Blue Jays Lineup Versus Yoda (Bill James)
Bill James is the grandfather of sabermetrics – a true visionary and pioneer in the modernization of the analytics of the game we love. Ironically, one of his recent commentaries went “Old School.”
When I first read Mr. James’ latest, my emotionally-charged reflexive response was that he was attacking the team I love, the Ben Revere trade I supported, and my recent column in support of Michael Saunders being the better selection as the Jays 2016 LF. I will admit to having a Pavlovian response of disgust and hatred to any element related to the Red Sox or Yankees being critical of the Blue Jays, and I do tend to get more rational and calm down a bit with time. Of course, Mr. James has been a valued adviser to the Red Sox for a number of years now, which is tragically like if Yoda went to work for the dark side of the force.
I strongly encourage you to read James’ column in its entirety, but the basic gist is that there are diminishing returns in a lineup which focuses on too many power hitters at the expense of contact hitters. In contrast, his fascinating premise is that a lineup of contact hitters creates a sort of compounding (my characterization) which leads to better overall team run production. James argues that an overly power-centric lineup suffers from a lack of base runners to be driven in by the powerful batters in the lineup. As is typical, he does a great job of looking at data over the decades to support his thesis, which is that today’s obsession with power may be suppressing scoring.
I immediately tried to look at the Blue Jays through this different perspective, and it initially made me a bit worried. The Blue Jays are stacked with power hitters and further doubled and then tripled down on that trend by replacing Reyes with Tulowitzki and effectively Saunders for Revere. Have you ever been to Vegas and been dealt Aces playing blackjack? You split those bad boys only to get hit with two more Aces and split them again! It is as if the power obsessed league is convinced that all of these splits increase one’s odds, when James is contending that doing so is doing just the opposite. The only two starting position players in the Jays’ lineup who are likely not labeled as power-focused batters are Ryan Goins (and hopefully Devon Travis) and Kevin Pillar.
However, the Jays’ lineup was very power-heavy during the 2015 season, so was their explosive scoring rate an anomaly due to a small sample size? The one aspect of James’ column which jumped out at me from the start was his focus on Batting Average instead of On Base Percentage. I don’t believe he addressed this preference, and it doesn’t make any sense to me given his premise. I believe the 2015 Blue Jays highlight the importance of this distinction, as they fielded a lineup full of power hitters who are also skilled at getting on base at an above average rate. In fact, out of the 7 power oriented lineup spots, only Tulowtizki posted a below AL average OBP of .318 (Tulo was .317 in Toronto). Part of what makes Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion such tremendous hitters is their ability to generate so much power while also having very disciplined approaches at the plate. Combined, the two sluggers walked 187 times in 2015 compared to 204 strikeouts!
I took a look at the top of the SLG leaders for 2015 to see how other top duos rated on this metric. First off, I need to clarify that the top SLG performer for the Blue Jays in 2015 was Josh Donaldson, and he is no slouch in this regard either, with 77 BB and 133 K in 2015. The Jays were blessed with 3 of the top 13 sluggers for the 2015 season, with EE and Bautista ranking 8th and 13th, respectively (Donaldson was 5th). When I looked at the next best duo on the leader board, the Rockies’ duo of Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez came in 3rd and 12th in SLG for 2015. They walked a combined 80 times and struck out a combined 243 times in 2015. The next best duo on the list is Paul Goldschmidt and David Peralta of the Diamondbacks, who combined for 162 BB and 258 K. Let’s live in fantasy land for a second and pretend a team had both Bryce Harper and Mike Trout patrolling the same outfield – they produced a combined 216 BB and 289 K.
Quick side note – my 2015 fantasy team’s first three draft picks were Trout, Harper and Donaldson, and I still finished 2nd….no I won’t be writing any fantasy strategy columns, and if by chance I do write one at some point, I warn you in advance to ignore me.
Upon further analysis, I think Bill James’ premise is likely correct in general when dealing with typical lineups and players. However, the 2015 Blue Jays, and hopefully the 2016 vintage, were not a typical lineup. In fact, it was only the “Smoakabello” combination at 1B which made a big tradeoff for plate discipline for power, with a combined 51 BB and 182 K. I think the Jays will be just fine in 2016 and once again defy Yoda. They have a group of slugging studs who happen to also be skilled at making contact and taking walks. As for 2017 and beyond? If EE and/or Bautista are not extended/resigned, then the Jays should probably realize that Yoda is generally correct and look to balance the lineup with at least one more contact-focused batter.