Jays From the Couch looks at the projections for the Toronto Blue Jays and argues that they are a little light.
It’s prediction season in Jaysland and I couldn’t resist making a contribution. Below are the Blue Jays I think are most likely to beat their Fangraphs projections. Before I get started, I just want to note that any objective projection system is based on past data and some assumptions on how to use that data to project the future. An exercise like this is about finding areas where I feel like I have information that the system might not, which may lead me to be more optimistic about a player’s potential this season. It is not about being critical of the system. Typically, even the weird projections can be explained by the assumptions the system makes and the data it uses. Now, on to the fun stuff!
Justin Smoak was worth 3.4 fWAR last season, driven by a .371 wOBA and average defence at first base. His 2018 defensive projection is spot on, but his wOBA is a little light. This makes sense, given that 2017 was his breakout season. That said, I have a ton of confidence that he will produce a similar wOBA this season.
His batted ball performance has long been elite—in terms of xwOBA on balls in play, Smoak ranked 19th, 27th and 24th over the last three seasons (among roughly 320 batters each season with 150+ batted balls). His strong 2017 walk-to-strikeout ratio (0.57 BB/K ranked 59th of 216 batters with 400+ PA) was driven by an equally strong chase-to-zone contact ratio (his 0.29 O-Swing%/Z-Contact% ranked 52nd). Reproducing a similar BB/K and xwOBA on balls in play will go a long way to ensuring that he reproduces that stellar .371 wOBA (36th best in the majors last year).
Smoak’s got another 3 fWAR performance in him.
A healthy Aaron Sanchez will produce more than 2 fWAR in 2018. The projection systems don’t account for why he produced a 5.74 FIP last season and assume he was just bad, rather than hurt. His 4.27 projected FIP would be a massive step back from his 3.55 mark in 2016. The main question is how much lower than 4.27 will his FIP be and how many innings will he pitch. Last season, the average starter produced a 4.48 FIP, so anything around 4.00 or better would be solid.
Like Smoak, he’s got a 3 fWAR performance in him. That said, if those blister issues are truly under control, the sky’s the limit for Sanch.
Marco Estrada is a perennial over-performance candidate. He generates lots of batted balls, while fWAR loves it some strikeouts. In this case, it seems like his summer struggles (due to a sleep issue) inflated his 2017 FIP (4.61), which makes it appear as though he is regressing faster than he likely is. The system takes that and projects further regression in 2018. What I’m focused on is his steady xwOBA—while his xwOBA has climbed from .290 to .296 to .299 over the last three seasons, a .299 xwOBA was still good for 33rd among major-league starters (out of 121 with 400+ batters faced).
Jaime Garcia was a solidly average pitcher last season. He produced a 4.25 FIP over the course of 157 innings (2.1 fWAR). His .319 xwOBA, average for a starting pitcher last season, ranked him 67th in the majors. In truth, his FIP projection of 4.51 isn’t absurd. That mark is fine for a back-end starter. The 129 innings projection does seem a little arbitrary, though. He’s obviously had injuries in his history, but has pitched 171 and 157 innings over the last two seasons.
My hunch is that these two combine for 4-5 fWAR this season.
At the top end of any ranking, separating one elite talent from another can be difficult and pointless. The most important thing is that the player is an elite talent. Roberto Osuna is an elite talent. His 3.0 fWAR in 2017 ranked third among relievers, while the 6.1 fWAR he’s produced since debuting in 2015 ranks fifth.
Let me try to reassure you that Osuna won’t regress heavily this season. His 1.74 FIP last season was due to career-best K/9, BB/9 and HR/9 marks. His weak FIP projection is driven by projected regression in each of these metrics—he’s expected to strikeout one less batter per nine innings, walk an extra batter and concede an extra 0.7 homers.
While his projected K/9 would be better than his 2015 and 2016 marks, his projected BB/9 and HR/9 would both be career-worst marks. This is the one projection that makes no sense to me. For one, his incredible 9.22 K/BB (third best among 150 relievers with 50+ IP) was well-supported by his equally strong chase-to zone contact ratio—his 0.48 O-Swing%/Z-Contact% was good for sixth in the majors. Moreover, while his HR/9 was exceptionally low (ranking seventh among relievers), his Barrels/9 was similarly exceptional—he gave up 0.70 barrels per nine innings he pitched in 2017, the 14th best mark in the majors.
In short, Osuna was fundamentally exceptional in 2017. He will beat his projection in 2018 and once again rank among the very best relievers in baseball.
My final set of underperformers made things easy by having rough 2017 seasons, particularly in terms of FIP—Seung-hwan Oh (4.44 FIP), John Axford (5.73) and Tyler Clippard (4.57) each produced career-worst full season marks. Nevertheless, each has good reason to feel confident that they can beat their projection.
Oh was so good in 2016, but saw his K/BB fall (from 5.72 to 3.60) and his HR/9 rise (from 0.56 to 1.52). His 2018 projections basically have him repeating his 2017 marks. While he did concede a lot more barrels in 2017 (justifying his elevated HR/9, to some extent at least), his 2017 K/BB was not truly reflective of his underlying performance. While his K/BB fell quite a bit from 2016, his chase-to-zone contact ratio remained among the league’s best. Last season’s 0.45 O-Swing%/Z-Contact% was not quite as good as his 0.50 mark in 2016 (third best among relievers), but it still ranked 15th in the majors.
Clippard’s case is similar to Oh’s. He had a rough 2017, posting a sub-par K/BB (2.32) and HR/9 (1.49). Each mark was worse than those of the average RP, a 2.53 K/BB and a 1.16 HR/9. But if we dig deeper, we can find evidence that he was unlucky in both cases. His 0.40 O-Swing%/Z-Contact% was better-than-average (0.36), implying that he deserved a few more Ks and a few less BBs. And, while the average RP gave up 1.49 Barrels/9, Clippard only conceded 1.35 Barrels/9. Again, the implication was that he was hard done by bad luck. While his outcomes were worse-than-average, his underlying performance seemed to be slightly better-than-average.
In the case of John Axford, I’m going to lean on my gut instinct. It would be great if the Jays had another Canadian on the 25-man roster making solid contributions. Positively, Axford’s velocity did not show any clear signs of fading last season and John Gibbons certainly liked what he saw of Axford this spring, enough to give him a spot on the Opening Day roster. I also think it was smart of him to follow his release last summer with an extended off-season. Recharging the old batteries seems like an effective way for a veteran to set himself up for a solid final few years of his career.
I’d wager that this group of three proven relievers will produce more than the 0.5 combined fWAR they are projected for.
In general, I felt that the Fangraphs projections were a little generous with the position players and a little tight with the pitchers (a common sentiment among Jays/Fangraphs fans). While I’d be ecstatic if Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki combine for 10.4 fWAR, I doubt that they will (my guess is they end up around 8 to 9 fWAR).
On the other hand, I am confident that there will be enough over-performance elsewhere to make up for that discrepancy. I would bet my house that the bullpen will surpass 3.1 fWAR (hell, Osuna might do it himself). I think Granderson has the potential to crush it in a platoon role against RHP. Regardless of the specifics, Fangraphs puts the Jays firmly in the Wild Card race and I don’t disagree with them.
Here’s to an entertaining 2018 season!
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