted-ball line drive luck from Smoak with some extremely hard-hit balls turning into outs as shown below. First up, the hardest-hit ball of 2019 from Smoak that finds a glove:

Then this one that is ironically caught by the aforementioned Kole Calhoun:

And then finally, this last example that is a rocket caught by Aaron Judge:

These three outs are pretty much the same thing: a hard-hit pull side liner that ultimately doesn’t find a hole. These are just three examples, too. There are plenty more options I could have chosen, but these should hopefully drive home the point. Have enough of these pile up over the course of a full season, and all of a sudden, we have a good explanation for the 50 point drop in slugging, as well as a 70 point drop in BABIP that Smoak had last season.

All of this seems to suggest that some sort of rebound could be coming for Smoak in this abbreviated 2020 season. While a rebound that sees him return to around the level of his 2017 performance is unlikely, he should still be an extremely solid and reliable option for the Brewers this year that may help them forget about Eric Thames, while also adding Smoak’s elite plate discipline into the equation. When evaluating Smoak’s 2019, his low BABIP was the most notable thing to stand out when trying to figure out why his performance dropped. In previous years, Smoak was able to maintain a nice profile with his strong batted-ball metrics to go along with that previously mentioned elite plate discipline. The shift has definitely impacted his BABIP, but he was able to work around the shift in the past because of his other skills. In 2019 though, he still maintained his strong plate discipline, but some non-shift-related bad batted-ball luck threw a wrench into his numbers thanks to a precipitous drop in his line-drive BABIP, as he had a fair share of hard-hit balls find gloves.

Assuming some of that bad luck goes the other way in the future, Smoak should enjoy a nice rebound season. While Smoak may not hit for the .270 batting average that he once did, his power numbers should bounce back and work well with his high walk rate, and he should provide a lot of value for fantasy managers when considering his ADP around pick 340-370 in most formats. Playing time was once an issue upon his signing in Milwaukee, but the addition of the designated hitter this year should open up near-everyday playing time for him. He should get plenty of opportunities to drive in runs as he is projected to hit behind the Brewers big-boppers in Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun, and Keston Hiura, and be an overall positive contributor in Milwaukee this season.

(Photo by /Icon Sportswire) | Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Matt Wallach

Matt studied accounting at UAlbany, is a Yankee fan, and writes for Pitcher List and Rotoballer where he can work with even more numbers to analyze baseball players, which is a lot more fun.

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