Jays From the Couch examines the idea of Kendrys Morales (and Steve Pearce) providing an uptick in consistency for the Toronto Blue Jays
The signing of Kendrys Morales by the Toronto Blue Jays has been a relatively controversial one, whether it has been Jays fans yearning for their “ex-boyfriend” Edwin Encarnacion, or respected analysts like Dave Cameron at Fangraphs questioning the contract the Jays offered. My initial analysis of the signing was modestly positive, and many of those potential positives have been well covered this off season. Morales has been an above average hitter when healthy, he’s played in pitchers’ parks, and his batted ball profile shows the potential for some positive luck/mean reversion.
He’s also a switch hitter and brings that flexibility to a Jays lineup which badly needed some left handed balance against good RHP. I performed some basic park effect analysis for Josh Donaldson and Michael Saunders with their moves from pitchers’ home parks to Toronto and the AL East, and a similar framework suggests that Morales could be looking at 35-40 HR’s and a .500+ SLG for the upcoming season. However, I’ve been thinking about something else with regards to Morales and finally put in the time to take a look.
I’ve been working on a more ambitious piece and analysis about the 2017 projections like ZiPS and Steamer for the Blue Jays, and am particularly interested in WAR as a metric for assessing a pitcher’s value. I’ll flush out this concept in later pieces, but in many ways the current state of the baseball sabermetric community makes me reflect on an infamous quote attributed to Charles H. Duell in 1899. Mr. Duell was the Commissioner for the US Patent Office at the time and is attributed to have said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
I’ve read various pieces this off season about how MLB front offices are all basically dealing with the same data and finding it difficult to obtain a sustained competitive advantage. I am skeptical that analytical innovation has reached the point of stagnation, and there are several areas that are commonly discussed that may lead to further innovation. Many people are excited about Statcast data and how it may improve the analytics surrounding pitching and defense. Pitch framing by catchers has only just become a “thing” over the past several years. I think another area that is interesting relative to the Jays’ signing of Morales is roster and lineup construction.
Early last year I wrote a column looking at the Jays 2016 lineup relative to a new analysis (at that time) by Bill James looking at whether a lineup can have too much power/sluggers at the expense of contact hitters. Briefly, his conclusion was that there is a point of diminishing returns due to sequencing and that contact hitters can improve the overall performance of a lineup even if the individual parts filled with sluggers would suggest more “value.” When it comes to Encarnacion and Morales, there really isn’t much in the way one could argue Morales has been “better” as a hitter since Encarnacion’s emergence in 2012. Even against RHP, Encarnacion has outperformed Morales. The one area I intuitively thought Morales could offer performance relative to Encarnacion was in the area of consistency.
When it comes to lineup construction and sequencing, it makes sense that performance that is consistent would be more valuable than performance that is extremely streaky. My, oh my, is Encarnacion a sight to behold when he is in one of his grooves! However, as someone who has watched at least 100 Jays games (and listened to most of the rest on radio) over the past 5 years, Encarnacion has also been vulnerable to the opposite of “groove.” I will be the first to admit that my Kendrys Morales observance time over the years has been effectively zero, so I had no sense of his relative consistency. However, my intuition after looking at his batted ball profile and being a switch hitter was that he would be a reasonably consistent hitter.
I did a very simple statistical analysis of Morales’s and Encarnacion’s OBP and wRC+ since 2011 and looked at the monthly standard deviation for both. Morales has been reasonably more consistent than Encarnacion by this measure when looking at OBP – .150 vs .162, and just modestly so when looking at wRC+ – 40.42 vs 42.50. Of course, these only are measures of value as hitters, while Encarnacion clearly edges Morales in defense and base running – though he is simply blah to bad rather than really bad.
Given how the off season unfolded and the market for slugger-first free agents tanked, I think there is a far more interesting way to look at the Morales signing. It has become fairly widespread opinion that the Jays blew it not only by being impatient relative to Encarnacion, but also that they could have settled for other options like Brandon Moss or Pedro Alvarez and extract value similar to Morales only on a 1 year deal for less money. If one were to look at WAR projections, that sort of rationale may seem reasonable, though I’ve disagreed all along due to my bullishness on Morales due to his move to Rogers Center and the AL East.
However, when I apply this lens of consistency, the choice becomes more stark. Moss’ OPS and wRC+ monthly standard deviation since 2011 have been .184 and 48.54, while Alvarez’s have been .190 and 39.83 (Alvarez has put up pretty decent base running value). In addition, both of those players have had strikeout rates that are well above Morales. Mark Trumbo, who signed an even larger contract than Morales late in the off season, put up .162 and 44.74, which is at least closer to Morales, but then his strikeout rate has been consistently higher both relative to Morales and in absolute terms.
In summary, I believe it is reasonable to consider and argue that the Blue Jays acted in haste to sign Morales to a contract that was probably higher than they could have signed him for later in the off season, and/or that they could have re-signed Encarnacion had they exercised more patience. But given how events unfolded, I believe the Jays front office may be looking at more advanced analysis in lineup construction, which they have “cloaked” with terms like “flexibility.” I don’t pretend to be an advanced quant, but my admittedly basic analysis of Morales suggests that he has been a consistent offensive producer with a reasonable strikeout rate – particularly compared to the other free agent alternatives.
I also took a look at Steve Pearce, and he has produced OPS and wRC+ monthly standard deviations of .164 and 46.14 since 2011 in months in which he has played at least 10 games. When combined with his career strikeout rate of 19.9%, he fits in with the idea of building a lineup of more consistent hitters with decent contact rates. My guess is that the Jays’ overall run production will benefit from this consistency and made/make them superior alternatives to the non-Encarnacion free agent options. In fact, I am fairly confident that if Pearce can stay healthy enough to play over 100 games, and that is a big “if,” I’d take the over on combined WAR between Pearce+Morales vs Encarnacion, which works out to $16 million vs $20 million in payroll.
*Featured Image Credit: C Stem- JFtC
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