The SF Giants signed veteran switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak on Wednesday. While no details have been reported, it’s likely a minor-league pact.
Over his 11-year career, Smoak has hit 196 home runs against a .229/.322/.419 triple-slash. A switch-hitter, Smoak’s OPS is 72 points higher against right-handed pitching than against southpaws.
The 11th overall pick in the 2008 MLB draft, Smoak quickly reached the big-leagues but struggled to reach his potential. He’s always been an above-average defender at first base with plus raw power and strong bat-to-ball skills. However, his swing limited his ability to tap into his power.
In 2017, with the Toronto Blue Jays, Smoak reworked his swing and clobbered 38 homers alongside a .270/.355/.529 triple-slash. He reached his only career All-Star game that year.
Since his peak campaign at 30-years old, Smoak has maintained some of those gains, but his numbers gradually declined in 2018 and 2019. Over those two seasons, he averaged 24 home runs and hit .226/.346/.434. A respectable, but unexceptional line.
A free-agent this past winter, Smoak seemed like a potential fit for the Giants if they traded Brandon Belt. His propensity to walk and limit punchouts seemed like a strong fit with Farhan Zaidi’s model. The Giants obviously held onto Belt instead, and Smoak signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.
This season, Smoak maintained his power gains (ISO of .195) but saw his strikeout rate soar (31.8%) and his walk-rate drop to it’s lowest career level (7.9%). His expected batting average (.201) and slugging (.351) didn’t suggest his .186/.262/.381 triple-slash was a symptom of bad luck, but just poor performance. Trying to remain in playoff contention, the Brewers released him.
If you’re looking for positives in Smoak’s 2020 performance, his hard-hit rate and average exit velocity both ranked in the top half of the league. Still, he’ll need to regain his previous walk and strikeout rates for that really to make a difference.
Many fans have been quick to point out that Smoak has a lot of similarities with struggling Giants corner bat Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval has only played third base in one game this year and has been limited to playing DH, pinch-hitting, or spelling Brandon Belt and Wilmer Flores at first base. Smoak could play that role as well.
Giants Prospects speculated that Smoak would replace Sandoval before the September 15 deadline for playoff eligibility. I’m not as sold that’s the plan. Sandoval has struggled but actually ranks better than Smoak in expected numbers this season. Smoak seems more like an insurance policy on Belt.
While Belt has been one of the best hitters in baseball recently, he has a long injury history. The September 15th deadline doesn’t apply to injury replacements. Smoak can work at the team’s alternate site in Sacramento and if Belt (or anyone else for that matter) suffers a season-ending injury, Smoak could replace them on the playoff roster even after September 15th.
Smoak isn’t far removed from being a productive everyday first baseman. It’s not a bad idea for the Giants to give him a chance to put it back together at the alternate site in Sacramento. At the very least, he provides injury insurance for Belt.