The Brewers Move on From Justin Smoak, But His Replacement Brings No Guarantee of Improvement
Justin Smoak’s leash in Milwaukee ran out on Thursday afternoon. Smoak, like most of the lineup, has been extremely poor at the plate, slashing a putrid .186/.262/.381. His apparent replacement is Daniel Vogelbach, who was claimed off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays.
It will be the third team this season for Vogelbach, who is on the move for the second time in less than two weeks. The Mariners cut him loose after he went just 5-for-53, and the Blue Jays DFA’d him after only two games. He appeared to be authoring a breakout campaign in Seattle last year, mashing 20 home runs with a 140 wRC+ through the end of June. Unfortunately, he would slash just .162/.290/.338 for the remainder of the year. After glancing at his career numbers, his solid first half of 2019 looks like nothing more than an extended hot streak.
There is more evidence that replacing Smoak with Vogelbach is a downgrade than an upgrade. As bad as he was in Milwaukee, Smoak has four years of above-average offense to his credit, including a solid run from 2017 through 2019 that saw him leave the yard 85 times and post a 120 wRC+. Vogelbach’s record of success is limited to the first half of last year, and he has exceeded 102 plate appearances in a season just once.
Both sluggers have a similar profile — they do not hit for high batting averages, strike out a good amount, draw plenty of walks, and have major power when they do connect. Vogelbach debuted in 2016 and owns a career 15.7% walk rate and a 26.5% strikeout rate. In that same span, Smoak has drawn a free pass in 13% of his trips to the plate and gone down on strikes in 24.7% of them. Smoak has a clear edge in quality of contact stats. Since the start of 2015, Smoak has posted an xwOBA of .358 and an average exit velocity of 90.1 miles-per-hour. Vogelbach has a .339 xwOBA and 88.9 mile-per-hour exit velocity.
As poorly as Smoak has performed this season, Vogelbach has found a way to be even worse. He is slashing .088/.246/.211. A .075 BABIP is undoubtedly a major factor here, but his .265 xwOBA is still horrid.
Vogelbach does have two traits working in his favor: his youth and his contract situation. He is still under 30 years old (Smoak is 33) and is controllable through the 2024 season (Smoak was on a one-year deal). If he does find success in Milwaukee, he will remain under club control for an affordable price.
Moving on from Smoak is justifiable. He has not performed, and in a shortened season, leashes are shorter than they typically are. The problem is that his replacement has not performed either, and has a significantly inferior track record. If the Brewers are hoping for Vogelbach to provide answers at first base, they may come away disappointed. The revolving door at first base continues in Milwaukee, and it is unlikely to stop here.