We’re heading into month three of quarantine and my wife and I are running out of shows to binge. So we’re revisiting one of our favorites in Lost. Secret time – we got our son’s name from the show, not from the Mark Twain novel. We’ve watched the full series at least four times through and the thing I love is how well they developed the characters. Sure, by the end there are plenty of unanswered questions, but I love the ensemble and I love how flawed every character is. Since my mind is back on “The Island”, I decided to look into The Smoak Monster himself, Justin Smoak. Entering his age-33 season, is a return to fantasy relevance in the cards for Smoak who batted a paltry .208 in his final season with the Blue Jays, or will he be scratched off Jacob’s candidate list?
For those of you that didn’t watch Lost, the early seasons featured a series of flashbacks in each episode which gave insight into what the characters were doing prior to the crash of Flight 815 that led to them being on The Island. Justin Smoak’s flashback starts in 2008, where the Texas Rangers made him the 11th pick in the MLB Draft. Heading into the draft Smoak was praised by scouts for his ability to hit for power from both sides of the plate. One of the things that stood out early in Smoak’s career was his advanced plate discipline. In his first full season, Smoak took 75 walks and struck out 81 times across 106 games in Rookie Ball (2 games), AA, and AAA.
In 2010, Smoak was ranked among the top prospects in baseball and made his major league debut on April 15, 2010. By July, with the Rangers leading the AL West, Smoak was traded to Seattle in a package to add former AL Cy Young, Cliff Lee for the stretch run to the playoffs. Smoak’s first year in the majors did not go as planned, as pitchers brought out their sacred ash and protected themselves from The Smoak Monster’s rage, holding the rookie to a .218 average and 13 homers in 398 plate appearances. In fact, over his four seasons with the Mariners, Smoak hit 20 homers just once and topped out at a .238 average. This is not the unstoppable dark force of nature the Mariners thought they were getting and following the 2014 season Smoak was thrown into the heart of the island (waivers).
The Blue Jays claimed Smoak off of waivers, but 2015 and 2016 held more of the disappointment than when the Man in Black had when he tried to kill Jacob (spoilers?). While the walk rate that Smoak held, strikeouts were up and the batting average remained low. The “power from both sides of the plate” that scouts once saw, produced a paltry 32 bombs over two seasons while seeing his strikeout rate top out at 32.6%. And then something happened.
Just like the countless questions about my beloved show, I don’t think I’ll ever have a complete answer for Justin Smoak’s 2017.In his previous seven seasons, Smoak never topped 20 homers in a season and never batted over .238 and then, just like when Charlie surprised us by telling us it’s “Not Penny’s Boat”, Smoak comes through with 38 homers and a .270 average. That season, Smoak’s plate discipline improved slightly. He swung at fewer pitches outside of the zone, improved his contact rate, and dramatically reduced his swinging strike rate. Thank the lord for Baseball Savant, because that’s where we get maybe a hint of an answer for Smoak’s tater montage. Smoak’s barrel rate of 13.6% landed him in the top 6th percentile of the league. On top of that, he managed to stay healthy and topped 150 games played for the first time (and what would become the only time) in his career. Despite not hitting the ball for more average distance or exit velocity, he managed to barrel up enough balls to hit 18 more balls over the fence than any other season.
The following two seasons saw Smoak’s new and improved plate discipline stick, but the key thing that didn’t stick was the barrel rate, which fell back to its previous warning track power level. Following the age-30 breakout, Smoak regressed slightly to 25 taters and a .240 average, before falling all the way to 22 homers with a .208 average in 2019. Much like John Locke when he finally met his biological father, Smoak was left confused and desperate for the reason why (albeit with both of his kidneys).
In the third season of Lost (the season finale actually), the show introduced the flash-forward. Justin Smoak enters the 2020 season looking for a fresh start in Milwaukee, like Mr. Echo when he went from drug smuggler to priest. Looking back to 2019, he certainly didn’t earn his .208 average. Of the 250 qualified hitters last year, Smoak had the worst differential in slugging percentage versus expected slugging percentage (.406 vs. .495) and the second-worst differential in batting average versus expected batting average (.208 vs .250) and wOBA versus expected wOBA (.323 vs .366). He also managed the highest hard-hit rate of his career and yet he ended up with a .223 BABIP for his troubles. Positive batting average regression is almost certainly in the cards for Smoak.
When we look at the change of scenery, Smoak goes from one home run friendly park in the Rogers Centre to another in Miller Park. While park factors have it at a slight downgrade both in homers to left and right field, Miller Park certainly doesn’t suppress bombs. Roster Resource has Smoak projected batting fifth for the Brewers, behind Eric Sogard, Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, and Keston Hiura, which should provide ample RBI opportunities. Steamer has Smoak projected for 22 homers, 63 RBIs, and a .239 average in just 435 plate appearances. To me, there’s value to be had in Smoak who’s being drafted in just 4% of ESPN leagues, has an NFBC ADP after pick 350, and will be on the strong side of the platoon.
In the final season of Lost, we got to see an alternate perspective, where the characters were able to resolve what went wrong in their actual lives. Who can forget finally seeing Hurley being successful and getting the girl? What if this year brings us the scenario in which Justin Smoak returns to his 2017 glory? As I mentioned earlier, Smoak is projected to be on the strong side of the platoon, with Ryan Braun getting most of the right-handed at-bats at first base. Over the last two years, 39 of Smoak’s 47 homers came from the left side of the plate. Being that he’s a switch-hitter and the new reliever rules, I’d expect teams to be more reticent to bring in a LOOGY to just turn him around to the right side of the plate. If we get that batting average regression, I think it could his destiny to be a .255 hitter with 25+ homers this year. If you’re in a deeper league, I love Smoak as a bench piece. My favorite spot for him is if you’re in a daily transactions league, as he’s a batter who I could see myself streaming all season. The other spot I’ll be looking to Smoak is in DFS when he’s playing in a decent stadium with a good matchup. Those last two scenarios are where I think we could see the greatest amount of benefit from Smoak’s situation. See ya in another life brother.