In BP Toronto’s preseason Bold Predictions, I picked Justin Smoak to be the biggest bust of 2017. Other than Josh Donaldson being the most valuable position player, it was the pick I was the most confident in.
I knew only two things about Smoak. First, that he was a failed top prospect, and second, that while with the Blue Jays, he had always been an uniquely depressing player to watch. I saw no reason to dig any deeper. Sure, he would have the occasional hot streak. And when he did manage to square up a ball, he would almost uniformly crush it. But none of that ever inspired much hope. If anything, it seemed a cruel reminder of Smoak’s career of failure: seven major league seasons, only three of those over replacement level. The occasional glimpses of talent threw the more common outcomes – the RISP hopelessness, the eternally gritted teeth, the uncomfortable, twisted swing – into sharper relief.
None of this seemed surmountable. I, like most observers, figured that the narrative of Smoak’s career was set. He had been a disappointment, someone who had never lived up to the expectations; by this point, that would never change.
I was wrong.
As Smoak continues to be among the Blue Jays’ best hitters, and as analysis continues to suggest that the changes in his approach might very well be sustainable, I looked into Smoak’s past – from his days as top prospect in Texas, to his heralded arrival in Seattle, and the six seasons of futility that followed. What I found was a player who was indeed haunted by disappointment, whose struggles were in no small part due to the pressure he placed on himself, carrying the burden of great expectations.
For the first time in his career, it seems like Smoak has been able to that burden go.
Almost a decade ago, Justin Smoak was the future face of the Texas Rangers. He was drafted 11th overall in 2008 out of the University of South Carolina, the holder of multiple school records, one of the top college players in the nation. Before that, he’d been the 2006 MVP of the prestigious collegiate Cape Cod Baseball League; before that, an All-American in his senior year of high school. He was a player of whom great things were expected, whose career had been characterized by consistent excellence. Baseball America’s 2008 organizational rankings projected Smoak as a middle-of-the-order power hitter with a shot at superstardom.
Among the earliest interviews I can find with Smoak is from April 9th, 2009. Smoak had just returned from his first major-league spring training, and was getting ready to start the year at double-A Frisco. While the video plays, various facts and figures scroll across the bottom of the screen, showing how high the Rangers and their fans were on Smoak: the comparisons to Teixeira and Chipper Jones, Smoak’s gaudy stats from college and A-ball, his impressively long list of achievements and awards.
The interviewer, speaking to the camera, starts off by calling Smoak “the future of the organization,” before turning to him and quipping, “No pressure there, Justin!”
Smoak laughs. “Not at all,” he responds.
He’s joking, of course. Far from there being, “no pressure,” pressure is omnipresent in Smoak’s words. “There’s always gonna be pressure, no matter where I’ll be or what situation I’m in,” he says of being fast-tracked to double-A. Receiving the news from the Rangers that he’d been drafted was, “a weight off [his] shoulders.”
Smoak speaks slowly and deliberately, in a deep monotone, looking down at his hands often. He seldom smiles, even when he’s talking about his own excitement. The stats and prospect rankings flashing beneath his face might be gaudy, but everything about Smoak, only 22 years old, speaks to a heavy seriousness – an acute awareness of the weight he carries. In Smoak’s case, this weight is the expectation of greatness: expectations which are not only his own, but now of an entire major league franchise and its millions of fans. 3.5 million dollars’ worth of expectations.
There is one moment, though, where the young Smoak’s face lights up. It’s when one of the interviewers mentions fishing. That’s the first thing he did when he got to Frisco, he says, grinning – drive around looking for fishing spots.
The interviewers are delighted by the potential for punnery: “We’ll get a picture of you fishing in a bass boat, and we’ll put that up. Smoak on the Water.”
“That’d be great,” Smoak says, still smiling. Not at the thought of himself as the top prospect, the first-round draft pick, the future of the organization, but of himself perched on the swivel seat of an small aluminum boat, floating peacefully on the surface of a lake.
