Ezequiel Carrera: Toronto Blue Jays ‘Analytics Darling’?

 

Jays From the Couch looks for an explanation for Toronto Blue Jays’ president saying Ezequiel Carrera is “darling of the analytics world”

 

http://gty.im/651073196

 

Toronto Blue Jays president, Mark Shapiro, recently made a comment about Ezequiel Carrera that has stuck with me. When discussing the left field situation – one that looks to be more interesting by the day with Carrera hurting his leg running into Darwin Barney, Melvin Upton Jr.nursing a sore shoulder and Dalton Pompey out with a concussion – Shapiro threw in a gem about Carrera being a “darling of the analytics world”.

 

That seems super odd and doesn’t necessarily fit the vision that many, including myself, have of the guy who is a bench/platoon player, but not one who would be considered an everyday option. So, to satisfy my nagging curiosity, I went looking. Now, I will state from the outset that the Toronto Blue Jays, and Mark Shapiro, have an analytics system that obviously works differently than my own. They have a way of evaluating talent that the rest of us do not. It is what allows them to make million dollar decisions, so it had better be an improvement on my methods. Despite the fact that it is the same analytics that have them in love with Justin Smoak – like, ‘$8M for the next 2 seasons and an option for 2019 at $6M’ in love – we have to accept that they obviously know more than we do.

 

That said, I took to finding out anyway. I went to Fangraphs, Baseball Savant and The Baseball Cube in search of some kind of explanation – or a hint of one – that would make this all make sense. I have to be missing something, right?

 

Let’s start with the basics. Zeke is a career .255/.314/.351 hitter. Obviously, that line is not going to qualify someone to be a “darling”. Heck, that’s not even enough to make him a consideration for being a leadoff hitter, which has been on the table, albeit to varying degrees. Last season, which includes his late surge that won over a good number of fans, his OBP was slightly higher, but just .323. In digging just a bit deeper, his career wRC+ mark is 83 and was 90 in 2015 and 85 in 2016. His wOBA values in 2015 (.305) and 2016 (.301) were above his career mark of .294. But, again, none of this is great. He strikes out at just over 20% of the time and walks under 7%.

 

Looking deeper at his bat, via Baseball Savant, there is not much else to get excited about.

 

He appears to have made weak contact last season, living below league average for most of 2016. When he had the highest EV, it came against left handed pitching, which is interesting since he hits from that same side. And, perhaps, you could say that his lack of power is evident in the combination of relatively low EV and few hits seeing a launch angle to drive the ball deep. His career ISO of .096 supports this. Take a look at where he hit the ball at Rogers Centre last year. If he were in a beer league, guys would be yelling “warning track power!” when he steps up. With the odd exception, even that might be a generous taunt.

 

Perhaps, what the club likes most, or at least what stands out, is the success Zeke has had against left handed pitching. In 2016, he hit .329 (compared to .218 against righties). He reached an OBP of .372 and a wRC+ of 123. That is a significant improvement over his overall offensive numbers. At first, it might be tempting to dismiss this, given that it is coming from a sample size of 38 games (78 PA). But, for his career, these numbers against lefties play out. He is a left handed batter who does better against lefties than he does against righties. Could that be it?

 

Perhaps, his base running ability is what they club loves. While Fangraphs gives his Spd a career mark of 6.6 (but 5 and 5.3 in 2015 and 2016 respectively), The Baseball Cube ranks his speed value, which is explained as “number of stolen bases per trips to first base”, at an 86. Now, obviously, there is more to speed than stolen bases, of which Carrera has only chipped in a handful of in each of the last few years. So, we can’t really say that this is what endears him to the club.

 

What about his defense? It has to be his defense, right? Well, uh…in 2016, he had mixed results, but mostly offered some value. We’ll get the ugly 34 innings in CF out of the way since he put up -3 DRS and a UZR/150 of -42.5. We can toss those out because he’s not a CF, especially in Toronto. In RF, filling in for Jose Bautista, he put up 8 DRS and a UZR/150 of 4.1. In LF, he showed 2 DRS and a 22.2 UZR/150. Those are positive values, for sure. In RF, they are about on par with his career marks. In LF, he performed better than his career norm.

 

So, maybe the club is happy about what he brings with the glove. But, a closer look at last season kind of takes a bit of the sheen off.

 

If you look at the outs he made, you kinda have to think that he should have made them. All of the outs, with their hang time, etc suggest that he made a good number of outs that you would expect him to make as a reasonable major league baseball player. As the harder balls to get to increased, the amount of outs decreased. In checking Fangraphs, the reality is that he didn’t have that many difficult plays to make in 2016. In LF, where he spent most of his time and where he looks to be playing most in 2017, he made 100% of the catches considered to have a “Routine” or “Likely” chance. He had 1 chance at an “Even” catch and was not successful. On “Unlikely” balls, he was 50% in 2 chances and on “Remote” he was 1 for 1. On “Impossible” plays, he was 0 for 5.

 

Basically, I started this exercise wondering what it is that the Blue Jays see in Ezequiel Carrera that would make him an ‘analytics darling’. It didn’t reveal a solid answer, or an answer that would support the statement. Last July, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs wrote about improvement that Zeke was showing. Obviously, it was only half a season in, so doesn’t take into account what happened after the article went up, but there were some gains made that could indicate what it was that the club sees. Remember the EV from earlier? Well, Sullivan found that Zeke had made among the biggest gains in baseball in average EV. He also found that Zeke was swinging at fewer balls out of the zone than he had in the past; he was hitting fastballs more aggressively and laying off offspeed stuff, which tend to be more out of the zone.

 

Sullivan’s point was that the Blue Jays did something to the player to get this kind of improvement. And, you can bet that analytics played a role in it. Perhaps, he is a “darling” because he is an example of how analytics can help improve a player. By suggesting he attack fastballs more (and offer him ways to do that in his mechanics) the club could have struck on something that resulted in some improvements. Maybe Zeke is an ‘analytics darling’ because he is a feather in the cap, of sorts, of the club’s analytics people. He’s an improvement story, albeit not a dramatic one.

 

Overall, fans are mixed on their affections for Carrera. What is clear is that Blue Jays’ president, Mark Shapiro isn’t. He quite likes him. And, the only thing I could find to explain that is the Sullivan piece that shows improvements. Those improvements haven’t been dramatic, but they do state a case for the importance of analytics. Based on everything here, that has to be what is behind the comments. Now, if only someone could explain the love for Justin Smoak…

 

[UPDATE]

I spoke to Blue Jays president, Mark Shapiro, and he offered the following explanation:

“In the past, our analytics group felt he would provide average major league performance vs. RHP for what was good value due to his arb price.  Different people place different values on the cost of a win but if the range is from $7 M – $11 M per win in a free agent market, you can see why our analytics department continued to advocate for Zeke in the past – even before others realized his value.” 

That comment provides insight into the thought process. Fangraphs listed Zeke’s value at $5.8M last season. So, using that value range provided by Shapiro, we get a sense of what it is the club sees. If he can produce similarly in 2017, his $1.2M salary will have been a smart decision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0

 

 

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Shaun Doyle is a long time Blue Jays fan and writer! He decided to put those things together and create Jays From the Couch. Shaun is the host of Jays From the Couch Radio, which is highly ranked in iTunes, and he has appeared on TV and radio spots.

Shaun Doyle

Shaun Doyle is a long time Blue Jays fan and writer! He decided to put those things together and create Jays From the Couch. Shaun is the host of Jays From the Couch Radio, which is highly ranked in iTunes, and he has appeared on TV and radio spots.