The Brewers are counting on bounce back seasons from a number of new acquisitions. A change in scenery could mean a big year for one of the team’s new first basemen.
Smoak came to the Brewers after spending his last five seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays. While he had a few good seasons in Toronto, last year was certainly a down year by his standards. Though he’s never really hit for average as it is, he dropped all the way down to .208 last year while only driving in 61 runs.
It’s hard to tell whether a certain player is due for a bounce back season. But here are a few reasons why Smoak could turn things around and have a big year in 2020 for the Crew.
1. Justin Smoak has done it before
Though Smoak had a down year for the Blue Jays in 2019, he’d had some good seasons there previously. His most impressive of which was in 2017, when he slashed .270/.355/.529, clubbed 38 homers, drove in 90, and scored 85 runs. All were career highs, as were his 133 wRC+ and 3.6 fWAR. That year also featured his lone All-Star Game appearance.
That was not the only solid year that Smoak had in Toronto, though. He had an fWAR over 0.7 in three of his five seasons for the Blue Jays and a wRC+ over 100 in four of five. Four of his last five seasons featured an OPS over .748.
Also encouraging is how Smoak has become more patient at the plate in recent years. In his time in Toronto he saw his walk rate increase (from an 8.8 BB% in 2015 to 15.8% in 2019) while his strikeout rate decreased (26.2 K% in ’15 to 21.2% in ’19). And even in his down year last year, his .342 OBP was just 8 points lower than 2018, when he spent two career-high years over .350.
2. He’s coming off a very unlucky year
One way to tell if a player had a particularly unlucky year is to look at their batting average on balls in play, or BABIP. If a player has a BABIP that is significantly below their career average, there’s a good chance they fell into some bad luck and will bounce back. The Brewers experienced that with one of their best players in 2018.
That year, Ryan Braun had his own string of bad luck. He had a .274 BABIP, much lower than his career number of .327, despite a 43% hard hit rate that was his highest since his rookie year. As a result, he saw his second lowest OPS (.782) and fWAR (1.3) of his career and a career-low wRC+ (105). Braun saw all those numbers jump back up in 2019 when his BABIP normalized to .325.
That sounds very similar to Smoak’s 2019 season. His .233 BABIP was a big drop from his career average of .266. Like Braun’s 2018, Smoak had an impressive hard hit rate of 42.4% last year, which was a career-high. Unlike Braun, though, his .748 OPS was a shade above his career average. Some better luck in 2020 could see that number, and others, rise to impressive levels.
3. He gets to hit in Miller Park
It’s not like Justin Smoak is coming from a pitcher’s park by any means. According to ESPN, the Rogers Centre in Toronto had the highest home run park factor in the league in 2019. Miller Park in Milwaukee came in 14th.
But if you look at the specific park dimensions, Smoak could benefit from the switch in stadiums. He hit 13 of his 22 home runs at home in 2019. Looking at his spray chart overlaid on to Miller Park, it looks like another six of them might have gone out in Milwaukee. A number of others that were fly ball outs at the Rogers Centre could have gone either way at the wall in Milwaukee.
A switch hitter, most of Smoak’s power comes from the left side, as 150 of his 191 career homers have been as a lefty hitter. Miller Park is quite well known for helping left handed power play up.
Of course, Smoak, unfortunately, only gets to play half of his games at home in Milwaukee. But it’s not outrageous to think that this change in venue could see him venturing back toward the 30-home run mark, though that depends on playing time seeing as Braun will be joining him at first base this season.
The Brewers took a few gambles on signees this offseason, but Justin Smoak looks like one that has a good chance of paying off. If they hit on more than just him, it’ll be another competitive season in Milwaukee in 2020.