Recapping 2018: Toronto Blue Jays Edition | The Process Report

Recapping 2018: Toronto Blue Jays Edition

With the end of the regular season comes a time for reflection for the majority of baseball fans. What went right? What went wrong? You probably have a few ideas where your teams fell short or exceeded expectations, but what about a completely emotionless point of view? Throughout this season I have shown what batter and pitcher production looks like when we regress balls in play to look more like what the players should have seen using exit velocity and launch angle. The offseason will be no different as I take a team by team look at how the season fared for the team, while going a little deeper on a handful of players from each. The order will mirror the final team rankings running in reverse order so you can expect to find some depression leading to elation here. It’s going to take some time, but I would like to get one to two of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts. Here’s a link to the report for this club from last offseason.

Past:

30 – 21: BAL CWS MIA TEX KCR SFG SDP DET MIN CIN

20 – 11: ARI LAA PIT CHC SEA ATL NYM TBR COL PHI

10 – 1: MIL TOR

Plodding around the middle has been the territory most well-trod by the Toronto Blue Jays over the past nearly two decades. Only once, in 2004, did they fail to win at least 70 games, but on the other end, they’ve also only won more than 90 one time. Avoiding prolonged troughs is a good and commendable thing, but the accumulation of players that can come about from letting the wound breathe can also lead to more successful seasons than they have seen. Of course, the division is partly to blame here, but control what you can control and don’t cry about the rest. The past six years show a nice pick up into those sensational 2015-16 seasons, but it would be short-lived with the last two giving this run the shape of a bell curve. The team has ramped up spending over this period from previous three-year heights of around $100M in 2018 dollars climbing all the way up to the $160M levels. We’ve seen many teams on this journey that ramped up payroll during runs of success that led to high payrolls long after the talent dried up. While Toronto fills that bill, they’re also hoping to have yet another short rebuild without the bottom out, and has a good deal of young talent to make a quick turnaround seem plausible.

If you’re surprised to see the Blue Jays grading out this well then welcome to the club. The division helps to hide positives, but this goes pretty well beyond that so let’s pick this piece apart to show what the system might be missing. We have seen that reads on pitchers can get a bit skewed when playing routinely in front of extreme defenders, and also that batters have some demonstrability to over or underperform expectations even over large samples if they are unathletic or easier to defend thanks to pull tendencies. Focusing on the batters here you can see a ton of underperformance to start the year despite strong expectations, and that was more or less the same throughout the year with almost no counter periods of over-performance. That isn’t to say that actual performance was bad, it was often above average, though with plenty of periods where it was pretty bad, whereas the expectations rarely delved down below the surface. The bad start to the year may have done enough damage to alter the team’s addition and subtraction philosophy over the rest of the season, and after those moves it’s likely the team was, indeed, less talented. It’s also quite likely that they’re going to fly under the radar a bit going into next year despite having a few intriguing options without even getting to the phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

You can plainly see how much the team underperformed their collective expectations. Despite those being pegged around 6% better than average on balls in play, the team came in basically at the level of their peers. Nobody exemplified this shortfall better than Kendrys Morales who once again saw a slow start to the season turn into strong performance later. The persistent gap all year show a guy that lacks athleticism with wouldbe doubles turning into singles and singles turning into outs. There is reason to believe his lower actual is a truer read, though still at strong enough levels to justify the inability to field. A late season flip of his walk and strikeout rates show a guy that got some more respect once the results started showing up on the scoreboard, but it also came with his exit velocity tailing off from elite rates early to merely extremely good. His spray shows plenty of nitro zone pokes and above where the defender can make a difference, but also a ton of his hard contact coming on downer angles that he is never going to beat out or turn into extra bases. He profiles as a middle of the order bat next year, yet again, but gumming up both the basepaths and lineup construction make him a better fit on a non-contender.

