Toronto Blue Jays: Diving deeper into Justin Smoak’s breakout performance

Jun 2, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) rounds the bases after hitting a two run homerun against the New York Yankees in the first inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 2, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) rounds the bases after hitting a two run homerun against the New York Yankees in the first inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Justin Smoak has been a gem for the Toronto Blue Jays this season. What’s been behind the 30-year-old’s early season surge?

It was a rough start to the baseball season for the Toronto Blue Jays. After starting the year winning only one game in their first 10, the club has fought its way back into relevancy, overcoming multiple injuries along the way

One of the biggest reasons why the Blue Jays have managed to tread water during that time period is because of a breakout early season performance from a former top prospect. First baseman Justin Smoak has gotten out of the gates hot, currently hitting for an average above .280, while continuing to produce power (15 HR) at the same time. So what’s behind this early season surge? In order to understand the spike, let’s dive deeper into those advanced stats.

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

The first place I looked toward when trying to understand this spike in a 30-year-old’s career numbers was the type of contact that the left-handed slugger was making. According to FanGraphs, to my surprise, he is actually producing fewer fly balls and line drives percentage-wise thus far, instead seeing a 7 percent spike in ground balls.

Usually, more grounders means less hard contact, and although his hard contact percentage has improved to over 40 percent through 58 games, it only increased by just under 2 points from his final 2016 numbers.

So if Smoak’s breakout performance cannot be explained by the type of contact he is making, can his improved performance be indicated by any number in particular, or is he simply just hitting the ball where fielders aren’t unusually more than normal at this point? While that may be somewhat true, the real differentiating factor lies in his plate discipline numbers, according to Smoak’s advanced stats from FanGraphs.

Through this point in the 2017 season, the Toronto Blue Jays first baseman has seen a considerable shift in this area. In fact, not only has Smoak increased his ability to make contact on pitches inside the zone when he swings (82 percent to 92 percent), he’s also fighting off pitches outside the zone at a higher rate, jumping from 54.9 percent to 61.2 percent in this short period of time. In addition, his swinging strike percentage has dropped by over 5 percent from 2016 during the first few months of this season. He hasn’t produced a single-digit number for this stat since 2013.

But what do these numbers indicate? Well, it means that Smoak is hitting smarter and more efficiently at the plate. Lauded for his plus power coming up through the minor leagues, Smoak has been known for being the failed piece of the Cliff Lee trade to the Seattle Mariners. He’s got a long swing that can produce solid power numbers. He’s frequently produced home run totals in the high teens throughout his MLB career, but his average and on-base percentage have lagged greatly behind.

However, right now Smoak’s current batting average has increased by over 60 points from his career number during the first few months of the 2017 season. The career-year on-base percentage thus far could indicate that Smoak has changed his plate approach as well. In addition, his strikeout percentage has seen over a 14-point dip from last year to this year, despite his reputation for being an all-or-nothing hitter when he’s in the batter’s box.

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Simply, what all these stats and numbers indicate is that the Toronto Blue Jays have benefited from a substantial shift in numbers that can be quantified to make a real difference in terms of all-around offensive production.

Now, expectations should be tempered considering that we are only around the quarter mark of the 2017 season. However, what all this information does show is that Smoak is not just getting lucky with a few bounces falling his way. He’s changed his numbers considerably through a more patient approach and better barrel control at the plate, while still maintaining plus power.

It remains to be seen what adjustments pitchers are going to have to make, but the Toronto Blue Jays should certainly be thrilled that their first baseman may be beginning to reach the potential so many people anticipated back when he was in the Rangers farm system, even though he’s no longer in his 20s.

Next: 2017 MLB All-Surprise Team

What do you make of the Toronto Blue Jays and the surprising performance coming from their first baseman? Let us know in the comments sections below.