Reliving the 2017 Season: Toronto Blue Jays Edition | The Process Report

Reliving the 2017 Season: 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 team. The order will mirror next June’s draft slotting 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 two to three of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts.

Past: DET SFG PHI CWS CIN NYM SDP ATL OAK PIT BAL

It wasn’t that long ago that the Blue Jays boasted one of the most fearsome lineups in recent memory. While the names remained mostly the same in 2017 the offensive output was no longer in such rarified air. It started out well enough with strong production, but Father Time remains undefeated. The raft of 30-something players led by Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista showed their mortality once the nagging injuries turned from subpar performance into full blown stints on the disabled list. To his credit, Bautista stayed on the field, but it was quite clear he was no longer the same feared slugger by midseason. The early explosion proved unsustainable leading to an offense that looked average, at best, throughout the rest of the season.

There was much less volatility on the pitching side as injury ravages were less of a concern outside of Aaron Sanchez never getting out of the blocks. They, too, got off to an impressive start leading to a massive gap early on between expected runs scored and allowed. The team should have been flying, but by June 1 they were treading water around .500 unable to parlay wonderful run scoring and aversion into the wins that actually matter. While the arms would flirt with average at times, they remained a strong unit throughout the year finishing on a particularly strong note. An observation of note is that the middle of the season saw dramatically higher awOBA* compared to their very fine xwOBA*. This rough period looks like a time when the team saw far worse results than they should have expected, and likely drove a spike into the heart of Toronto’s 2017 hopes and dreams.

After a few years of riding an overpowering lineup into the playoffs it was the pitching that carried the weight this year. League average walk and strikeout rates paired beautifully with excellent suppression on the balls that were put in play. There is a sizable gap between observed and expected results, however, indicating that subpar defense, sequence timing and/or plain old luck did not play to their favor. Using the regressed figures for balls in play we find that the Blue Jays were around 85 runs better than an average team or around 5% better than league average. As you’ll see below in the leaderboards Toronto showcased the best pitching so far reviewed.

Unfortunately, the bats could not keep the pace. With walks and strikeouts again mirroring league average the offensive shortfall can squarely fall on the shoulders of a lineup that just didn’t hit the ball well enough. The .355 xwOBA* was pretty well below league average and they still managed to underachieve even that pedestrian mark. Add it all up and I saw their bats around 59 runs worse than the rest of the league. Adding up both sides you find the Blue Jays as a better than average team by expected runs, but playing in the American League East means you have to do even better to call your season a success.

It wasn’t all bad on the offensive side. Justin Smoak finally showed why he was such a strong get all the way back in 2010 when he was traded for an in-his-prime Cliff Lee. The zone recognition was always there, but this year he showed phenomenal ability to hit the ball hard and/or at ideal angles. Josh Donaldson, and to a lesser extent, Russell Martin, were still exceptionally good when they had their legs. Kendrys Morales showed why he was a savvy signing to replace Edwin Encarnacion even if his actuals trailed well behind his expected production.

Having really good hitters is a good, nay, great thing. The problem is that you still have to be able to fill out a lineup card with nine spots. Toronto looked incredibly top-heavy this year as the heavy hitters carried all of the load with several players siphoning off most of the profit before getting to the destination. Utility players like Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney are perfectly acceptable glovemen whose flexibility can be a Godsend to a smart manager. Asking them to play everyday, however, exposes the fact that they aren’t good enough at the dish to warrant that role. Another great glove in Kevin Pillar had a lousy year at the plate, which is fine when everything else is humming, but a team can only carry so many black holes. Add in Jose Bautista plummeting back from the stratosphere at terminal velocity and you can see why the Jays offense was more mouse than lion.

After years of playing in tough parks for hitters it was nice to see Kendrys Morales go to a park where the ball flies a little better. The switch-hitter continued to show that he can have an outsized impact with the bat. Note the aforementioned gap between actual and expected, and that it was something of a season-long issue. Slower, pull-heavy batters have shown a tendency to underperform expectations throughout this analysis meaning you should perhaps pay more attention to his actuals than in the case of more well-rounded batters. Leaning in that direction makes me a bit less excited for Morales in this upcoming season, but he could still resemble a cheap buy in the later rounds if you expect his balls in play performance to regress to expectations.

