Despite the difference in record, the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees are more similar than you might think
The 2017 Yankees have been a resounding success. The 2017 Blue Jays have been a bit of a mixed bag. While this might be the conventional wisdom right now, it’s not entirely true.
Let’s start with the two teams’ results. The most glaring difference is their records: the Yankees lead the AL East (30-19), while the Jays are 6.5 games behind (25-27), as of Wednesday morning. The difference in wins and losses is driven by gaps in both runs scored and runs against, with the Yankees superior in both counts.
Peripheral stats tell a different story, one in which the Blue Jays and Yankees have been equally good at hitting and pitching so far this season. Not just May, the whole season. Let’s start with the batters.
The simplest way to see the Yankees’ offensive quality this season is their top five batting average. Their equally high BABIP, on the other hand, implies that the BA is inflated by good luck. [Note: A batter’s ability to get on base after putting a ball in play (BABIP) is largely determined by chance. Good batters make better contact, but it’s generally beyond the batter’s control to find holes between fielders. Ditto for pitchers and their ability to get batters to hit at their fielders. In general, batters and pitchers are expected to maintain a BABIP around .300, particularly at the team-level.]
This possibility seems confirmed by the Jays far superior expected batting average. The Jays and Yankees basically swap positions when switching from BA to xBA. Given the fact that Statcast’s expected stats are more predictive of future performance, I’d bet that the Jays out-average the Yankees over the rest of 2017 (with the usual “injuries might change that prediction” caveat).
The Jays and Yankees have produced very similar walk-to-strikeout ratios, the result of the Jays having a better strikeout rate and a worse walk rate. This suggests that the interesting stuff lies in the balls each team has put in play.
Results-wise, the Yankees have been the second-most productive team when putting balls in play (wOBA on BIP), while the Jays have been middling. Again, luck seems to be playing a big part. Not only do the Yankees have a BABIP advantage, they have a historically-high HR/FB% (another luck indicator), which is unlikely to be sustained through 162 games.
Interestingly, three of the four highest single-season HR/FB% since 2002 are happening this year (Brewers, Rays and Yankees). Makes one wonder if the fly-ball revolution has already started pushing the boundaries of what a sustainable HR/FB% is. [Note: HR/FB% data started in 2002, when MLB started counting batted ball types like fly balls, liners and grounders.]
The Jays also have a pretty high HR/FB%, but they’ve proven capable of maintaining one over the last two seasons. In 2015 (15%) and 2016 (14.5%), the Jays were able to maintain the 10th and 18th best ratios among the 480 team-seasons that have been played over the last 16 seasons. In fact, these Jays are some of the best mashers of all time, with the 2015 (232 HR) and 2016 (221 HR) seasons ranking 30th and 59th among the 2865 team-seasons that have been played since 1871.
The Yankees’ unusually high HR/FB% is reflected in Statcast’s expected weighted on-base average on balls in play (xwOBA on BIP). The large gap in wOBA on BIP contrasts with the non-existent gap in xwOBA on BIP. This implies that the quality of contact of the 2017 Blue Jays and Yankees has been virtually identical (and that’s with about 28% of PA going to Ezequiel Carrera, Ryan Goins, Darwin Barney, Chris Coghlan, Luke Maile and Jarrod Saltalamacchia).
When summed together, we find that while the Yankees have a big edge in batting results (wOBA), the Jays have actually produced slightly better performances at the plate (xwOBA). Obviously, if this holds for the rest of the season, the Yankees will likely finish ahead of the Jays. However, it seems best to assume that the Jays’ great xwOBA is a better predictor of the future than the Yankees’ great wOBA.
The pitching side of things seems like a similar story. The Yankees have a (smaller) edge in runs against per game, aided by a lower batting average. However, the Yankees have a BABIP advantage in pitching as well. And, once more, the Jays have the better expected batting average. This implies that Jays pitchers have been more effective at limiting baserunners than Yankee pitchers, with BABIP luck clouding the picture.
While the two teams’ pitchers have maintained similar xBA, each specializes in a different part of the game. On the one hand, Yankee pitchers have a noticeable advantage when the ball is not put in play, generating more strikeouts and fewer walks.
In terms of results, Yankee pitchers are also superior at limiting damage on balls in play (wOBA on BIP). However, while the two teams have similar HR/FB%, the Jays nevertheless seem to have been unlucky and the Yankees fortunate. In particular, Jays pitchers have generated much weaker contact (xwOBA on BIP) than the Yankees. In a nutshell, it seems that opponents have gotten fortunate results (high wOBA on BIP) against Jays pitchers, relative to the contact they made (low xwOBA on BIP). For Yankee pitchers, the opposite appears to be true.
This divergence holds when we take a bird’s-eye-view of each teams’ pitching. While Yankee pitchers have produced much better results (lower wOBA), the two teams’ pitching staffs have been equally effective at producing strong performances (roughly equal xwOBA). Once again, while wOBA pays the bills, xwOBA is the more reliable indicator of the future.
To be clear, this data doesn’t tear down the Yankees’ hitting and pitching, but rather builds up the Jays’. Yankee hitters and pitchers have been performing extremely well this year and, while the results don’t necessarily show it, Jays hitters and pitchers have been their equals. Looking ahead, one could reasonably expect the Jays to outperform the Yankees on both levels, as an increasingly healthy lineup and pitching staff helps improve the Jays’ hitting and pitching performances.
BONUS STATS I: I was curious to see what the tables above would look like in May.
Simply put, comparing May to April:
- The Jays have improved in every meaningful way
- On the other hand, they have still been relatively unlucky
- Jays hitters still have a low BABIP and positive (xBA – BA), (xwOBA on BIP – wOBA on BIP) and (xwOBA – wOBA)
- Jays pitchers have a worse BABIP and HR/FB% and negative (xBA – BA), (xwOBA on BIP – wOBA on BIP) and (xwOBA – wOBA)
- In terms of batted ball luck, only their hitters’ HR/FB% has improved
- The Yankees have produced weaker hitting performances (pitching has been roughly as effective in both months)
- However, thanks to even better batted ball luck, Yankee hitters have produced similarly strong results
- Yankee hitters have even higher BABIP and HR/FB%
- Moreover, they have generated even more negative (xBA – BA), (xwOBA on BIP – wOBA on BIP) and (xwOBA – wOBA)
All in all, May has been good for the Blue Jays (18-10, best in the AL East) and just meh for the Yankees (15-12, fourth in the AL East).
BONUS STATS II: For the adventurous, let’s see how all of this reflects on the teams’ runs and wins above replacement.
Over the course of this season, Yankee hitters and position players have produced the second-most WAR in the majors, with the Jays in the middle of the pack. The Yankees have a particularly large edge in position player WAR, driven mainly by a massive gulf in batting runs above average.
Let’s explore a hypothetical situation in which the 2017 Blue Jays and Yankees each produced wOBA (on both sides of the field) that were equal to their xwOBA. Blue Jay and Yankee hitters would see their wOBA converge around .326-.327, while the teams’ pitchers would see their wOBA converge around .304-.305.
With equal wOBA for both pitchers and batters, the two teams “should” have roughly identical batting runs above average and pitcher wins above replacement. In this case, the difference between the two teams is reduced to only 12.4 runs above replacement (6.4 baserunning runs above average + 6.8 fielding runs above average – 0.8 runs for various Fangraphs adjustments), down from 58.9 RAR without any adjustments. This equates to a gap of only 1.3 wins above replacement, down from 7.8 WAR.
wOBA is directly in the equation for position player WAR (but not pitcher WAR), so we can estimate what a .326-.327 batting wOBA would mean for the Jays and Yankees overall team WAR. The Yankees would see their batting runs above average fall to 4.5, while the Jays would see theirs’ rise to 3.2. This would lead to a decrease in the Yankees’ team WAR (from 17.6 to 14.3) and an increase in the Jays’ team WAR (from 9.8 to 11.3), before any adjustments are made on the pitching side.
*Featured Image Credit: C Stem – JFtC
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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.