Jays From the Couch looks into just how much Jose Bautista and the Toronto Blue Jays are barreling the ball this season
Earlier this week, I looked into the performances of Jays batters before and after April 21. Working on that post made me feel a lot more positive about the Blue Jays chances to rebound and push for a playoff spot this season. Then, an interesting post on BP Toronto got me thinking about the role that barrelling has played in this resurgence. The post made some positive points (Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar and Devon Travis have been barreling like champs this year). But a couple ideas caught my attention: “Jose Bautista might be worth worrying about” and “The Blue Jays aren’t barreling”. So, I thought I’d double-check the numbers on these two ideas, to be sure that my optimism was well-placed to begin with.
“Jose Bautista might be worth worrying about”
Let’s start with Jose (full disclosure: he is my favourite Blue Jay). The key to the idea that Jose is someone to worry about is his poor barrel rate this season (his 5% Barrel/PA ranks 147th among qualified batters). “At this point in his career, Jose is still able to get on base, but not do the kind of damage he once did.”
In the month of May, Jose Bautista has produced the 24th most WAR (0.9) in the majors. He sits ahead of three other Blue Jays who are in the Top 60: Smoak, Pillar and Travis. That high WAR is the result of improved defence and a 178 wRC+, a mark he’s only achieved over a full season once (2011). This doesn’t really sound like a guy we should be specifically worried about right now. He’s not running a high WAR by luck either. His xwOBA is 23rd in May (among batters with 50+ AB). [In this case, I used the month of May rather than all games since April 21 as Fangraphs doesn’t report WAR in its splits tool.]
It really seems like Jose has had essentially two separate seasons. His numbers before and after April 21 (the night of his extra-innings walk-off vs. the Angels) are very different. Sometimes, this will occur randomly, so automatically saying “well, these last 131 PA are the real Jose, not the previous 66 PA” is a mistake. But, in this case, it seems reasonable to say that he may have started the season slow due to the minor injury he sustained at the WBC. He was raking in spring training. Then he did well at the WBC, before the injury. Then, he returned and had a terrible stretch of games to start the season (for roughly as long as minor injuries can take to heal). Finally, since April 21, he’s been outperforming his 2015-16 numbers.
His estimated swing speeds over these three periods fit this theory. In 2015-16, Jose had an average estimated swing speed of 63.1 mph, good for 12th in the majors (among 217 batters with 500+ AB). On April 20th, Jose’s estimated swing speed for 2017 (59.9 mph) ranked 94th in the majors (among 201 batters with 30+ AB). Since then, Jose’s estimated swing speed (62.4 mph) rose almost all the way back to its 2015-16 level, ranking 24th in the majors (among 216 batters with 50+ AB).
While his barrel rate is slightly lower than 2015-16, the difference is small enough to be statistically insignificant. More importantly, he’s made up for that in many ways. He’s generating higher rates of solid contact and flares, the other two positive types of batted balls as defined by Statcast, as well as a much lower poor-contact rate. In fairness, he’s also walking less and striking out more than 2015-16, so there are still areas of improvement.
Put together, his stretch over the last month has been a little better than his 2015-16 performance, which is to say, he’s been very good lately. A greater percentage of his PA are positive, a smaller percentage are negative and his xwOBA and wOBA are both up over 2015-16. In fact, his wOBA since April 21 is higher than the wOBA (.403) that he posted in his prime (2010-2015), with his xwOBA not that far behind.
I don’t know what the future holds, but right now, Jose is not a player we need to be worried about.
“The Blue Jays aren’t barreling”
The key to the idea that the Jays aren’t barreling is that the Jays’ barrel rates are down from last year. “The Blue Jays are not, as a group, barrelling up the ball nearly as much as they did in 2016.”
This season, the Jays overall Barrel/PA is down to 4.8% from 5%. That’s not really much different from the two postseason years. The team’s xwOBA is down, which is a problem, but a complete lack of barrels isn’t the issue.
When you shift focus to the last month, the barrel rate is actually up from 2015-16. The solid contact rate is steady, the flare rate is up and the poorly-hit rate is down. All good things. The team’s walking slightly less, but also striking out slightly less. Overall, the team is having more positive PA and fewer negative PA. The team’s xwOBA is down a little, but still above-average, which is impressive as Ezequiel Carrera, Ryan Goins, Darwin Barney, Chris Coghlan and Luke Maile have taken over 40% of PA over that stretch.
When we focus on batters’ barrel rates individually, the positive news continues. Over the last month, the remaining offensive bedrock of the team has out-barrelled their 2016 selves. As a group, Bautista, Pillar, Morales, Smoak, Travis, Martin and Pearce have produced a 5.9% barrel rate in 2017 and a 6.8% barrel rate since April 21. Last season, they produced a 5.2% barrel rate.
We can also look at the Jays’ plate appearance quality in another way, this time using Fangraphs’ contact quality-batted ball data. The current situation is remarkably better than the last time I looked at these numbers (April 17) and compares very favourably to the glory years.
The team is hitting roughly the same proportion of hard fly balls (the most productive of all batted balls) as the past two seasons. The rate of hard grounders is up a bit, but the rate of hard liners is about a percentage lower. Nevertheless, the total liner rate is higher than ever.
Put together, over the 2017 season (both the good parts and the bad) the Jays have been generating a higher rate (29.5%) of positive-value batted balls than both 2015 (28.1%) and 2016 (28.6%), while their rate (39.5%) of negative-value batted balls (medium and soft grounders and flies) sits between that of 2015 (42%) and 2016 (37.6%).
As expected, both luck stats saw a regression to the mean. The Jays’ fly balls are turning into homers at only a slightly lower rate than past seasons, while the team’s BABIP is marching back to .300ish. Just before the Jays resurgence, the team had a HR/FB% of 5.7% and a BABIP of .253.
In conclusion, phew! A productive Jose is fundamental to the Jays playoff chances this year. What we have seen since his walk-off in Anaheim is vintage Jose. This is exactly what we all hoped to see when he resigned with the team this winter. Don’t let his poor start permanently affect your perception of him and his current talent level.
And as a team, the Jays are barrelling basically as much as they did in the two glory years. The first 15 games of the season were traumatic for everyone involved, but significant progress has been made. And that’s without JD and Tulo. This was a team worth sticking behind a month ago and it’s stick-worthiness has only increased since then. The guys that stayed healthy have raked and the guys that haven’t been healthy are slowly, but surely, coming back. These ups and downs are amounting to a pretty exciting and entertaining baseball season…that still has four and a half months left.
*Featured Image Credit: Arturo Pardavila III UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.