Two months into Smoak’s stint in Frisco, he hit a three-run walkoff homer and was treated to his first-ever shaving cream pie in the face. Compared to the first interview in April, Smoak seems notably more relaxed. With country music (Smoak’s preferred genre) audible in the background, he smiles easily and often, good-naturedly cursing out his teammate for the pieing. The interviewer asks him how he’s feeling at the plate, if there’s any anxiety; Smoak says he feels great, that his timing has come around, and that his swings from both sides are comfortable.
When the interviewer asks about what Smoak’s biggest takeaway from major league spring training was, Smoak’s expression turns thoughtful. “Just trying not to do too much, I think,” he says. “Sometimes, I get in the habit – when I start going into funks, it’s when I start trying to do too much.”
Of course, the tendency to overcompensate increases when one is struggling. It’s a vicious cycle. You fail, so you try harder; trying harder makes you fail even more. But to that point, whatever struggles Smoak might have experienced were vastly outweighed by his achievements. He had never had to deal with extended periods of failure, never had to contend with the scrutiny that comes with long-term underperformance. He was raking, as everyone had expected him to. He was fully meeting expectations.
Smoak was traded to the Seattle Mariners in mid-2010, the cornerstone piece in an exchange for Cliff Lee. Smoak hadn’t made a particularly good showing in his first half-season of major league play, batting a rather underwhelming .209/.316/.353 with eight homers in 70 games. But he was still young, still inexperienced. There was no reason for anyone to give up hope. In fact, the trade seemed to be a win-win. The Rangers, who were in playoff contention, got an excellent starting pitcher, and the Mariners got the kind of exciting young player you can build a team around – whose set of skills amounted, for most observers, to as close to a guarantee as one can have in baseball. On the day of the Smoak-Lee trade, Jeff Sullivan had this to say (emphasis mine):
Smoak, meanwhile, instead of being the lynchpin of a high-profile trade, had thought he was going to be sent back down to Triple-A. “Just try to relax,” he said of his plan as a Mariner. Trying to relax instead of trying too hard, lengthening his swing, trying to prove himself worthy of not only a spot on a major league roster, but of the expectations of yet another franchise. Those were Smoak’s perils.
In his first 16 games with Seattle, Smoak hit only .163/.180/.244. But when he got sent down to triple-A Tacoma, he absolutely raked in the Pacific Coast League playoffs, reaching base 22 times in eight games. The difference in his hitting, Keith Law noted, was that Smoak had “stopped pressing” following his demotion.
On April 19th, 2011, Smoak left the Mariners and flew home to Goose Creek, South Carolina. His dad Keith, who had taught him how to play baseball, coached him as a kid, and been his biggest supporter and confidant, had died of lung cancer. He’d been diagnosed the previous summer, only months before Smoak was traded.
You can see the tiredness in Smoak’s eyes, though he doesn’t betray it while speaking. In the same deep, steady voice as always, what Smoak expresses most is not grief or pain, but gratitude for what his dad had given him, the experiences they’d shared. His dad was in attendance at Smoak’s first major-league game, the fruition of all their years of work together. And they’d played a game of catch together for one last time on the diamond at the University of South Carolina, where Keith had attended every game Justin played in. “It’s cool to know that he was there for all this,” Smoak says. “And, you know, he’s still going to be there for all of these in the future.”
There were, naturally, concerns about how this tragedy would affect Smoak’s performance. Prior to going on the bereavement list, it had seemed like Smoak was rounding into form somewhat, hitting .294/.403/.491 with four home runs through his first 17 games. Smoak homered in his first two games back, seemed to answer to such concerns. But in this piece in the Seattle Times, Richard Wieters – the father of Matt Wieters, and a lifelong friend of the Smoak family – wasn’t so sure that Smoak’s exterior calmness reflected the truth of the situation:
“He’s a quiet kid,” said Richard Wieters, a longtime friend of Smoak’s father. “He keeps a lot inside. I’m sure he’s hurting right now. With all he went through … the family really went through a lot.
