Toronto Blue Jays: Is Justin Smoak All Smoke and Mirrors?


Justin Smoak has proven a reliable glove but enigmatic bat for the Toronto Blue Jays so far this season

He’s big, he’s strong and he has all the makings of a classic power hitter, but Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak very much remains a work in progress.

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At 28 years of age, Smoak has a total of six MLB seasons and 654 career games under his Heavyweight Champion-sized belt. He was selected eleventh overall in the 2008 entry draft by the Texas Rangers, which many people considered a bargain at the time. Smoak made his MLB debut in 2010 but didn’t last very long in Texas: he was traded to the Seattle Mariners the same year as part of the package for pitcher Cliff Lee.

(Here’s Smoak’s draft report for 2008 – sounds about right, no?)

His success in Seattle was mixed: 66 homes, 179 runs and 200 RBI across 496 games while batting a paltry .226 with an on-base percentage of .308. Smoak is a particularly notorious victim of the strikeout, collecting 435 Ks in Seattle (versus 200 walks) and 547 (258) on his career.

Jul 28, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) during batting practice before a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Rogers Centre. The Philadelphia Phillies won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Jays took a chance on Smoak this past off-season and ultimately signed him to a one-year, $1-million deal. He’s arbitration eligible at the end of the season, but it’s not clear if the Jays plan to retain his services as both Chris Colabello and Edwin Encarnacion are also capable of playing first base. Smoak has to make his case on the field and with the bat.

If there’s one solid aspect to Smoak’s game, it’s his glove. He’s a very reliable option to play first base with only 23 errors over 608 career appearances (558 starts) at the “other” hot corner. This compares favourably against Colabello (five errors in 69 appearances, 61 starts) and Encarnacion (23 errors in 305 appearances, 296 starts). In fact, the Jays have been using Smoak as a late-inning defensive replacement at first base on days where he doesn’t get the start. What does that say?

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  • Since June, Smoak has essentially become the Jays’ regular first baseman earning the majority of starts. This likely reflects the team’s desire to finally end a 21-year playoff drought given that Smoak represents the best defensive option at first base, but this has only shined greater light on his inconsistency with the bat.

    Aside from a grand slam against the New York Yankees on Saturday, Smoak has made a limited impact on the scoreboard this year. He’s hitting .228 on the season with an OBP of .305. Smoak’s 10 home runs, 35 RIB and 26 runs hint at his power, but they’re sandwiched between 55 strikeouts (20 walks) and nine double plays.

    Mar 30, 2015; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) hits a solo home run during the second inning against the Houston Astros at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Solid defence is extremely important for the Jays right now. This alone should ensure Smoak a regular spot in the lineup for the remainder of the season. If the rest of the bats around him stay hot, he’ll have plenty of time and space to work on his own approach at the plate, but the team’s patience isn’t unlimited and there will be expectations of improvement with the bat at some point as the season winds down.

    It’s hard to give a definite opinion of Smoak since he very much remains a work in progress. The defence is there; we’re just waiting for the offence to arrive. We might have our answer, however, by the end of the season one way or the other.

    What are your thoughts on Smoak? Is his solid defence enough to overlook his inconsistent bat? Do you think he’ll improve? Are there better options on the team to play first base? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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