Milwaukee Brewers: After a Slow Start, Justin Smoak is Heating Up

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 06: Justin Smoak #12 of the Milwaukee Brewers bats against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on August 06, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 06: Justin Smoak #12 of the Milwaukee Brewers bats against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on August 06, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

It was a very slow start to the season for Justin Smoak at the plate, but over the last week, he has begun heating up offensively for the Milwaukee Brewers.

It was just a few years ago that Milwaukee Brewers’ first baseman, Justin Smoak, was coming off the best season of his big league career. In 2017 with the Toronto Blue Jays, Smoak would bat .270 with an .884 OPS; he’d hit 38 home runs and record a wRC+ of 133.

Although in 2018, his numbers would drop a bit, his .242 average, .808 OPS, and 121 wrRC+ were still above his career averages. Unfortunately, 2019 wasn’t so kind.

Due to some time spent on the IL, Smoak would appear in just 121 games, his lowest amount since 2014, while his average and OPS would plummet to .208 and .748, respectively. However, it is worth pointing out that his wRC+ of 101 was still slightly above league average.

So when the Milwaukee Brewers decided to sign Smoak this past offseason, it looked like they were adding another player who was in need of a bounce-back season. And while the numbers referenced above weren’t very good by any means, they also don’t tell the whole story of Smoak’s 2019 season.

According to Baseball Savant, Smoak’s hard-hit rate of 42.7 percent from last season was higher than what it was during his standout 2017 and 2018 seasons. His exit velocity was in the 72nd percentile, his xSLG in the 76th percentile, and his xwOBA in the 86th percentile- all well above league average and similar to his 2017 and 2018 performances.

On top of that, Smoak would strike out less, and his walk rate of 15.8 percent was a career-high. So entering the 2020 season, Smoak was a prime bounce-back candidate, and it’s fairly easy to see why the Brewers signed him. However, at the start of the season, the results at the plate still weren’t there.

Through his first 11 games, Smoak had 43 plate appearances and posted a slash line of .128/.186/.231 with just one home run, one walk, and 19 strikeouts. Yikes.

Manager Craig Counsell would mention that Smoak was struggling with pitch recognition, and Smoak himself admitted that the lack of fans in the stands was playing a part in his mental approach as he told Andrew Wagner of the State Journal:

"“It’s just more of having the mindset of being ready to hit,” Smoak said. “With no fans in the stands, you’ve got to pump yourself up and get going and it’s something that’s not easy to do. As a group we’re trying to make those adjustments.”"

Smoak also added that he and hitting coach, Andy Haines, have been working on his mechanics recently, which will also help him with his mental approach at the plate as it’s allowed him more time to identify each pitch:

"“It’s something that I’ve done throughout the last few years and throughout my career, and it’s something that definitely we’ll keep doing,” Smoak said. “When you’re up at the plate in a game you can’t be feeling for things, and it’s something that we have done, top to bottom, throughout the first few games here and the first couple weeks. Hopefully we get them behind us and start playing better baseball.”"

Well, it appears that whatever was ailing Smoak is, in fact, behind him because he is certainly playing better baseball as of late. In the Crew’s last seven games, Smoak has slashed .310/.333/.552 in 30 plate appearances, including a home run and a clutch double against Chicago that sparked a Brewers’ comeback over the weekend.

When it comes to the underlying numbers that we mentioned above, in 2020, Smoak isn’t on the same pace as he was in previous years. But hopefully, those numbers continue to rise as he finds more success at the plate.

Next. Another Rough Outing for Eric Lauer. dark

For a Milwaukee Brewers ball club that has struggled for much of the season offensively, having a productive Smoak in the lineup – who is going to be seeing a lot of playing time this year at first base – will be crucial for this offense.

As they say, water always finds its level, so let’s hope we continue to see more of the Justin Smoak from year’s past.