Let’s get this out of the way early. Josh Donaldson is one of the best hitters in the game, but the margin between great and good is thinner than a calf muscle. You can see how sapped the player was from his maladies early in the year as a great start could not be sustained. After resting up he showed to be pretty much what you would expect as a great hitter capable of carrying a lineup by himself. Knowing of the injury makes the narrative easy, but being another year older next season does little to diminish the idea that you might not be getting all that you’re buying. I think next year will hold more of the same. I think he will be a great producer, but that playing through lower body issues will drag his line down, he’ll miss some time, and you’ll be left scrambling to replace a linchpin of your offense. I hope you have a better backup plan than Darwin Barney.

Finally, Justin Smoak made good on all that promise. This incredible season was certainly no fluke, though you can see a steady decline over the course of the year. Whether this was pitchers finding a better way to approach him or fatigue is difficult to parse, but even at his worst at the end of the season he was still looking like an average or better hitter. The incredible start probably isn’t coming back, but if he can be like the guy he was in the middle of the season once pitchers started to get more careful then he still poses as a fine 1B candidate in fantasy or real life. That’s about where I would price him, which is fine, but his seasonal line that includes the insane start is probably going to push him a little higher than I would hope.

So far we have seen teams with good bullpens and teams with good starters, but rarely a team that has both. The Blue Jays are that team. The top three starters are all borderline top of rotation guys, and the bullpen is stocked with high leverage arms that can get outs in crunch time. Relievers like Roberto Osuna, Dominic Leone, Danny Barnes, Ryan Tepera and Aaron Loup give the team five solid arms on a nightly basis, while they try to patch together the last couple of spots with mostly poor results. Swingman Joe Biagini gives them a bit of both, but he seemed to get exposed as a starter the more the league saw of him.

Having Sanchez stuck in the mud all season really took away from the rotation forcing lesser arms into more of the spotlight with predictably poor results, but every team has to have a plan for when injuries ravage. The Jays plan was to have a bunch of tired arms try to replace this lost production. When this failed at least they were smart enough to move on to the next one, but they were never really able to settle in on someone that could consistently produce. Thinks will look brighter next year with only Joe Smith moving on, but if Sanchez again battles the blister bug the team could be left scrambling.

Marcus Stroman is nobody’s idea of a prototypical ace. He isn’t large and imposing. He doesn’t have a wipeout slider. He struggles mightily when he can’t keep the ball down. All his life people have focused on the things he cannot do, but that misses all the wonderful things that are within his control. Typically, he shows strong command and is amongst the best in the game at disrupting the tempo of an at bat by varying his look, timing and angles. Batters beat the ball into the ground with regularity, and he’s even showing a nearly league average strikeout rate now. It is hard for the inner scout to get excited when you see him in street clothes, but that is why they wear uniforms on the field. Kid can pitch, and I’d expect a lot more of the same going forward.

People have been waiting for the other shoe to drop with Estrada for years after coming into the 2017 season on a half-decade streak of allowing a BABIP of sub-.270. You can see here what it looks like when he underperforms expectations rather than suppressing all those balls in play. The start was mostly fine with actual and expected hugging tightly, but the middle half of the season shows drastically higher observed results compared to the already worse than usual expected level. The gap persisted even when his expected performance delved back into very good territory before normalizing to close out the season. I think there is a wonderful buying opportunity here on a mid-rotation pitcher that experienced half a season of abnormally bad results on balls in play. He’ll still have rough patches, but I would expect him to get back to suppressing damage on balls in play making him a useful rotation piece in both fantasy and reality.

It was a bit of a roller coaster season for J. A. Happ who showed tantalizing ability at times with a couple of scary periods to start the year and then again in the middle. Outside of those two stretches, the first brief, and the second more sustained, you see a guy that has the ability to be an ace and certainly no worse than average. In a long season you can weather the stormy times if the sun shines the other days so I see Happ as another mid-rotation guy that can go through stretches where he is considerably more than that. This leaves him as someone I would be looking to acquire on the cheap hoping that his current owner wants someone with a little more pizzazz.

Leaderboards

Below you will find the top-20 hitters and pitchers that can give you some context for what these numbers mean. Further on you can find how each team’s aggregated line ranks, and then finally you can see both xwRAA totals summed and ranked.



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