Jays From the Couch takes an in-depth looks at the statistical differences between the Blue Jays and their main wild card rivals
Each successive Statstravaganza post has been harder to write, reflecting how a great start turned into an unlucky rough patch to what feels a lot like 2017 all over again. Today’s edition will examine some specific issues and (try to) offer some nuggets of hope for the next four and a half months. [All stats through Saturday’s games.]
Expected Run Differential: The gap between the Jays and the SWC contenders isn’t very big
The hope this season was that the Jays could contend for the Second Wild Card spot, among the likes of the Angels, Twins and Mariners. While the Twins have managed to be bad in the worst division in baseball, the Angels and Mariners have thrived in one of the toughest. As it stands (including Sunday’s loss in this case), the Jays are 5.5 GB of the Mariners and 4 GB of the Angels.
That said, we are still in the stage of the season where strong underlying performances are about as important as positive results. There’s a case to be made that, approaching the 50-game mark, the Angels and Mariners have produced slightly better performances than the Jays but have enjoyed much better results.
Forget about fancy stats for a moment and take a look at the teams’ run differential per game (runs scored per game minus runs allowed per game)—the Angels own a 0.4 RD/G (11th in MLB, 5th in AL), the Mariners have produced a 0.1 RD/G (15th in MLB, 6th in the AL) and the Jays have managed a 0.0 RD/G (16th in MLB, 7th in the AL). There’s a clear hierarchy between the three, but the gap between them is modest.
The teams’ expected run differential per game (xRD/G) also suggests that these three teams haven’t produced vastly different underlying performances [I have an upcoming post in the works that will clarify the methodology behind xRD/G and its analytical value]. The Angels own a 0.2 xRD/G, while the Mariners and Jays have a 0.1 xRD/G. Again, not a lot separating them from a top-down perspective.
This is also reflected by the three teams’ rest-of-season projections. Fangraphs projects the Angels to produce a .516 record going forward, the Jays a .510 record and the Mariners a .483 record. Obviously, if that plays out to a tee, the Jays would still fall short of the playoffs. However, the main point is that the Angels and Mariners are still in the same neighbourhood as the Blue Jays right now. Though if things get worse, that would obviously change.
But if things stabilize—if the bats start getting better luck, if Sam Gaviglio and/or Deck McGuire can produce a run of decent starts, if Marco Estrada can continue his recent bounce-back, if Aaron Sanchez shows improvement the more games he has under his belt, if Marcus Stroman and/or Jaime Garcia can fix what’s ailed them, if Vladdy Jr. is called up—the Blue Jays are still a contender for the Second Wild Card, which is all any of us ever wanted this season anyways. Case in point: the Jays would have a 0.7 xRD/G if the rotation was producing its 2017 xwOBA (.323 instead of .367 this season)—this hypothetical xRD/G would be sixth-best in the majors and fourth in the AL, after only the Astros, Red Sox and Yankees.
The Blue Jays have had the edge in terms of offence, though each have been strong
In terms of run creation, the Blue Jays (4.83 RS/G) have slightly outperformed the Angels (4.65 RS/G) and Mariners (4.62 RS/G). One of the most consistently positive parts of the Jays’ season has been the team’s strong batting xwOBA—the team was in the 86th percentile after two weeks and remains there after seven weeks. On the other hand, the team’s wRC+ has fallen steadily. This is an indication that some bad batted ball luck has limited the team’s ability to create runs.
In that vein, no team in baseball has as large a gap between their xwOBA and wOBA as the Jays. Moreover, no discussion on Blue Jay luck in 2018 can be complete without mentioning their lowly BABIP, another indicator of bad batted ball luck. Another fun fact: the Jays have the 27th-best BA and wOBA on barrels in the majors.
The Jays continue to succeed at generating walks and power, long time strengths of the team. All three teams have shown an ability to barrel the ball (a key ingredient to offensive production)—the Angels (72nd percentile) and Mariners (69th percentile) are both above-average in this regard—but the Jays (93rd percentile) have been a cut above. Indeed, when it comes to making good contact the Jays continue to stand atop the majors, as owners of the highest xwOBA and xBA on batted balls in the majors.
The Angels offence has been pretty fortunate to score 4.65 runs per game. While that mark is well-supported by the team’s strong wRC+, its league-average xwOBA suggests that some luck has been at play. The team has had average plate discipline and some pretty good power, but its low xBA on batted balls suggests that the team isn’t generating much in the way of hit-inducing contact. Thus, unlike the Blue Jays, the Angels’ low BABIP is unlikely a sign of bad luck.
In contrast, the Mariners’ offence was probably deserving of more runs, given their excellent wRC+ and xwOBA marks. While they haven’t shown a strong ability to take a walk, the Mariners have succeeded at avoiding strikeouts and making good contact.