“It was hard on Justin. Keith didn’t want him worrying about it with all the other stuff he had to face, the pressure of trying to live up to all the expectations.”
As it turned out, Smoak never did live up to the expectations the Mariners had for him. His numbers after returning from the bereavement list in 2011 plummeted, largely due to being stricken with injuries: a sprained thumb, a broken nose. In 2012, he hit so poorly, with an ugly .191/.257/.316 line and a 23-percent strikeout rate, that he was demoted to triple-A in July. The Mariners felt that Smoak needed “a different environment without the pressure of the big leagues” to get himself right, to hasten the return of the qualities that had made him a top prospect to begin with – power, line drive ability, plate discipline – and which had apparently abandoned him at some point during the previous three months.
Smoak’s swing, once admired for its ease and smoothness, had become long, ugly, belabored; the mature batting eye, so lauded by scouts, was subsumed by proclivities both for chasing unhittable pitches and for watching fastballs in the zone sail by. The funks of which he spoke in 2009 – those times when he tried too hard, his swing got long, and his approach lost its discipline – had become the norm. Mariners manager Eric Wedge said that Smoak’s desire to compete and be successful was hindering any in-season fixing of his broken swing, but he offered assurances that they would work it all out in the offseason. Smoak, after all, was not just a garden-variety bad baseball player, for whom there was no precedent for greatness. He was, for better or for worse, Former Top Prospect Justin Smoak.
By this point, fans were beginning to give up hope. Smoak was no longer young and inexperienced; he was reaching the age of peak production and had yet to be even a replacement-level player. The disappointment of Justin Smoak was the impetus for this 2012 piece on prospect breakout windows from Beyond the Box Score, and the conclusion was a foreboding one for Smoak: his window of breakout potential, though still open, was closing rapidly. It would need to happen soon if it were to happen at all.
But it didn’t happen in 2013. That year was Smoak’s best season with the Mariners, but it was still nothing like what had once been expected of him. He was still plagued by strikeouts, and wasn’t worth even one win above replacement.
A few months after the 2013 season ended, Smoak attended an event at his alma mater. The video opens with a recounting of how Smoak had utterly obliterated the program’s long-standing home run record. (The record was 48, hit over four years; over his three-year college career, Smoak hit 62.) This recounting is greeted by a hearty round of applause. But after the reminiscing ends, when the reporters begin to ask him questions, almost the first words out of Smoak’s mouth are about his own underachievement.
“It’s been a lot of – I’ve failed a good bit,” he tells the gathered reporters. “And I’ve had to learn from my failures. It came easy to me in high school and college, and in the minor leagues, but -”
He smiles a little bit. He doesn’t complete that thought, and he doesn’t need to. There’s no story to be told of superstardom achieved in spite of struggle, or of rising above adversity to the heights of success. The story of Justin Smoak in 2013 was an ongoing story of failure, of stalled potential and heights never reached, a downward trend with an uncertain endpoint.
The Blue Jays claimed Smoak off waivers from the Mariners and then signed him as a free agent in late 2014, after another sub-replacement level season during which he played 56 games in the minors and slashed a lowly .202/.275/.339 in the majors. At one year and one million dollars, the signing was hardly a bank-breaking or hands-tying move by the Jays, and thus was largely met with either apathy or mild consternation. Some didn’t like that the Jays were paying actual money to a player who had never proved himself to be a quality major leaguer and, because he was out of options, couldn’t be used as positional depth; some bemoaned the implications of the move for Adam Lind. Some expressed optimism – maybe Smoak would turn out to be another successful Jays reclamation project, the next Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion. But such expressions of optimism were always mild, always speculative, always the minority.
