Toronto Blue Jays: First Base and Left Field

Mar 21, 2017; Sarasota, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) catches the ball for an out during the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 21, 2017; Sarasota, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak (14) catches the ball for an out during the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Toronto Blue Jays Manager John Gibbons will likely pencil in Steve Pearce in left field and Justin Smoak at first base everyday, or at least against right-handed pitching, for the foreseeable future.

Analyst Jonah Keri was recently on Toronto radio to discuss his thoughts on the Toronto Blue Jays and their chances in 2017. Within that interview he said this about the team’s plans for first base and left field:

“In baseball you have to assume bad scenarios as well as good ones [will occur],” Keri said on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. “And you’ve already created, for no good reason, two horrible scenarios at two of your power positions, which really makes no sense.”

A lot has been said about the front office’s strange admiration for Smoak. He received a mid-season extension that never made sense.

Smoak has nearly 3,000 career plate appearances and has accumulated a 0.3 WAR during that time. He appears to be the definition of a replacement level and fungible talent.

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Pearce, on the other hand, is very good. Do not let the ‘platoon player’ or ‘utility player’ stigma get in the way of his actual production.

Over the past three seasons, in a combined 1,010 plate appearances, the 33-year old has a 131 wRC+, .840 OPS, and .227 ISO. That type of offense is valuable practically anywhere on the field. His major issue is injuries, which no one can truly predict, but when he is on the field, he is productive.

That brings us to the question: why are the Jays going with this alignment? Why not put Pearce at first base and find a suitable left field option?

Let me try to make sense out of this.

One thing is for sure, general manager Ross Atkins really wanted Pearce:

“They were hard and aggressive,” Pearce said. “As a player, when you have somebody who wants you that bad and they come after you, they don’t mess around, they’re not trying to low-ball — as soon as we got to a number we got comfortable with and they got comfortable with, it was an easy sign.” – Baltimore Sun.

If the Jays wanted Pearce that badly, and still had plans to use Smoak as the primary first baseman, that likely means they viewed Pearce as a primary left fielder all along, with the added versatility of switching to first base when the situation called for it.

Defensively, Pearce was a good left fielder according to defensive metrics prior to 2015. In 2014 alone, he had a +7 DRS and +5.0 UZR as a left fielder. That dropped in 2015 (-3 DRS, -2.3 UZR) and 2016 (-1 DRS, -0.9 UZR), while his metrics at first base remained strong.

One reason for that decline may have been health related. In 2015, Pearce went on the DL for a left oblique strain. In 2016, he had two DL stints, one for his hamstring and the other for a strained right flexor which ultimately ended his season.

The issue with expecting his defense to improve is that he soon to be 34, and has an injury history that will likely progressively erode his defence as he gets older. Can he be a better defensive left fielder than Michael Saunders was in 2016?

It would be hard not to, but will he be good enough to be considered average defensively? It remains to be seen, but the Blue Jays seem to think he can.

Putting him in left field will also lead to more playing time for Smoak. With the recent release of Melvin Upton Jr., that opens the door for more playing time with this particular configuration of Smoak at first base and Pearce in the outfield, with Ezequiel Carrera as the fourth outfielder.

Even if Upton was still on the team, the difference in offensive output against right-handed pitching looked significant:

Past two seasons vs RHP
Smoak: 102 wRC+, .221/.313/.436 (.749 OPS) .215 ISO
Carrera: 77 wRC+, .238/.312/.335 (.647 OPS), .097 ISO
Upton: 77 wRC+, .235/.281/.379 (.661 OPS), .144 ISO

It can be argued that the offensive potential against RHP with Smoak playing first base outweighs the defensive advantage of Carrera (or previously Upton) playing the outfield. Where the situation gets dicey is whether Pearce’s defence in the outfield can be solid enough to remain there, but Gibbons can always do late game defensive switches by moving Pearce to first and Carrera to the outfield.

Upon looking at Smoak’s numbers, he does a few things well enough to maybe have some hope. He makes hard contact. He hits a lot of fly balls. He draws a good number of walks. He has power potential.

The major problem with him is he cannot hit breaking pitches. Looking at runs above average with each pitch type, Smoak’s 2016 numbers were:

wFB: +3.9 (fastball)
wCH: +2.7 (change up)
wCB: -5.6 (curve ball)
wSL: -5.2 (slider)

Long story short, throw him a curve or a slider, and he will likely flail away at it. Can this be fixed? At age 30, that seems unlikely, but the Blue Jays front office, especially their analytics team, apparently likes him enough to give him at least one more chance.

The Blue Jays’ front office should have made more of an effort to improve left field. Maybe they tried and failed, but it seems they saw more value in Smoak at first base than they did a marginal improvement in left field.

With a team with as little margin for error as the Jays likely have in 2017, that’s a pretty big risk. Adding an extra win or two might be the difference between the division or Wild Card, or even the Wild Card and sitting at home after game 162.

Next: Blue Jays' Opening Day Roster Preview

I can certainly see Keri’s point about Smoak’s role on the team, but ultimately, the team felt it was the best way to go. Only one way to find out if they were right, and it begins April 3 in Baltimore.