Going Deep: Justin Smoak and Michael Conforto

Can we trust the 2017 performances of Justin Smoak and Michael Conforto? Dave Cherman gives his in-depth analysis.

(Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire)

Part I: Where There’s Smoak There’s Fire

Fantasy baseball is a game of finding value. You can draft Paul Goldschmidt in the first round and you can get locked in .300/.400/.550 with 30 HRs 15-20 SBs and 200 R+RBI. Goldschmidt is about as consistent as they come (although notable regression is to be expected with the humidor coming in and he may not even reach the line I mentioned above.). However, for someone trying to play the value game, I have a diamond here for you in the form of Justin Smoak. NFBC has his ADP currently around 150 when he really should be going about 100 picks higher.

Smoak burst on the scene last season with the Blue Jays, but he’s not getting any love in pre-season rankings and I cannot figure out why for the life of me. Yahoo has him at an average rank of 15.7 among first basemen, NFBC has him at #18 off the board, and our own Kyle Bishop has him as the #12 first baseman. I couldn’t disagree more.

First, I want to point out the legit steps forward Smoak took in 2017. Smoak’s biggest change in 2017 was being more patient at the plate. He claims he wanted to let the game start coming to him and slow down overall, not trying to do too much at the plate. He claimed he’d been swinging too hard and would tire out over the course of the season, so 2017 was about conditioning and pacing himself. And boy, did it work. Rarely do the graphs line up so nicely.

 O-Swing%Swing%O-Contact%Z-Contact%SwStr%K%
Smoak (‘16)29.6%45.3%54.9%82.2%12.7%32.8%
Smoak (‘17)25.8%43.0%62.9%87.9%8.9%20.1%

Well then. That, my friends, is a notable step forward in plate discipline. Not only was he swinging less, but when he did swing, he made more contact (both inside and outside the zone), whiffed significantly less often, and reduced his strikeouts by 39%! Not only did his overall discipline improve, but he drastically improved his numbers with two strikes.

 AVGOBPSLGHRRBI
Smoak (’16).145.214.273512
Smoak (’17).192.273.3701332

Still hitting under the Mendoza Line may not seem like much of an improvement, but an improvement of 40/50/90 points in his line is incredible. Also, that HR and RBI line is beautiful. 13 home runs with 2 strikes; that number was tied for 13th in baseball. He also ranked 40th in SLG% and 55th in wOBA. And this was only his first season with this new mindset at the plate. This could get even better in 2018.

The biggest payoff from this change in approach was Smoak’s production with runners in scoring position.

 HHRRBIAVGOBPSLG
Smoak (’16)21421.167.278.310
Smoak (’17)32543.278.406.478

It’s also important to remember that the 2017 Blue Jays were… bad. In fact, only one other hitter (Donaldson) hit above .260 with 350 ABs or more. The Jays added Randall Grichuk (replacing Jose Bautista’s god awful .203/.308/.366 line) in RF, Curtis Granderson to hit leadoff, and Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz in the middle of the field replacing the frightening Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins, neither of whom hit above .240/.290/.360. The newcomers, plus hopefully more of Troy Tulowitzki will make the Blue Jays a much stronger lineup in 2018. Smoak is likely to hit in the 3 spot between Josh Donaldson and Kendrys Morales, which will lead to a lot more opportunities than he had in 2017. The counting stats should follow his production in a big way.

To show why you should wait on a 1st basemen for Smoak, I will compare him to 3 first basemen who are being drafted well above Smoak this season: Cody Bellinger, Wil Myers, and Anthony Rizzo.

Justin Smoak vs Cody Bellinger

The main reason I’ve heard for why Smoak is going so low is that he’s only done this once. But, then again, so has Bellinger, who is #23 overall in NFBC and #6 in our 1B rankings. I know some people are already arguing with me in their heads. I’ll address that, but first, entertain me, and let’s look at their stats side by side.

 AVGOBPSLGHRRRBI
Smoak (’17).270.355.529388590
Bellinger (’17).267.352.581398797

On a quick look, their stats look incredibly similar except Bellinger had a 50-point advantage in slugging percentage and 7 extra RBI. However, the SLG% difference is mitigated when we look at xStats estimations of their numbers side by side.

 xAVGxOBPxSLGxHRVH%PH%OUTs
Smoak (’17).268.354.54339.410.524.7-.066
Bellinger (’17).267.352.55535.69.517.5-.077

Really quick, I want to explain these xStats. The first 4 are the expected totals or averages based on that player’s batted ball data. VH% or value hit% represents the percent of plate appearances that result in a “near automatic extra base hit”. PH% or poor hit% measures the percent of plate appearances that end in near automatic outs. OUTs=Weakly Hit Balls + Strikeouts – Well Hit Balls – Walks – Hit By Pitch. Basically, the formula summarizes their bad at bats. The smaller the number, the better.

According to the statcast data, they were virtually the same hitter last year, although Smoak had roughly 7% more poor hits. So why is one taken in the second round, and one the 13th? The standard answer is: Bellinger is a top prospect! This isn’t his ceiling! It’s worth mentioning that Smoak was also a top prospect- he was a first round pick by Texas in 2008 and the centerpiece of the trade to pry Cliff Lee from Seattle. Smoak struggled to reach his ceiling, but it appears that he’s finally reached it. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time we saw a top prospect struggle for years and then find success later on.

Bellinger may not have reached his ceiling yet, and his ceiling could be even higher than his rookie season, which explains why he’s so highly sought after. Bellinger also has a better lineup around him than Smoak. But, that does not justify an ADP gap of 127 picks. Bellinger goes THAT much higher because he’s the flashy name with the Rookie of the Year award on his resume. Smoak is not a flashy name by comparison, but he has a chance to put up virtually the same line as Bellinger over the course of the season. If it were me, I’ll spend my 2nd round pick elsewhere and grab Smoak 10 rounds later.

Justin Smoak vs. Wil Myers

Look, I get the track record argument. Other players have performed at a high level for multiple years prior to 2018. But the point of this article is to show you why you can expect Smoak’s breakout to continue. Wil Myers is currently going 80 spots above Smoak, currently 70th on average according to NFBC. Let’s take a look at why.

 AVGOBPSLGHRRRBISB
Smoak (’17).270.355.5293885900
Myers (’17).243.328.46430807420

The only real appeal I see from Myers is the SB category. There’s definitely value there, but is that enough to justify the serious deficiency in every other category? Maybe that’s enough for you, but it’s not for me. The Padres just added Eric Hosmer and Chase Headley, but they still do not have a good lineup overall, particularly compared to the Blue Jays. Therefore, I expect Smoak to continue to put up higher counting stats across the board.

 xAVGxOBPxSLGxHRVH%PH%OUTs
Smoak (’17).268.354.54339.410.524.7-.066
Myers (’17).248.333.47730.77.920.3.024

More than anything, I can’t swallow the 20-point differential in AVG. Myles Nelson wrote about that in his Altuve vs. Trout article (albeit a bit more of a pronounced gap between the two); if you play in an AVG league, I don’t know how you justify a .250/.330/.460 first basemen in the first 7 rounds when a .270/.350/.540 one sits in the wings rounds later. Stolen bases just aren’t enough. If you play in a points league, where steals are less important, this is as open and shut of a case as it gets for me. Ditch Myers and go for broke with Smoak.

Justin Smoak vs Anthony Rizzo

 AVGOBPSLGHRRRBISB
Smoak (’17).270.355.5293885900
Rizzo (’17).273.392.507329910910

 

 xAVGxOBPxSLGxHRVH%PH%OUTs
Smoak (’17).268.354.54339.410.524.7-.066
Rizzo (’17).283.402.53032.78.425.8-.085

The biggest difference here is the OBP gap. I don’t try to deny that Rizzo gets on base at a much higher clip than Smoak, but if your league uses AVG or OPS, or points scoring, Smoak and Rizzo are actually pretty similar. Rizzo’s big advantage is in counting stats; the Cubs’ lineup is simply better than the Blue Jays’. However, keep in mind what I stated earlier that the Jays lineup should be notably better in 2018, which will help with the counting stats. Smoak’s statcast data suggested the homer gap was legitimate, and Smoak’s VH and PH numbers vs Rizzo suggest he actually made better contact than Rizzo throughout 2017. The gap in OUTs can be explained by Rizzo’s low strikeout rate compared to Smoak.

Just like Myers, Rizzo gets stolen bases, which helps his value marginally. But he’s currently 24th off the board according to NFBC. Taking a look at these stats, I don’t understand the justification for a 126 pick gap between the two.

I won’t fault anyone for drafting one of the top 1B. Rizzo and Bellinger are elite hitters and will be very helpful to your fantasy lineup. However, after looking at these 3 comparisons, I will be waiting on a 1st basemen and grabbing Smoak much later. If he repeats his 2017 production, which the numbers suggest he will, he can provide 3rd to 5th round value at a steeply discounted price tag on draft day.

 

Part II: Putting the Top Down on the Conforto-ble

Fantasy owners are deathly afraid of injuries. The fear that a player will not be ready for opening day drives down ADP- I feast on that and you should too. Last year, J.D. Martinez was expected to miss April and his ADP plummeted because of it- all the way down to 85.8 as the #21 OF.

I’d like to discuss this argument in the context of Michael Conforto. Before we start, this argument doesn’t necessarily apply to Roto leagues, but rather H2H leagues. This is because, in H2H, we’re more concerned with the player’s value in the games they play, but the missed time becomes more important in roto, which takes into account stats from the whole season.

Right now, NFBC has Conforto as the #47 OF and #182 overall, which is just crazy to me. Conforto is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. The team has only said that Conforto will not be ready for opening day but once he is cleared to swing, he’ll be able to start a rehab assignment roughly two weeks afterward and could return about a week after that. The club is targeting May 1 as his current return date.

While I understand, it is difficult to digest the thought of not having one of your lower draft picks for the first month of the season, Conforto is worth it. Travis Sawchik wrote a great article on Fangraphs back in August 2017 about it. The heat maps and graphs in that article do a lot to tell the story, but I think we can go even further. First, here are some of the conventional stats for you.

PAsAVGOBPSLGHRBB%
Conforto (’16)348.220.310.4141210.3
Conforto (’17)440.279.384.5552713.0

Conforto clearly took a huge leap forward in 2017, but let’s see if its real by looking at the xStats.

xAVGxOBPxSLGxHRVH%PH%OUTs
2016.240.328.45616.67.821.6.029
2017.275.381.55726.89.819.8-.104

Not only was Conforto’s .557 xSLG a fantastic number, it was 15th best in all of baseball in 2017 (min 100 PAs). His VH% was good for 17th in baseball in 2017 as well.

So, what happened? What caused this massive change in Conforto’s hitting ability? In addition to the zone changes that Sawchik pointed out in the article, Conforto spread the ball around the field, as demonstrated by the graphs below.

As you can see, Conforto spread the ball out much more successfully in 2017, showing a much more advanced approach at the plate. As you can also see, he had a number of short home runs. That makes even more sense when you see his 27.2% HR/FB rate. Therefore, you might be inclined to say his power will regress. However, the xHR suggests his 27 homers was actually spot on.

The best thing about this breakout is it is all approach based. As long as he comes back healthy from his shoulder surgery, he should go right back to raking. I see no reason he can’t put together a very similar stat line to 2017.

Now, let’s look at this production through the lens of his injury. We can’t expect more than 120-130ish games due to the time he’ll miss at the start of the year. Given that he’s going as the #47 OF already makes him your likely #4 OF, you don’t really have to worry about replacing his production for the first month. If you’re worried about that, you can easily draft Aaron Hicks, Bradley Zimmer, Aaron Altherr, Jose Martinez, or someone else to fill that spot for the first month.

When I’m evaluating a player who is expected to miss a short period of time at the beginning of the season, I evaluate them compared to similar players over the games that they will actually play. Therefore, I’m going to use Conforto’s stats from 2017 scaled out to 120 games compared to other players who are being drafted well above Conforto and their 2018 Fangraphs projections scaled to the same 120 games. Obviously, those players will be more valuable in that you know their health to start the year and can guarantee more games played. However, my goal is to show that the vast disparity between their draft slots is not justified.

PAsAVGOBPSLGHRRBIRSB
Conforto (’18)533.275.381.55729.774.879.22.2
Fangraphs M.C.528.283.381.51125831005
N. Castellanos510.273.326.48219.870.563.63.4
A. McCutchen531.273.369.47620.866.674.07.5
A. Benintendi532.293.373.48717.773.274.716.9

For reference, Castellanos is the #26 OF by NFBC ADP, McCutchen is #22, and Benintendi is #10.

I could go in depth breaking each of these players down vs Conforto but I think this graph says enough. Conforto isn’t going to steal bases. However, he’s going to hit for a serviceable average, walk at a high clip, and hit the ball hard. The Mets lineup isn’t fantastic, but they’ve got enough talent there for him to put up the counting stats.

Some may say this is cherry picking stats and that I’m ignoring the injury risk. I can assure you, I’m not. It’s very possible he doesn’t come back healthy. A prime example of what could go wrong with a serious shoulder injury is Michael Brantley, who has had issues staying on the field since his initial surgery. Then again, Adrian Gonzalez came back from his shoulder surgery to post arguably the best season of his career. I can’t guarantee Conforto’s health, nobody can, I’m just trying to show that a healthy Conforto is likely to put up better numbers over his 120 games than many other higher ranked OFs scaled to 120 games if he comes back healthy and at the same level as 2017.

I’m not saying that you need to be drafting Michael Conforto ahead of Andrew Benintendi– or even ahead of Andrew McCutchen. There’s no guarantee that Conforto will be fully healthy come May. What I’m saying is that I’d reach a couple rounds and take a chance on the lottery ticket that is Michael Conforto. He’s got a chance to finish the season as a top 15 OF if he returns fully healthy. There is risk baked into Conforto, but it’s a risk worth taking for me. And if he doesn’t come back healthy or isn’t the same player, you can easily cut bait. All I’m saying is he’s worth a ticket for the ride higher than his ADP.

Dave Cherman

Across the Seams Manager, also a former player and umpire and Denver-based lawyer who spends his free time studying advanced statistics and obsessing over fantasy trades. Will debate with you about most anything.

  • Avatar Dave Cherman says:

    Credit to Fangraphs for the spray chart and xStats and Fangraphs for all the data

  • Avatar theKraken says:

    Great work. Lots of great analysis.

  • Avatar Turp says:

    Dave – EXCELLENT work and a great read. Please write more.

  • Avatar Steve says:

    I like Smoak and owned him in a league last year, and I agree he’s a solid late value. BUT, the problem is that it’s still the same Justin Smoak who owns a career slash line of .232/.317/.416 and nearly doubled his previous season high in homers last year. Are the gains real? Maybe. Maybe not. Wouldn’t be the first time someone stuck a career year in the middle of an otherwise disappointing career.

    To compare to Rizzo is just crazy. Rizzo is a stat metronome and deserves the premium he commands. With Bellinger, I can get on board not drafting him early, but a 21 year old who put up the kind of season he did last year…well it’s hard not to see even more upside. Not to mention, Smoak has 3 career stolen bases while Rizzo and Bellinger both swiped 10 last year. That’s a nice plus.

    • Avatar Dave Cherman says:

      The whole first half of the Smoak section is me proving exactly why it’s NOT the same Justin Smoak with that career slash line. He made significant, measurable changes to his approach that made him a different hitter. So you say maybe/maybe not. I say I can look at all these changes and confidently say yes.

      I acknowledged that Rizzo is more valuable but the stats speak for themselves; they’re closer than most would like to admit. I’m not saying Rizzo isn’t worth a 2nd rounder, saying Smoak is maybe worth a 5th instead of where he’s currently getting drafted. I know Smoak doesn’t get steals, which is why I acknowledge the category in the charts; I just don’t think its super valuable. You can grab Dee Gordon, Byron Buxton, Billy Hamilton, etc and then put the stat with the whole rest of your lineup.

      • Avatar Steve says:

        Do you view Yonder Alonso and Logan Morrison similarly? They too bucked years of underwhelming numbers to post a career season last year. How repeatable is it for either of them? No idea. They both made changes to their approach. What nobody can predict is how much it will stick. For this risk, these guys are drafted where they are.

        • Avatar Dave Cherman says:

          Those two are completely different. Look at both of their plate discipline numbers from last year. O-Swing? Career average. Total swing rate? Career average. SwStr%? Actually went up. Strikeouts? Also up. That’s what I’m talking about when I say measurable changes to his approach and plate discipline. What Yonder Alonso and Logan Morrison did is change their hitting plane- more FBs and a harder hit rate led to more HRs and a higher HR/FB%. They began to swing more freely, unlike Smoak, who took a more measured approach at the plate, which is evidenced by the whole plate discipline chart near the top of the article.

          • Avatar Steve says:

            Fair enough, those are good distinctions. I guess I’m finding it hard to overcome the considerable bias against Smoak’s poor performance since his debut. He was legitimately awesome at the plate last year, so let me ask you this. Are there any comps for a mid-career turn around like this? I mean, his CAREER WAR going into last year was 0.2. That’s since 2010….You can’t blame me for being a bit skeptical. How do you go from being the very definition of replacement level for 6 years to being a borderline all-star. Yes, I know – the plate discipline changes. I still doubt the sustainability until I see it again.

            • Avatar Turp says:

              Everyone in my league was skeptical of Smoak last year too…and many still are. Meanwhile I rode his mashing to a 2nd place finish last year, and will gladly scoop him up as a value play again this year. Play to win > playing not to lose.

      • Avatar Cort says:

        But you didn’t acknowledge the SB difference with Bellinger. In fact, you left it off completely, and I believe it does make a difference in value. I personally don’t want to have to rely on a one-cat player like Hamilton for SBs. I’d rather not depend on that category from one player like him or Gordon. I, like most I’d imagine, would prefer to have my SBs come from a variety of sources, and that adds value to Bellinger and Rizzo over Smoak. I like Smoak, but In a keeper league I just prefer Bellinger long term. And the steals are a part of that.

        • Avatar Turp says:

          I agree about getting your steals from everywhere. If you draft billy and he gets hurt, welp, you are hosed in steals.

          5-10sb can’t be enough to change your valuation of Smoak that drastically though. I would value those enough as a tiebreaker (speaking generally) or a 1 round bump. But we are talking low 20s picks vs pick 95. I don’t see keeper valuation being a piece of this article either. Of course Smoak is not going to be valued close to belli or rizzo in keeper.

          • Avatar Steve says:

            The steals aren’t trivial though. It could also be more like 10-15 sb with respect to Bellinger (kid only played 130ish games last year).

            Your projections can’t just be based on this past season, I guess that’s my point. You must bake in the risk and regression and that’s why Smoak is being drafted where he is. I had him in a league last year too and he was great (someone dropped him middle of the season!), but he’s still a big ? to me for this season and if you try to jump his ADP by a lot, you risk getting burned big time.

            You’re basically hoping (expecting?) Smoak is the next Edwin Encarnacion who turned into a stud after 7 seasons of teasing and mediocrity.

            • Avatar Dave Cherman says:

              With all due respect Steve, I don’t have to bake in regression unless I see a reason for regression. I think it’s foolish to simply assume that players will get worse year or year. I make no assumptions about a player- better or worse- until I look at all the underlying data. Also, pay attention to my word usage: “If he repeats his 2017 production, he can produce 3rd to 5th round value”. I make no definitive statements. It’s conjecture based on the fact that he DID provide 3rd to 5th round value last year.
              I also make almost no projections to 2018. The title of the article is 2017 Breakouts Revisited. So we’re literally just looking at the player’s breakout season. His entire change came in 2017, so I’m not sure the utility in looking too heavily into year’s prior to 2017- he was a different player then.
              I’m not hoping anything. What I’m doing is pointing out a player who made significant, measurable changes in 2017 that has perhaps changed his career trajectory. Guys have done it before- you mentioned E3, also David Ortiz, and JD Martinez. Not saying Smoak is any of those guys, but if you continue to doubt breakouts until they’re beyond proven, it’ll be difficult to end up with those players on your team. Sometimes you’ve gotta play aggressively.
              It’s true that he’s fairly risky and it’s possible you can get burned. But teams don’t win championships by always playing it safe.

        • Avatar Dave Cherman says:

          That definitely makes Bellinger and Rizzo more valuable than Smoak. At no point did I say they were equally valuable or that Smoak should be drafted ahead or Rizzo or Belli, I just said they were a lot closer than people realize. You can get your steals from anywhere, but you don’t need to get it from everywhere. Those steals don’t add 80 picks of value, as the commenter below stated. If you’re conscious with your other picks, Smoak is still a significant value.

    • Avatar Mark says:

      This is awesome. Did you even read the article?

  • Avatar Neal says:

    Fantrax is bearish:

    Smoak made huge gains in his contact rate and set career highs for home runs (38) and ISO (.259), and that catapulted him into the top 10 in fantasy value for first basemen. He currently ranks 11th at his position in ADP, so he is essentially being drafted based on last year’s performance, especially since he was leapfrogged by Rhys Hoskins, and owners are counting on a partial rebound for Miguel Cabrera. Given the depth at first base, it seems unnecessarily risky to assume that the 31-year-old Smoak will produce at a similar level to 2017. This is especially so when you consider that Smoak’s overall numbers were skewed by a red-hot stretch between April 29 and July 3 in which he struck out just 16.8 percent of the time and posted a .317 ISO. As nice as it would be to secure a first baseman who has a chance to hit 35-plus homers with a decent batting average, I don’t have to splurge for one in the first 12 rounds in a 12-team mixed league. Ryan Zimmerman (162,96 ADP) or Justin Bour (194.74), anyone?

    • Avatar Dave Cherman says:

      I’m not necessarily debating his relative spot amongst 1B, I am debating his overall ADP. On Fantrax he’s going roughly 137th. That’s criminal.

  • Avatar Steve says:

    So, what do we think of Mr. Smoak now? He held/improved his OBP skills, but seems like he regressed everywhere else. K rate jumped back up, power dipped, contact dipped a bit.

    Just looking at my 12-team 5×5 standard roto league, he finished as the 20th ranked 1B eligible player in my and 139th overall. Pretty spot on with his pre-season ADP of 137, which you cited above.

    I did draft him in my one auction league for $6, which I thought was a solid value. However, he was pretty underwhelming. His 2018 numbers don’t surprise me in the slightest – I think they represent what was a very likely outcome.

    Your thoughts?

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