Kendrys Morales

The other switch-hitting masher on the team showed an equally wide split as Morales, but with his weaker side (versus lefties) seeing subpar production that would lead many teams to find a platoon partner. The production came in fits and starts, but tended to be above average throughout the season. His lesser stretches were right around that average, but he was also capable of carrying a lineup at times. Unlike Morales, it looks like his ball in play contact was nearly fully justified by his ball in play production. You can also throw in a good walk rate that approached absurdity over an early stretch before getting back to average or better. The strikeout rate showed a concerning pick up later in the year, but was usually acceptably worse than average. You can also see the later tailoff in his exit velocity that helped contribute to his bummer finish to the season.

Justin Smoak

Moving on to a trio of outfielders with complementary skillsets show a lack of star power, but generally competent, above average production at the plate. Teoscar Hernandez came out like a house on fire, though failed to get anywhere near the good expectations. A spiraling out of control strikeout rate came with the smaller benefit of a better walk rate, while hard contact that he can carry to good angles tantalize enough to deal with all those other warts without even getting to the glove. He’ll be back next year, but Curtis Granderson has re-joined free agency where he hopes to get a new deal. The initial ridiculous walk rate came with unpalatable strikeouts, though both improved to the point of approximating the average by the end of the year. His harder hit balls generally got off the ground, but were more on a line than in the air with a few no doubters tossed in.

Teoscar Hernandez

Curtis Granderson

The longer term piece of this group has to be Randal Grichuk whom the team acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in the year prior. A bit of a tweener, he can backup a better defender in center field, while showing the power of a corner outfielder, at times. Average or worse walk rates led to lower on-base percentage, and doesn’t come with the tradeoff of a lower strikeout rate as he’s typically average or worse there. A gradual climb later in the year went to uncomfortable heights dampening production from good to average. Grichuk gets the ball off the ground, and at the type of exit velocity where you can expect good production, but enough pop ups to hold him back from really taking off.

Randal Grichuk

Another former Cardinal brought in over last offseason moved on yet again after the season, and a good part of that was likely owed to the team wanting to give more run to Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Diaz was average or better by expectations, but with a tendency to underperform. He rarely walked, but also kept his strikeouts down. With all those balls in play you can see a lot of hard, down contact, but also a good number of balls in the southwestern corner of the nitro zone. In a shorter sample you can see Gurriel is a fairly similar hitter on balls in play. Plenty of hard contact on a line and into more productive territory, while striking out a bit more than Diaz with similar walks. He will likely get all the opportunity in the world next year to show he can be an everyday starter on a big league club, and shows enough power potential from an up-the-middle position to give a bit of intrigue as an MI in fantasy if he can continue to progress.

Aledmys Diaz

Lourdes Gurriel

Continuing the theme of up-the-middle guys that don’t walk we get to Kevin Pillar. A down ballot gold glove center fielder annually, he’s known more for the mitt. He was essentially an average hitter last year in a bulky sample, but it came with a bunch of volatility. The tails were very strong, while the middle lagged, and he was a bit prone to underperformance whether the expectations liked him (later) or not (early-middle). Declining exit velocities during the prolonged slump, perhaps, point to playing through an issue. An aggressive hitter he rarely walks, and strikes out around the average or a bit better. It’s difficult to not compare him to another Kevin, Kiermaier in this instance, who is a similarly gifted defender, but routinely misses time due to injury. It begs the question of whether it is better to play hurt or not at all. Pillar being able to keep the glove on the field helps his club one way if he can’t do much the other, where Kiermaier’s injuries are severe enough to keep him off the field altogether.

Kevin Pillar

One player who was unlikely to be with the club in 2019 is the catcher Russell Martin. The development of Danny Jansen made the veteran receiver a bit superfluous, and the fact that he was owed $20 million led to a foregone conclusion that the team would move him for very little other than salary relief. I wrote about this around the All Star Break as the team’s contention status had dimmed considerably. He was an average hitter for much of the season, which was driven by an excellent walk rate. With a move to the National League next year it stands to reason he can sustain the absurd rates, if not even build upon them further as he looks like an excellent number eight hitter. He’ll strikeout around the average, but still generates plenty of exit velocity without seeing much slippage despite the demands of the position. The tendency to put the ball on the ground harms his productive capabilities, especially the cluster at lower velocities, but there’s also a good deal of liners and pokes. Playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers next year will likely lead to a resurgence as they seem to get so much out of all of their players.

Russell Martin

His backup, Luke Maile, will likely retain the position next year due to a good glove, but don’t expect much with the bat. Every year seems like a sink or swim year for Devon Travis, yet he remains on the club, which didn’t take advantage of a very deep second base market implying he will likely get another chance next year. Yangervis Solarte was released over the offseason, and that looks like a good call.

The pitchers showed much tighter agreement between true and actual performance with a good deal of that coming around the average or better, but when stuff went off the rails there were plenty of blowups. Like with the hitters, we see a fairly poor start to the season, though the middle was quite good. It hardly ceased to matter by then in a division with two 100-win teams so they started to spin off some pieces, while giving run to some of the youngsters that can comprise the next wave. You can see the haggard performance, but in a lost year they were able to trial enough guys to get an idea of who might contribute in what roles going forward. Let’s dig in to see who might be able to help going forward by looking at how they pitched last year.

Toronto bought low on Seunghwan Oh, and were rewarded plentifully with good performance to go with a trade return at the deadline. During his time with the Jays he was consistently better than average built on the back of strong strikeout rates, while being around the average when walking batters. An extreme flyballer it is likely the park adjustments help him a good bit as Rogers Centre plays a bit friendly to the bats. While he won’t be back next year, Oh exemplifies the kind of moves the Blue Jays should be making during this transition phase.

Seunghwan Oh

The best starter on the club was clearly J.A. Happ who was also flipped midseason after a strong run that went well beyond even this past season. Happ was long an ok pitcher, but Toronto figured out a way to really amp up his strikeouts, which you can see exceeded the excellent 30% rate at times, and nearly always sat above the average. Better than average walk rates are good confirmation from a guy that ceaselessly pounds the zone with his good mix. Occasionally prone to the homer, he did well to mitigate the damage by allowing few base runners, otherwise. The dip in performance to close his tenure north of the border did not seem to limit the return, and was probably barely perceptible coming off his very best sustained run on the year.

J.A. Happ

A trio of veteran relievers with glaring warts were able to positively contribute in Tyler Clippard, John Axford and Ryan Tepera. Clippard is even more flyball-prone that the aforementioned Oh, and he went through a prolonged stretch where his actual performance came in around the average despite much better expectations. This can indicate when the ball was really flying out of the yard, and a good bit undeserved, but when you play with fire you’ll eventually get burnt. The improvement to his walk rate was encouraging. He was remarkably consistent with his punchouts. Many of those balls in the air came as popups, but plenty more were no doubters with a cluster of weaker flyballs to the left of the nitro zone that can come down to how good your defender is or the lateral trajectory. Axford’s issue has always been the walk. The erratic flamethrower showed a good bit of performance before being more of an average pitcher. Harnessing the walks a bit came with the price of fewer strikeouts as he was more average than previous heights. Tepera had a wonderful start to the season with actual results being more around the average, and when the perspectives met again it was at the higher level. It would seem that contact was his issue with a lot of balls in play on good trajectories for base hits, if not extras.

Tyler Clippard

John Axford

Ryan Tepera

Ryan Borucki and Thomas Pannone were a couple of youngsters that hinted at an ability to compete at the highest level. The results in shorter samples showed them as average pitchers that relied upon weaker contact to make up for below average strikeout rates. Borucki showed a bit of a tendency to overperform his contact, which may or may not be sustainable. More encouraging was his average or better expectations around that spike in the middle. That could be a stretch where he was tipping pitches, more predictable, faced better opponents or pitching hurt. To see him make the adjustment to really take off should help him fly under the radar, and considering the nice, gradual ramp up in workload he could be a nice mid-rotation starter as soon as this year and into the future. You cannot say that last bit about Pannone, but after proving himself out of the bullpen he closed the season with a handful of starts that went fairly well. He’ll put the ball in the air more, and walk a few more, to boot, than Borucki, but should have the floor of a swingman if not a back of rotation starter.

Ryan Borucki

Thomas Pannone

Getting to a more established presence we come to Marcus Stroman. An ugly start to the year was in the rearview once he got some time off to rest and rehab his ailing shoulder. The missed time contributed heavily to the team’s standings slippage so by the time he came back in late June he wasn’t pitching for a whole lot other than pride. He showed well from there on as a better than average pitcher throughout. The strikeouts still aren’t showing up, but he does well to avoid the walk, and limited hard contact extremely well once he got back and his feet under him. Worms cannot live in astroturf, they just cannot, but if they could they would have a bounty out for Stroman due to him causing mass genocide of their little wormy friends. It’s a fact. He’ll always be as good as the infield defense behind him, but the pendulum has probably swung too far on him as he feels like somewhat of an afterthought at this point. With the heart of a lion, and constantly changing his look by varying his motion to the plate, it is easy to see him having a more obvious bounceback year in 2019, while helping to mold a young staff, and catcher in Danny Jansen.

Marcus Stroman

Sam Gaviglio has bounced around a bit over the last two seasons, but showed that he should be able to fill out the back of a rotation. Outside of that horrendous stretch in the middle he was mostly around both sides of average. Another guy that doesn’t strike many out, his contact-heavy approach leads to a lot of ground balls, but the occasional mistake does get hammered just like anybody else. He isn’t flashy, and is probably more of a swingman type on a contender, but it would be surprising to not see him get some further run next year. In what proved to be his final season, Jaime Garcia walked far too many to get away with his low strikeout rate. The contact wasn’t a whole lot better with some real shots in there, but when things are going well he’s yet another guy that can dial up a groundball on command. While he hasn’t announced retirement (yet?), Marco Estrada is another guy that weathered a poor season with few bright spots. The pop ups are a wonderful and plentiful outcome, but when batters are able to square it up just a little bit better he gets hit extremely hard. He adjusted over the course of the season by getting more nibbley, but that mostly just inflated his walk rate. Joe Biagini was a disaster as a starter, but once he got back into a bullpen role things seemed to mellow out. Weaker contact and more strikeouts were on display, but these still only led to average performance, and out of the pen that just isn’t going to cut it.

Sam Gaviglio

Jaime Garcia

Marco Estrada

 

Joe Biagini

Lastly, we get to Aaron Sanchez who has built upon a standout 2016 season by digging a hole to China. All that shovel work caused enough blister issues in 2017 to make him a non-factor with only thirty-something innings pitched. This past saw him able to provide a larger workload, but the performance wasn’t any better. He was yet another groundball getter that struggled with the punchout, but unlike most of the others he was held back by an obscene walk rate, which did come down over the season, but at its best was only around the average. Early overperformance coalesced around the average, and inline with those previous, better, actual results before his close to the season left something to be desired. You wouldn’t be crazy to think fatigue played a role there after the abbreviated 2017. Contact did grow weaker over the course of the season, and if he can begin next year at those better rates for both that and the walk rate then he could still realize the considerable upside that made him a highly thought of prospect. The persistence of the hand injuries makes projecting his performance highly volatile, but if he’s looking good early then his stock will surely float higher.

Aaron Sanchez

Below you will find the rest of the prominent players from this past season and how they broke out in four different ways. I will save the commentary here as the charts speak for themselves once you’ve got an idea of what you’re looking at, and by cutting down on the verbiage it allows for looks at more players. Each chart looks at a rolling 100-plate appearance (or ball in play) average with the top left showing each player’s true and actual wOBA* over the course of the season. Top right shows the rolling strikeout and walk plus hit by pitch rates, and the bottom left shows the exit velocity and launch angle combinations for every ball in play. Lastly, the bottom right quadrant shows each player’s exit velocity and launch angle over the course of the season. Feel free to start a conversation on twitter if you have any questions or want to talk about any of these players. More than happy to have those chats.

Danny Barnes

 

Jake Petricka

 

Devon Travis

Yangervis Solarte

Luke Maile

 



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