Jays From the Couch breaks down the Toronto Blue Jays defense, position by position, which has seen a dramatic change over last year
In 2016, the Blue Jays’ solid team defence was a fundamental part of the team’s playoff run, ranking eighth in DRS (28) and sixth in UZR (27.6). The strong defence helped Jays pitchers maintain an ERA (3.79) below their FIP (4.04), the sixth biggest gap in the majors (as in, most negative).
This year has been a very different story. The team has fallen to 25th in DRS (-25) and 27th in UZR (-16.7). It is the fourth biggest drop in DRS from 2016 (after the Giants, Astros and Cubs) and the third biggest drop in UZR (after the Cubs and Giants). As one would expect, this has contributed to a positive gap between the team’s ERA (4.53) and FIP (4.33), the seventh biggest gap in the majors (as in, most positive).
[Team DRS/UZR and team ERA are somewhat correlated, with R2 of 0.14 and 0.11. ERA is expected to fall by 0.01 for every extra 2 DRS or UZR. With 53 fewer DRS this season, the Jays’ ERA would be expected to rise by 0.27. With UZR falling by 44.3, the Jays’ ERA would be expected to rise by 0.24. Given that ERA has risen by 0.74, we can (very roughly) estimate that the weaker defence is responsible for about one-third of the increase in ERA. The rest of the jump is presumably due to a combination of performance drop from returning pitchers, injuries requiring weaker call-ups to step in and bad luck.]
Curious to better understand the sources of this massive change, I broke down each Blue Jay’s 2016 and 2017 defensive performance by position.
First base and catcher are the only two positions that have seen improvements. At first, Justin Smoak has produced league-average defence this season, modestly better than last year. At catcher, the Jays have benefited from a small improvement by Russell Martin and the presence of Luke Maile. That said, the much more comprehensive catcher statistics kept by Baseball Prospectus suggest that the Blue Jays took a step back this season. Focusing on the two main catchers used each season, Russell Martin and Josh Thole were worth a combined 17.7 fielding runs above average in 2016 while Russ and Maile have only been worth a combined 7.4 FRAA in 2017.
Unfortunately, the rest of the infield positions have seen a fairly significant defensive regression this season. Troy Tulowitzki, Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins have each gone from above-average defenders to average (or even slightly below average) defenders. Interpreting Josh Donaldson’s performance is a little trickier—he has generated the same number of DRS in half the innings (good), but has seen his UZR fall from slightly above average to slightly below (bad).
I’ve been a fan of Barney’s since his brief spell with the team in September 2015. He seems like a great teammate and his constant conversations with Brook Jacoby in the dugout imply that he’s trying his best to improve. But with well below-average offence (50 wRC+) and a severe decline in his usually stellar defensive performance (his total DRS has fallen by 12, his total UZR has fallen by 7.6), he’s going to find it tough to crack the 2018 roster.
The situation in the outfield isn’t great either, but it’s a little more complicated. Take centre field, home of Superman himself, Kevin Pillar. By DRS, Pillar has been only somewhat less productive than usual (pro-rating his 2017 performance over the 1293 innings he played in 2016 results in 18 DRS). By UZR, Pillar’s been a much less productive defender this season. While both metrics point to improvements in his runs saved via arm, UZR feels his ability to get to balls has regressed heavily (DRS is somewhat kinder).
Right field is similarly complicated, but in the opposite direction—Jose Bautista (and RF in general) has regressed based on DRS, but improved based on UZR. UZR perceives his arm to have improved a lot, with roughly the same ability to get to balls as last year. DRS gives him some credit for throwing improvements, but suggests his range has regressed heavily from last year.
The second part of the right field story is Ezequiel Carrera. Somehow, in less than 400 innings last season, he was worth 8 DRS (and produced a UZR of 2). Equally incredibly, in just under 100 innings this season, he’s been worth -5 DRS (and produced a -2.1 UZR). This huge regression has more than made up for the removal of Michael Saunders from the Jays’ outfield.
Zeke’s issues continue in left field as well, where he has seen an 8 DRS/5 UZR regression. With Steve Pearce essentially replicating Saunders’ defensive struggles in LF, Zeke’s regression has been key in turning only slightly below-average defence at LF last season into the worst LF defence (by DRS) in the majors this season (2nd worst by UZR).
Finally, let’s have a look at just how important a defensive contributor R.A. Dickey was for the Blue Jays. Overall, Jays pitchers have been worth 12 fewer DRS this season. The absence of R.A. Dickey can be said to be responsible for half of that regression. Of the team’s main 2017 starters, J.A. Happ and Joe Biagini have each experienced notable drops in defensive performance, while Marcus Stroman has stepped his defensive game up.
Ultimately, big picture-wise, this analysis has confirmed the conventional wisdom regarding the Jays defence this year—it’s been bad, much worse than last year. That said, breaking things down by position and player helps us better see who has driven this performance shift.
While I hate to throw the backups under the bus (they are all scrappers just trying to stretch out their big-league dreams after all), Barney, Goins and Carrera have all experienced drastic regressions. In 2016, the three were worth a combined 18 DRS (and 11.3 UZR). In 2017, the three have been worth -19 DRS (and -10.4 UZR) and responsible for a great deal of the team’s overall defensive regression. It might be fair to argue that they’ve been over-worked and exposed, but the 1863.2 innings they’ve played so far this season is only slightly larger than the 1847.2 innings the three played in 2016 (albeit in only 4.5 months, rather than 6).
The positive upshot of this is that many of the guys who will form the foundation of the 2018 lineup have actually defended reasonably well this year.
- Smoak has improved to be an average defensive first baseman (very tasty when combined with one of the best bats in the majors)
- Travis and Donaldson have both maintained their slightly above-average defensive level
- While Tulo took a step back, he was still able to provide average defence at a premium position (likely with leg problems we will learn more about come winter)
- Martin’s situation is a little messy (his DRS increased, while his FRAA decreased) but still good (his FRAA ranks 9th among all starting catchers)
- Pillar has quietly amassed the second most DRS among CF in the majors
- And Stroman, for whom strong defence is necessary given the number of groundballs he generates, is tied (with Dickey, among others) for 7th among all pitchers in DRS
One extra note of positivity is the possible presence of Anthony Alford in the outfield next year, whom scouts have labelled a plus defender. The 2 DRS he produced in only 20 outfield innings this year is certainly a positive sign of his defensive potential.
*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison 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.