Jays From the Couch takes a look at the changes in the Toronto Blue Jays offense of late, and who is leading the charge.
The Blue Jays offence has begun to rebound after its rough start to the season. Prior to the Josh Donaldson injury (eight games up to April 13th), the Jays offence was sub-par (.303 xwOBA, 21st in MLB) but very unlucky (.251 wOBA). Over the following eight games (in which the team also lost Troy Tulowitzki, Aaron Sanchez and J.A Happ to the DL), the offence got even worse (.279 xwOBA, 27th in MLB) but also got luckier (.290 wOBA). With the lineup relatively stable over the last two weeks (twelve games since April 22), Jays hitters have been making great contact (.336 xwOBA, 8th best in MLB) and are getting reasonably fair outcomes (.328 wOBA).
On an individual basis, most of the lineup has begun to make strides in the right direction. At the top of that list is Steve Pearce. After a substandard first three weeks of the season, Pearce has been steadily making better contact. He’s maintained a Blue Jays best .424 xwOBA over the last two weeks and has been rewarded with his first three home runs of the season. Best as I can tell, Pearce was seeing way less pitches inside the zone to start the season. In response, he expanded his strike zone (increased O-Swing%), which is a recipe for failure against big-league pitching. In recent games, he’s seeing more strikes and making opposition pitchers pay for it. A regular Steve Pearce (.365 xwOBA in 2016) is very good at hitting and a key component of a potential Blue Jay comeback this year.
Jose Bautista is an even more fundamental component to the Jays chances this year and is playing like it. After a so-so start to the season, Jose has been producing better contact than he did last season (.383 xwOBA over the last two weeks). This is good because, as much of a relatively down year as it was for him, Jose’s underlying contact was still 30th best in the majors (.371 xwOBA, among 183 batters with 400+ AB).
Russell Martin is another key Blue Jay making great contact (.400 xwOBA over the last two weeks). His hot streak has seen him moved up to the third spot of the order. Gibby loves the hot hand after all. Fortunately, Gibby’s job is slowly getting easier, with his key (healthy) players starting to meet their lofty standards.
A month into the season, Devon Travis remains the unluckiest hitter in baseball. His .123 xwOBA – wOBA leads all hitters with 50+ AB. That’s a shame, because the contact he has been making over the last two weeks has been exceptional (.411 xwOBA), surpassing every Jay but Pearce. The oft-repeated idea that he was essentially in an extended spring training to begin the year is borne out in his xwOBA. After three weeks of suboptimal contact (.266 xwOBA), he has completely turned things around over the last two weeks (.398 xwOBA).
Justin Smoak has been a relative pillar this season. He’s had his peaks and valleys, but has generated above-average contact for most of the season. While most of the team struggled in the first three weeks, Smoak raked (.351 xwOBA, second best behind Kendrys Morales). With his teammates hitting again, Smoak has responded with even better plate appearances (.376 xwOBA over the last two weeks).
Kevin Pillar has been the other…cornerstone of this team, making above-average contact (.324 xwOBA) without any significant or sustained dips in quality. Given his stated intention of improving as a hitter, this is a very promising start. He’s even made some progress with his plate discipline, posting a career-high 0.39 BB/K so far. His eye has improved significantly, as Pillar is swinging at fewer outside pitches (32.1% from 37.1% last season) and more strikes (69.7% from 62.3% last season).
The Blue Jays co-part-time third baseman over the last three weeks, Darwin Barney is trying to fill big shoes. With his high-quality defence (10.6 UZR/150 so far at third this season), even a slightly below-average bat would suffice until Josh gets back in the lineup. After a promising start, Barney fell into a bit of a funk, making worse than slightly below-average contact. Positively, he has recovered of late, making great contact (.366 xwOBA) over the last couple of weeks. His recipe for success has been singles-type contact (.354 xBA). Fortunately, his PA outcomes have reflected his fundamentally solid efforts at the plate (.360 BA and .378 wOBA).
There are different expectations for Barney’s partner at third, Chris Coghlan. While he’s a better hitter than Barney, Coghlan has never been a strong defender at third. He hasn’t met expectations yet (.260 xwOBA for the season), though his amazing leap against the Cardinals makes up for that. He too has seen his fortunes improve recently (to some extent), hitting his first homer of the year in New York. But man, what an incredible leap.
Ryan Goins has showed solid consistency in 2017, avoiding any deep slumps. He has hovered well above his 2016 level for most of the year and has a .308 xwOBA for the season as a whole. He has seen his 5 game average xwOBA spike after his power surge in New York. Like Pillar, he has made a leap forward this season in terms of his plate discipline, swinging at only 21.7% of outside pitches (down from 31.1% last season) and getting behind after the first pitch less than half the time (47.5% F-Strike%, down from 64.3% last season). Another key area of improvement is his power. His BA (.200) and OBP (.250) are both below his career norms but his ISO (.164) is way up. This has likely been driven by his improved average exit velocity on fly balls (92.6mph, up from 89.9mph in 2016 and 86.8mph in 2015). Whether or not this is sustainable is another story altogether, but it’s good to see him succeed when given a chance to play regularly.
A key player to start the season, Morales is one Blue Jay whose PA quality has diminished over time. That said, his early season performance was incredible and was enough to win the Jays at least one game by itself. For the season, his performance averages off to a .354 xwOBA, better than most but below his strong 2016 performance (.399 xwOBA). He remains one of the most unlucky batters in baseball, with the 9th highest xwOBA – wOBA mark on the season (.075, among batters with 50+ AB). Coincidentally, the guy he’s helping to replace, Edwin Encarnacion, is in a similar boat (.068 xwOBA – wOBA) and should also expect better results going forward.
The last of the healthy hitters, Ezequiel Carrera has seen a great deal of action in left field, but hasn’t been able to meet his own modest standards. He has maintained an xwOBA below his 2016 level (.273 xwOBA) for most of the season. His .255 xwOBA this season is lowest among active Jays hitters, ahead of only one of two backup catchers and only two of three pitchers. Good luck seems to be the main thing keeping him in regular at-bats (-.053 xwOBA – wOBA, 38th lowest among 270 batters with 50+ AB). His defence has been pretty solid though (8.5 UZR/150 in LF).
These collective improvements at the plate are absolutely essential for the Blue Jays to have any shot at recovering for a playoff run (let alone actually stealing a wild card spot). We made an educated guess that the bats would come around eventually and they definitely seem to have. The league-worst .255 wOBA the Jays sported after 11 games has recovered to a .295 mark (after running a .320 wOBA in the 17 games since).
We also assumed that the team’s luck would turn, eventually. That very-sub-.300 BABIP the team started out with (.253, 27th in MLB) is well on its way to .300 (.284 on the season; .302 BABIP over the 17 games since). That absurdly low (second-worst) HR/FB% of 6.1% over the same stretch? It’s already back to 2015-16 territory (11% on the season; 14.2% over the 17 games since).
That this progress has been made without Tulo and Josh is even more impressive. I have no clue when they’ll return, but they’ll both be boons to an already recovering offence. Given the issues that have popped up on the pitching side, this offensive recovery has started just in time to help pick up the slack, only fair since the starters and bullpen carried the team early on while the bats weren’t producing. With a bit of reasonable luck injury-wise, a steady climb up the standings is solidly in the realm of possibility. At the very least, these guys are showing that they still have the offensive talent to mount an improbable comeback.
*Featured Image Credit: jcsullivan24 (flickr) – UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0