If one read a sentence with Smoak’s name in it, some variation on the word “disappointment” as almost sure to follow, to the point where the two words could almost be synonymous. “The waiver claim brings to an end what has to be characterized as a disappointing tenure in Seattle for Smoak,” says this MLB Trade Rumors article; “Justin Smoak will have an opportunity for the fresh start he was looking for after five rather disappointing seasons in a Mariners uniform,” Gregor Chisholm writes for MLB.com. Smoak was someone who had, once upon a time, shown he had all the tools to succeed. He had been given every chance to succeed, and just hadn’t. Disappointment was the most defining aspect of his career.
Unlike the Mariners, the Blue Jays were not expecting to build their roster around Smoak, and Blue Jays fans were thus never treated to the specific kind of discontent that comes of observing failure when success is expected. Smoak was already cemented in his position as a bad, disappointing player. And yet Smoak still became one of the most maligned players on the roster of the 2015 and 2016 Blue Jays.
There’s a fan behavior known in sports psychology as blasting, where fans with high team identification, instead of disassociating themselves from the team as a whole when things go wrong, will externalize their negative feelings by choosing someone upon whom to pile blame, someone who embodies any struggles the team is having. For a lot of Jays fans, Smoak was that guy. The strikeouts, the slow-footedness, the right-on-cue swings over top of two-strike breaking balls – Smoak was all the qualities of the Blue Jays’ offensive game that people found most frustrating, combined conveniently into a single six foot-four inch package. And unlike the team itself, Smoak had little success to help fans forget his failures. Even though he didn’t play full-time, he played just enough to be infuriating. When Smoak struck out on a curveball with runners in scoring position, the familiarity of the outcome did nothing to quell the disgust that greeted it. If anything, it made it all the sharper.
It was with a heavy heart, a feeling of inevitable doom, that one watched Justin Smoak come to the plate. Oh, god. Here we go. And when he struck out, an inevitable, infinite chorus of jeers: Of course. Fucking Smoak. Fire Smoak into the sun. Why are we paying this guy again?
And, inevitably, Smoak walked back to the dugout, slowly, shoulders stooped, like the bat in his hands was a weight too heavy to bear.
Before the start of 2017 spring training, Smoak announced a new approach. He was no longer going to give a crap.
“I think in the past, I’ve just cared too much and was harder on myself than anybody. I haven’t taken failure well. I worried about the wrong things,” he told the Toronto Sun. “This year, my mindset is to enjoy the game game [sic]. You’re on a good team. You have an opportunity. Make the best of it.”
The themes here are the same ones that have been present throughout the entirety of Smoak’s career: his acute awareness of pressure, his aversion to failure and subsequent tendency to try too hard at the plate. What is new, though, is the not giving a crap. Before, it had always been that Smoak was going to try to relax, to try not to do too much – all with the underlying implication that if he could just force himself to try harder, to do the relaxing better, he would finally break through. In 2017, though, Smoak set out to abandon all such paradoxical imperatives. It was such a paradox that had held him back for his whole career. He was going to shed the weight of caring about the past, and with the knowledge of the Blue Jays’ faith in him, shed the weight of the future. He was going to go up to the plate with nothing to prove, no need to be a hero.
It was a nice thought. But Blue Jays fans knew better than to hope. Everyone was ready for Smoak to lose his job, if not by May, then at least by September.
As I write this, Smoak is among the top 30 hitters in the American League by fWAR. He’s second in the League in home runs. Two of those came on Wednesday, lifting the Jays past their sloppy defense to salvage a victory over Oakland. Over a Blue Jays season defined thus far by inconsistency and chaos, Smoak has been an anchor, and often a hero.
But after Wednesday’s game, when asked if the All-Star game had been on his mind given his success, Smoak was nonchalant. “Not really, honestly,” he says with a flip of his hand: he is as steady and serious as he has always been, through the early success and the years of failure. That has never changed, whether times be good or bad.
In 2017, times have been good for Smoak. That’s the extent to which he’s willing to praise himself: “It’s been good.” Of his new approach at the plate – well, whatever happens, happens, he says. The most important thing for Justin Smoak is this: he’s just having fun playing baseball.
And whatever happens after this, for these past two months, it’s been fun watching him.
Lead Photo: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports