The Blue Jays have been defined by no player better in the past decade than Jose Bautista, the former utility journeyman turned home run king. His transformation was the only thing that got fans through the lean years between Roy Halladay and the 2015 playoff run. He was the star.
But before he was able to do that, Jose Bautista had doubters. Hitting 54 home runs in 2010 was nice, but because he was going to be a free agent after the 2011 season, the Blue Jays had to make a decision about whether they believed in his talent or if he was a fluke. The decision polarized Toronto, with both sides of the debate having ample support. Alex Anthopoulos ended up betting on Bautista and extended him for five years before the 2011 season started. He decided that what he saw in 2010 was worth the risk. But throughout that process, Jose Bautista had his doubters.
Justin Smoak does not.
Smoak, of course, is going through a breakout of his own this season. With 137 games played in 2017, Smoak has received 552 plate appearances and hit a gaudy .283/.361/.561 with 37 home runs. I posed a question on Twitter earlier in the week, asking whether people were buying Smoak’s breakout more than they did Bautista’s and if so, why they were doing so. I received a few answers and I want to explore them in a bit more detail here. So why is Justin Smoak turning into an All-star more believable than Jose Bautista doing the same?
When Jose Bautista became an All-Star at the age of 29, it was the first time in a while people believed in his talent. He was never listed on any top prospect lists while developing in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system. His comments in the Baseball Prospectus Annual in the mid 2000’s were about his future as a utility man and he ended up bouncing around from team to team in the Rule Five Draft. Nobody was jumping to get their hands on Bautista in hopes that he would become the next big thing.
The complete opposite is true for Justin Smoak. He was taken 11th overall in the 2008 MLB Draft by the Texas Rangers, then rose as high as 17 on Baseball Prospectus’ top prospect list and 13 on Baseball America’s. When the Rangers wanted to Cliff Lee to front their playoff rotation in 2010, they needed to part with Smoak because he was a can’t miss prospect. In 2009, BP said this of Smoak:
“Think Justin Morneau with the ability to switch-hit—he could be that scary.”
It’s easy to see why people believe in Smoak today more than they did in Bautista eight years ago. For Smoak, it has been a matter of figuring things out and reaching his potential. In Bautista’s case, it was like he made a change to his baseball DNA, allowing him to reach heights nobody ever saw coming.
As previously mentioned, Bautista was scheduled to hit free agency after the 2011 season, so there was a sense of urgency when it came to deciding what to do with him after his monstrous 2010. The Blue Jays could either have him play out the 2011 season, see if 2010 was a fluke and then make a contract offer, or they were able to extend him before 2011 and risk owing a lot of money to a player with just one good year. They decided on the latter, and it paid off for them.
With Smoak, the urgency doesn’t exist. Much to the chagrin of Blue Jays fans last year, Smoak was given a contract extension for the 2017 and 2018 seasons with a six million dollar option for 2019. Although the move was widely questioned at the time, the Blue Jays brass defended it. Now they can enjoy the fruits of their labor for the next two seasons.
What this means is that while for Bautista, people felt the need to question his talent because a lot of money was on the line, that just isn’t the case for Smoak. Even if he crashes back down to earth next season, the Blue Jays still just owe him fewer than five million dollars. If he repeats his 2017 next season and then crashes in 2019, the Blue Jays will owe him for that team option, another small price that would have virtually no financial impact on the club. Believe in Smoak or don’t believe in him, but either way, there isn’t a lot riding on him compared to Bautista after his breakout.
Nobody mentioned this one when responding to my tweet, but I do think it is pretty important to discuss. Jose Bautista’s ascent to stardom was well documented. Everybody knew about his leg kick. He made a dramatic change that led to dramatic results. It was very easy to point to one specific thing and say that is what caused him to become a superstar. He perfected his timing and was able to increase his power because of it. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.
Ask somebody how Smoak has turned his career around, and the answers you’ll get will likely be a lot murkier. That’s because there hasn’t been some drastic change. Rachael McDaniel wrote about Smoak’s emotional well being and how he is finally having fun while playing baseball. That could be it, but we obviously have no way to quantify that to see if it is responsible. Matt Gwin wrote about the more statistical and mechanical changes that have occurred, but if you go and read that article, you’ll see that it is a combination of changes that have got Smoak where he is today. It wasn’t just one leg kick thing, it’s a whole host of mechanical and discipline-based changes.
Knowing this, you’d think that people may not believe in Smoak as much as Bautista. For Bautista it was there for all to see. For Smoak, you have to be a pretty smart person to be able to break down his swing into parts and see the minor details that have been altered. If something looks the same but produces different results, usually we’d think it wasn’t sustainable.
In the end though, I think people believe in Smoak because there isn’t much else to believe in right now when it comes to the Blue Jays big league team. It’s been a very disappointing season and Smoak has been the only breath of fresh air since it started. Sure, the Blue Jays didn’t make the playoffs in 2010, but they won 85 games. They were a good team! There was more at stake with that club, even though they ended up taking a step back, than there is with this one. Combine that with the fact that he’s cheap and had an entire industry pegging him to be the next big thing fewer than 10 years ago and Smoak’s breakout lasting for a long time doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports