Jays From the Couch looks at the dilemma that faces the Toronto Blue Jays as they choose their leadoff hitter for 2017
The Toronto Blue Jays will have a decision to make in the coming weeks. Who will take that top spot in the lineup? It has long been assumed that 2017 would see the return of Devon Travis at the top of the lineup and all would be good. Well, that does not seem to be in the immediate future as he’ll likely not be ready for Opening Day, though he may not be very far along after that since he is going to start seeing some game action, likely DHing to start. But, if there is one thing we’ve seen with Travis and his recovery from injuries, it is to expect the unexpected. Just because he appears to be getting close now, does not mean we should expect a speedy return.
With that in mind, the Blue Jays have some options to consider in the leadoff spot, none of which exactly jump out as being overly exciting. So, let’s take a look and figure out which is more palatable.
If manager, John Gibbons (or other members of management), put a lot of stock in Spring Training performances, Kevin Pillar just might be worth considering. And, before we dismiss the idea out of hand by saying that it is Spring Training and it is meaningless, we need to remember that this club has shown a history of going with “the hot hand”, basing decisions on who is playing well at the time the decision needs to be made.
So, Pillar very well could be tipping scales in his favor. He is hitting .500 with an OPS of 1.315. While we won’t pretend that is a number that is sustainable, right now, Pillar seems to be the definition of the “hot hand”. Let’s not forget that he also fits the definition of a leadoff hitter in that he brings speed and baserunning (and plays pretty good defense). The issue is the whole ‘hitting’ part of being a leadoff hitter. He will need to show that he can avoid swinging out of the zone, etc. It is worth noting that he has decreased his O-Swing% in each of the last 3 seasons. You can take that for what you will.
Pillar leading off is likely not something that Blue Jays fans want to endure, since the memories of that experiment remain. For his career (92 plate appearances) he has hit .198. But, maybe, just maybe, we can put some stock in his early success and he could stay hot enough to plug that leadoff hole until Travis is ready. But, don’t expect this to be the first option, or the preferred one.
On Sunday, the Blue Jays faced the Rays and Ezequiel Carrera was at the top of the order. Like Pillar, he has been getting his share of looks there. We saw last season just how much Gibby trusts the “hot hand” when he had Carrera as the recipient of lots of playing time. And, it worked. It worked to the point that many, including Gibby, felt that Carrera had some untapped potential that he was starting to realize.
It is this faith that could have the club leaning his way as the leadoff hitter. He can run, he can make contact. The last 2 seasons saw him play above his career average (.314) in OBP (.321 & .323 respectively). It is the percieved success of Carrera that could make him the likely choice to leadoff in the absence of Travis.
Of course, playing into this decision is Carrera’s apparent role as part of a platoon with Melvin Upton Jr. It won’t be as simple as a one for one kind of deal, since there is no way the club would consider Upton Jr and his unsightly strikeout totals, relatively low OBP, etc for a leadoff job. If Carrera is in the lineup, he’d lead off. If Upton is in the lineup, you’d see Pillar.
In 329 plate appearances out of the leadoff spot, Carrera’s career has yielded a .242 average. It is better than Pillar, but that is not saying much. As for him being the “hot hand” this spring…he’s hitting .235 with an OPS of .610. There is little to suggest that Carrera is a great choice to leadoff, we shouldn’t discount the credit he’s built up with the manager (and his lefty status), which would likely allow him serious consideration for the job.
Perhaps the best option for the Blue Jays leadoff hitter is the one guy they will take the longest to pencil in that spot. While the above 2 options will likely get more consideration, Bautista might be the best place holder for Devon Travis. As stated, the other two options will be given long looks, especially when you weight the option of removing Bautista’s bat from the middle of the lineup.
That said, his career OBP of .368 make him a well suited candidate. As stated on the latest episode of the Jays From the Couch Radio Podcast, he is who Major League Baseball should hire to replace umpires who can’t properly judge the strike zone. Jose Bautista is the robot strike zone the league is looking for. It is his ability to get on base and work at bats that make him the Blue Jays’ best candidate.
The issue may be that, when this was tried before, it didn’t quite work out the way we might have thought it would. While we would have expected that his on base skills would have helped, in his 86 career plate appearances, he hit .257, but had an OBP much higher than the other two at .352 and a wRC+ of 114.
The fact remains that Bautista is a better hitter than the other two options. Your leadoff hitter gets more at bats per game than a guy who hits 8th. So, if the Blue Jays want to get a better hitter more at bats, Bautista should be their choice. That said, he will likely end up to be near the bottom on the club’s list for this vacancy.
All things considered, there really isn’t an obvious choice to leadoof for the Toronto Blue Jays. Heck, one could argue that even Devon Travis isn’t an obvious leadoff hitter. But, he may not be available to start the season. If that is the case, then the Blue Jays will have to choose between what they could do (Kevin Pillar), what they would do (Ezequiel Carrera) or what they should do (Jose Bautista). None of these options are ideal. And, really the leadoff spot may not have that much of an impact over the course of a couple of weeks to start the year. That said, it is a dilemma they will need to address in order to take every little advantage they can to compete in this division.
*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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