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Leach: Better contact no Smoak screen

Toronto 1B crushing strikes on way to #ASGWorthy year
MLB.com @matthewhleach

Justin Smoak's 20 home runs have put him squarely in contention for a starting spot on the American League All-Star team. So much so that the Blue Jays are pushing a #SmoakTheVote campaign for the veteran first baseman, hoping to garner him the position over Kansas City's Eric Hosmer.

As with Hosmer, though, if you just look at the power numbers, you're missing a big part of Smoak's story. It may appear that Smoak is part of a league-wide trend toward the long ball. But really, it's kind of the opposite.

Justin Smoak's 20 home runs have put him squarely in contention for a starting spot on the American League All-Star team. So much so that the Blue Jays are pushing a #SmoakTheVote campaign for the veteran first baseman, hoping to garner him the position over Kansas City's Eric Hosmer.

As with Hosmer, though, if you just look at the power numbers, you're missing a big part of Smoak's story. It may appear that Smoak is part of a league-wide trend toward the long ball. But really, it's kind of the opposite.

Where baseball as a whole has zigged in 2017, Smoak has zagged. In a strikeout-crazy world, the era of the Three True Outcomes, Smoak's secret is a strange one indeed: he's making more contact than ever. He's not selling out for exit velocity or launch angle, as so many breakout hitters are. He's just putting the bat on the ball.

Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for Smoak and other #ASGWorthy players

Oh, and he's been more aggressive while doing it. Smoak has increased the frequency with which he swings, at least when it comes to pitches within the zone. His strike-zone judgment has improved, and he's acted on it.

Video: BAL@TOR: Blue Jays promote Smoak for the ASG

It's a potent combination: Smoak is laying off more pitches out of the zone, swinging at more pitches in the zone, and he's making more contact regardless of where the ball is pitched.

The two key numbers are Smoak's swing rate at pitches in the zone and his contact rate on those swings. The first number has climbed from 62.8 percent in 2015, to 65.3 percent in '16, to 67.6 percent this year. Meanwhile, the second number -- the really essential number -- has soared. He made contact on 81.7 percent of swings two years ago, 79.1 percent last year and 89.2 percent this year.

There's nothing a pitcher can do that's more devastating than getting swinging strikes within the zone. Smoak has all but eliminated those from his game.

Video: CWS@TOR: Smoak unloads a two-run homer to center

Smoak's contact rate on strikes is 20th best among 152 players who have swung at 300 or more pitches in the zone this year. A year ago, among batters who swung at 400 or more strikes, his contact rate placed 211th out of 253. He's moved from the bottom 20 percent to the top 15 percent.

Smoak came into this year as a .223 lifetime hitter with a 23.9 percent strikeout rate. Entering Tuesday night, he was batting .304 this year, with a 9.0 percent strikeout rate. On a per-plate-appearance basis, Smoak has cut his strikeout rate by nearly 60 percent.

Smoak's power on contact is up, but not enormously. As recently as 2015, he had an isolated slugging of .244 and more extra-base hits than singles. This year, his ISO is .284 -- a spike, but not a huge change. He has 46 singles against 30 extra-base hits.

Video: TOR@OAK: Smoak hammers solo homer to left-center

This is borne out when you dig deeper into the on-contact data as well. It just hasn't changed much. Smoak has hit just over 43 percent of his batted balls at 95 miles per hour or more. That's slightly up from last year (42.25 percent), but down from 46.45 percent in 2015.

Smoak's overall average exit velocity is actually down this year (89.4 mph, after sitting around 91 mph each of the past two seasons). His average launch angle is down from last year, though up from 2015, and the percentage of his batted balls that qualify as barrels or solid contact is slightly up from last year, but down from '15.

When Smoak makes contact, he's doing what he's always done. He's just not missing. And it has him in the running for an All-Star spot.

Matthew Leach is an executive editor for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter and read his columns.

Toronto Blue Jays, Justin Smoak