July 25, 2017
The Justin Smoak Problem
A couple of weeks ago, we had the annual rite of summer in baseball, complaining about how the All-Star game rosters are selected. Sometimes, the rosters pick themselves. The guy who’s having the best season is also the guy who’s been the best at his position for the past few years and he’s also the most beloved player in the league.
And then there’s Justin Smoak. Smoak was elected in by the fans to start at first base for the American League, despite having a somewhat flawed case. There was no question, at the time the voting was going on (or now) that Smoak was (and is) having one of the best 2017 seasons for an American League first baseman. But is that enough to be an All-Star? Smoak has long been a poster boy for a player who came into the league with high expectations he never could quite fulfill. In 2016, he functioned below replacement level. Suddenly, two-and-a-half good months was enough to endow him with All-Stat status?
Baseball is unlike the NFL or NBA or NHL in that it begins its season and crowns its champion for that season in the same calendar year, and as baseball fans, we are trained to view the year through the four seasons. There’s spring training, the regular season (two words), the postseason (one word), and the offseason (a sometimes-hyphenated word which doesn’t get capitalized, because it’s so horribly depressing).
More than that, we’re trained to think of each year as its own individual vessel. We speak of “the year that George Brett almost hit .400” in 1980 (Brett finished with a .390 average), and lament that no one has gotten close since then, despite the fact that from 1993 to 1995 (that pesky 1994 strike messed everything up), Tony Gwynn had 162 consecutive games played in where he hit .402. But it doesn’t count, because it wasn’t all in the same year. The power of those arbitrary boundaries is strong.
Then again, it makes some sense. Smoak, while he didn’t have a great 2016, had five months between the time when his Blue Jays were eliminated from the playoffs and the start of actual baseball that counts in 2017. I don’t know what exactly he did during that time, but clearly something clicked. And when Smoak’s story is retrospectively told, he will be described as someone who came into the 2017 season as a “new man.” Maybe he just got into the best shape of his life.
Does the offseason make that much of a difference? Should a player be considered just by what he did within this calendar year or should we also consider his past body of work?