On the big swing-and-miss problem in Blue Jays Land

Justin Smoak
Photo credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

By now the feeling of dread is becoming all too familiar. It hits you in the pit of your stomach.

You think, “oh boy, here comes another one.” That this, too, will end like all the others. You know before it begins how it will all play out — the big hacks; the even bigger whiffs.

And, of course, you’re right. How could you not be, because every time they step up to the goddamn plate it’s the same thing — the same stupid, infuriating thing. The awful approach, the awful result, the big swing and miss.

Your hands shake and your eyes fill with rage. You scream to yourself, “WHO THE HELL IS LETTING THIS HAPPEN??!? WHO?? I WANT ANSWERS!!”

But the answer never comes.

Night after night it’s the same thing — the same mystifying scenario playing out before us. The big moment comes and everything turns to garbage. We all saw it coming, and yet here we are watching it happen anyway. “THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS!”

And, believe me, I get it. I’m totally with you this time. It’s like a national nightmare we’re in the middle of and nobody can get the powers that be to wake up.

I mean, seriously, WHY DO THEY KEEP GIVING AIR TIME TO THESE JAYS TALK CALLERS WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND BACKUP CATCHERS, STRIKEOUTS, OR THE SMOAK CONTRACT????!?!?!?

These aren’t difficult concepts to master! For fuck sakes!

A backup catcher is a bad hitting veteran with some kind of defensive specialty — like catching a knuckleball, you squids! — who plays rarely in order to give the starter (a good player who needs time off due to the heavy physical demands of the position) a little time off. They’re all bad! Replace Josh Thole on this roster with an average backup catcher and what is the difference? Hint: literally nothing! The backup catcher has to play sometimes! The backup catcher isn’t going to be very good! Re-fucking-lax, Thole truthing morons. If this is the biggest thing you have to complain about your team, consider yourself a lucky dipshit.

“Oh, but the stwikeouts! The stwikeouts! Bloo! Bloo! Meuuuuuuhhh I hate stwikeouts!”

Riiiiiiight.

I mean yes, strikeouts certainly are big and ugly and obvious. And yes, with runners on base and less than two outs — situations where you’re probably more prone to put down the spoon you like to stare at (so shiny!) and actually pay attention to the game — they’re unquestionably more damaging than an out from a ball in play. That is, with the exception of balls that go for double plays, ones that result in the lead runner being erased, or ones that don’t advance the runners at all *COUGH*.

They’re frustrating as fuck, I know, but there are types of hitters in the game now — newsflash:  Melvin Upton and Justin Smoak are two of them, as was Colby Rasmus — where their offensive production remains valuable despite high strikeout totals, mostly because of their power and their ability to take a walk. And yeah, when that power isn’t manifesting itself, and the strikeout numbers creep up — like they are for Smoak and Upton right now — those kinds of players look absolutely awful and take all kinds of shit from fans echoing 1988 nonsense about strikeouts being the end of the goddamned world. They aren’t. Those guys aren’t going well right now, and it sucks, but holy shit, this isn’t difficult stuff.

Some quick and dirty math: Smoak has come to the plate with men on in 44% of his plate appearances. He’s come to the plate with less than two outs in 63% of his plate appearances. Assume the men-on PAs are distributed pretty much evenly and it works out to him coming to the plate with runners on and less than two outs (i.e. situations in which he might be able to at least make a productive out) in just 27.5% of his plate appearances. Now let’s consider a hitter like Kevin Pillar. Pillar is going to strike out about 16% of the time, compared to 33% for Smoak. In other words, unless I’m completely butchering this math (certainly possible!), it’s really only in 17% of 27.5% of Smoak’s plate appearances where Pillar would be putting the bat on the ball and Smoak wouldn’t. That’s less than five plate appearances for every 100, and not all of those are even going to be productive (especially since the traditional definition of a productive out is itself flawed).

Looked at another way, we can use the Productive Outs stat at Baseball Reference, which says that this year Pillar has successfully made seven productive outs in 31 opportunities this season, while Smoak has made three in 26 opportunities. Pillar’s rate is certainly better at putting the ball in play at opportune times, but not nearly enough to offset everything else that makes Smoak a more valuable hitter than he is.

Of course, comparing Smoak to a very poor hitter like Pillar (who has a tonne of value in the field) isn’t exactly fair, but I do so merely to illustrate that the strikeouts aren’t really as much of a damn big deal as you think and HOLY FUCK, FIGURE IT OUT ALREADY.

But the Smoak hate isn’t just about the strikeouts. Obviously there is the fact that the Jays have just signed him to a contract extension — a deal which continues to baffle the unwashed, Wilner’s-brain-breaking masses, even though the reason they did it is pretty simple. The reason you sign a guy to an extension mid-season is because you don’t feel like you have tenable alternatives if you end up losing him in free agency. It’s basically the same reason Jays fans want so badly for the club to re-sign a guy like Edwin Encarnacion, only on a vastly different scale. The difference is, the Jays obviously feel that there *are* tenable alternatives, all things (i.e. payroll ) considered, when it comes to Edwin, while on Smoak — since the amount of money they’re paying him is a total non-issue — the alternatives aren’t so hot.

There simply aren’t many free agents of value that will be willing to come here and take the role that Smoak will. He’s essentially an insurance piece — insurance against Edwin leaving, insurance against having to pay someone just as bad more money or rolling the dice on someone dirt cheap — and one whose playing time is not guaranteed. Better guys will want more money and more playing assurances. Worse guys are worse. You’re talking about a spot for a flawed player regardless, and for all his own flaws, Smoak is a switch hitter with power who plays good defence for his position. He’s not good! But those aren’t nothing. And, more importantly, his presence doesn’t prevent the Jays from getting, or keeping, someone better, while giving them someone viable if they don’t, and at a low cost relative to an MLB payroll.

MEUHHHHH BUT HE’S NOT VIABLE, HE’S A TERRIBLE GARBAGE AFFRONT TO BASEBALL.

Yeah… no. He’s not having a good year, was never so great to begin with, and he’s certainly in a prolonged slump, but much like Josh Thole, he’s entirely fine for what he is. STOP PRETENDING HE’S SOMETHING HE’S NOT AND THEN SHITTING ON HIM FOR NOT BEING THAT THING! Same goes for Melvin Upton. These are slumping guys that we know — *know* — are better than this who have been playing a little more than usual because Bautista and Pillar are on the DL. 

They’re fine pieces to have at the bottom of a strong big league roster, so quit wetting your fucking pants already.

The Jays have averaged 4.5 runs over the last week and have scored the third most runs in baseball this season. That doesn’t mean they’re going to get four or five every night. I mean, holy christ, it’s super shitty to question a person’s fandom, but have you never actually followed a baseball season before??? This happens! It’s fine! They’re in first place! Fuck off!