2017 Toronto Blue Jays Rotation Could Make Them AL East Favorites

 

Jays From the Couch digs into pitching values & argues that the Toronto Blue Jays’ rotation could make the club 2017 AL East favorites.

 

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The idea for this column began in mid-January when I went to Fangraph’s 2017 teams projection page following the announcement that Jose Bautista would be re-signing with the Toronto Blue Jays. Prior to the Bautista signing, the projections had the Jays at barely above a .500 team, with the updated projected record being 86-76.

 

As I’ve thought about the topic for the past couple of months during my hour-long dog walks each day, the idea has expanded to include “fake news,” “alternative facts,” Galileo and Bloodletting. I want to state upfront that I do not consume any prescription or illegal substances prior to my beloved dog walks.

 

The baseball world has experienced an explosion in sabermetrics and quantitative analysis, which has truly been an Age of Enlightenment. Bill James is the grand poobah (I’d assign a more fitting title if he didn’t work for the Red Sox) of what has become the dominating factor in how baseball front offices operate, how players are drafted/developed/compensated, and increasingly a lens through which many baseball fans view the game. I am a full blown supporter of the “movement” and believe that most of what has emerged has been positive. However, as with any endeavor in discovery, the journey can be extended with bumps along the way.

 

I see a lot of fans/bloggers/analysts/journalists now fancying themselves as de facto baseball operations professionals (hand raised right here!), which can be just as fun as being a Sunday Morning Quarterback. It is a time honored tradition for fans and others to second guess the decisions of coaches/managers/GM’s, whether they are using spray charts or 8 Miller Lights to formulate their arguments. A significant problem I see, which appears to be getting worse as sabermetrics becomes more mainstream, is the use of various models and methodologies as “facts,” when in reality they are probably best used as analytical tools to further discovery, debate and understanding.

 

History is riddled with examples of the widespread consensus of society’s smartest scientists/people believing things that ultimately were proven to be false. It took Galileo’s discovery for the world to realize, and not without an extended period of denial, that the whole “the universe revolves around the earth” idea had been “fake news” for centuries. Explorers similarly addressed the whole flat earth doctrine, and one of the smartest people to ever live, Isaac Newton, spent a decent amount of his life chasing the idea of alchemy. The Age of Enlightenment spanned from 1685-1815, yet doctors continued the 2 millennia-long practice of Bloodletting for several more decades until humans figured out that intentionally bleeding people out was typically not a great idea. Discovery and enlightenment is a journey!

 

I won’t pretend to be an expert on advanced baseball statistics – heck I had a hard time getting up for my 8am advanced stats class in college (in truth, I didn’t make a lot of them but even as a 41 year old I won’t admit that in case my dad reads this). Many of the widely used metrics like WAR have multiple versions and lack public transparency of calculation methodology.

 

However, my personal experience in the world of finance and economics makes me highly skeptical when models and methodologies are adopted as if they are “facts” despite having well known flaws. For example, I think most would agree that the position of catcher is one of the most important in the game of baseball, yet the best WAR seasons in history (by Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza) are basically in line with Ben Zobrist‘s 2011 season. Now, I like Ben Zobrist and all, but….

 

Ever heard of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) modeling? I hope you haven’t unless you are in the world of economics, but it is an example of precisely what I am talking about. The people most directly responsible for how the world’s largest central banks are being run believe in using such things, despite the fact they have largely been discredited.

 

The devotees of DSGE have built incredibly sophisticated and mathematically brilliant models and won Nobel awards, but every single one of the models break down in the real world because they use various ridiculous assumptions to make their models fit. If they are so discredited, then why has the world printed over $14 trillion to buy bonds and stocks to try and stimulate the economy? That is another column completely, but may I remind you that many doctors continued to intentionally bleed people for years after the practice was discredited.

 

I like the idea of WAR, whether it is fWAR, bWAR, xyzWAR, or @WAR, but it is in the execution and near-religious devotion to its various iterations that I find questionable. This is particularly the case when dealing with the effectiveness/value of pitchers and the defensive value of position players. The recent emergence of Statcast and the accompanying mountains of data should help further the pursuit for knowledge, but that still lies somewhere in the future. For 2017, we are left with what we have, and what we have are flawed metrics.

 

The 2017 Jays are projected to score 4.85 runs per game while surrendering 4.54 runs, which compares to the 2016 totals of 4.69/4.11. Given the loss of Edwin Encarnacion, my guess is some Jays fans may be surprised that the offense if projected to perform better in 2017. It appears this is largely due to close to full seasons projected out of Jose Bautista and Devon Travis combed with the additions of Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce.

 

However, it is the runs per game surrendered projection that I will take issue with, which I believe is due to the “FIP-iness” of Fangraph’s version of WAR. As Travis Sawchik’s column for Fangraphs lays out, the Jays’ starting rotation is projected to be 16th in MLB and comes in behind such vaunted starting rotations as the Yankees and Angels. Say what you will about the legitimate concerns about depth for the Jays’ rotation, but are there any serious baseball people who would prefer either of those teams’ rotations to the Jays’?

 

The Jays’ defense is projected to be top 5 in MLB for 2017, which compares to an 8th place finish for 2016 (according to one methodology offered by Jeff Sullivan), so the .43 increase in runs per game is not emanating from a suddenly horrible downturn in defense. According to fWAR, the Jays bullpen was worth 3.8 wins in 2016, which isn’t off much from the 3.3 fWAR projection for 2017. It is specifically within the projections for the Jays’ starting rotation where I believe the “hidden value” resides.

 

The Jays’ starters generated 15.4 fWAR for the 2016 season and are projected to generate 13.4 for the 2017 season. I believe that degree of a decline is reasonable to project given the ages of Estrada, Happ and Liriano, and the possibility of Sanchez not being quite as good as last year. However, there is a gulf-sized difference in the assessment of the rotation’s value in 2016 depending upon whether one looks at the FIP-heavy Fangraphs WAR or the Runs Allowed version offered by Baseball Reference.

 

Obviously, there is the risk of confirmation bias to take hold here and Jays fans to seek out and “believe” in whichever metric shines the better light on the team, so I will offer up a single comparison to try and state my case.

 

I typically watch and/or listen to at least 120 Jays games per season and last year I was probably closer to 140. I was fortunate enough to catch the vast majority of the starts for both Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman. It is my opinion that any person who thought that Stroman was anywhere near as effective as Sanchez was in 2016 should get their head examined – it wasn’t even close. Sanchez was basically dominant the entire season, while Stroman had a good, but not great, 2nd half following a poor 1st half.

 

Notably, Fangraph’s version of WAR shows Stroman having generated 3.6 wins versus 3.9 wins by Sanchez. Using the Fangraphs framework, there was a significant difference in that Sanchez dramatically outperformed FIP-based metrics, while Stroman significantly under performed his. In contrast, Baseball Reference’s WAR metric for 2016 had Stroman at 1.4 wins and Sanchez at 4.8 – a BIG difference and in line with what I would think is reasonable given how they performed.

 

 

Why is all of this important – or at least why do I think this is important? I believe the Jays have assembled a pitching staff partly using a recent market inefficiency, which is the obsession with strikeouts and accompanying walk rates when valuing pitchers. Is it possible that some pitchers create value by reliably producing weak contact?

 

This idea has been debated with regards to knuckleballers, but I believe the same can be said for the performances of JA Happ, Marco Estrada and Aaron Sanchez. As authors from Fangraphs (ironically!) adeptly analyze here, here and here, each pitcher has something about their arsenal which induces weak contact. Combined with a top defense, I believe that is a pretty compelling recipe for run prevention – just like having the lowest ERA for any AL starting rotation in 2016!

 

With all of the talk of the Chris Sale acquisition (4.9 wins by bWAR in 2016) by the Red Sox this offseason, I think it is instructive to highlight that the Jays’ starting rotation (assuming a full year of Liriano’s production) for 2016 generated more bWAR than the Red Sox – including Sale, a Cy Young season from Rick Porcello, and a “healthy” David Price.

 

Fangraphs is projecting 4.32 run per game surrendered by the Red Sox, which I think is a far more reasonable level to project for the Jays, even assuming some reversion/decline from 2016 performance levels. With the Red Sox projected to score 4.90 runs per game, that would make the AL East a coin flip between the Red Sox and Blue Jays, and that is using a projected 138 innings and fWAR of 3.00 from David Price.

 

I believe the Jays’ clubhouse has good reason to expect that they will compete for the 2017 AL East title, and think that until Price (4.5 fWAR vs 3.0 bWAR in 2016) has proven to have recovered back to being his “old self,” they are a slight favorite. “Secretly,” the Blue Jays fanboy part of me thinks they can win 95 games. Now let’s get this season going so that all of the fWAR alchemists and Red Sox fans go ask their doctors for some Bloodletting!

 

 

 

 

*Featured Image Credit- ARTURO PARDAVILA III- cropped from original UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0

 

 

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