The Jays’ base running remains much improved over 2017 (-1.5 BsR/600, 29th in majors). The Jays have been roughly average throughout 2018 in this regard, though they were a little above-average early on and a little below-average more recently. The Mariners’ base running performances thus far (-0.1 BsR/600, 38th percentile) have been roughly equal to the Jays’, while the Angels have been above-average (0.7 BsR/600, 66th percentile).
Starting Pitching: The reason the Jays have fallen behind the SWC race
While the bats continue to perform, the rotation continues to frustrate. Just look at the table below. The Jays’ rotation ranks below the 50th percentile in every single metric and below the 30th in all but one.
In contrast, Angels starters have kept their opponents off the board pretty well (3.73 ERA, 73rd percentile). Moreover, their success generally seems deserved, as their FIP and xwOBA are better-than-average (if not quite as good as their ERA). This success has come mainly from the strikeout, though the Angels rotation has been somewhat above-average at limiting good contact.
The Mariners rotation is a different story. It has been bad (4.57 ERA, 31st percentile), though better at limiting runs than the Jays. However, it’s actually been worse than the Jays’ rotation in terms of xwOBA allowed. While the Mariners’ starters have been average at getting the strikeout and very strong at limiting walks, there is a sizable gap between the contact they’ve given up and the results that contact has generated. That’s certainly something that could turn around for the Mariners, in a bad way.
Relief Pitching: They are as good as we thought they’d be
The Jays’ bullpen has been a pretty consistent bright spot for the Jays in 2018, ranking well in terms of ERA, FIP and xwOBA. That said, it’s been a bit lucky, given that both its FIP and xwOBA lag behind its ERA. While the bullpen isn’t running the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the majors anymore (as was the case after two weeks), its contact allowed is a lot less dangerous—both its xwOBA on batted balls (.381, from .410) and barrel rate (4%, from 6.5%) have improved over the last month or so.
The Angels’ bullpen has been average, posting a 3.87 ERA that ranks in the 55th percentile. It’s also been a bit lucky. It’s FIP and xwOBA aren’t very good. It’s running a slightly below-average K/BB and a well below-average xwOBA on batted balls. Ditto for its barrel rate. Thus, there should be some negative regression there at some point.
In contrast, the Mariners bullpen has been solid, but unlucky. It ranks just behind the Angels in terms of ERA, but well ahead of them in terms of FIP and xwOBA. Indeed, both metrics put their bullpen ahead of the Jays. The Mariners ‘pen has been okay at limiting good contact—it gives up few batted balls that are likely hits (low xBA), though they have a problem giving up barrels that contributes to what is only an average ability at limiting dangerous contact (xwOBA on batted balls). However, it is elite at generating strikeouts and limiting walks, two things that are key parts of a solid bullpen.
The defence has fallen off a bit, but is still only a bit below-average
The most surprising part of the Jays early season success was their strong Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Through the first month, the team had a DRS/150 (2.8) that ranked in the Top 10 in the majors. Things have gone downhill quickly, with the team now at a below-average mark of -3.3 DRS/150. That jibes with the eye test, as any Jays fan can cite a few situations where a defensive lapse has led to runs of late. In comparison, the Angels’ defence has been good (3.2 DRS/150) and the Mariners’ defence has been bad (-7.9 DRS/150).
The Angels and Mariners are in the better position right now, but the Jays aren’t out of the SWC race yet
Going into the season, my hope was less for the Jays to win the 2018 World Series and more for the Jays to have a long, entertaining run for the Second Wild Card. Early on, that looked likely, with the Jays among the early favourites for the SWC. The last few weeks have seen the team take a number of steps back, diminishing the likelihood of meaningful September games at the Dome. However, it’s just way too early to write them off yet.
The biggest reason for optimism is also the biggest sore spot for Jays fans: the starting rotation. It’s made of pitchers who are simply better than they’ve been this season. Every single one of them is producing a higher ERA, FIP and xwOBA mark this season relative to both 2015-17 and 2017 (aside from Aaron Sanchez’s FIP). I’m not naive enough to believe that players can’t suddenly get bad, but this is absurd. The likelihood that all five starters (and specifically the non-Happ four) have simultaneously deteriorated in an irreversible way seems low.
Nevertheless, the rotation’s fortunes obviously need to turn very soon if the Jays are to stay in the 2018 SWC race. Are there signs of hope? Well, Marco Estrada has produced two straight sub-.300 xwOBA starts, both against powerful offences (Red Sox and A’s). That’s certainly a good sign (though, this being the Jays, he lost both games).
A little more speculatively, one hopes that Marcus Stroman will fully recover from his shoulder issue during this DL stint and come back pitching much more like the Stro-show we know and love. In that same speculative vein, Sanch is suggesting that he is still on a recovery process, getting back in the swing of things after sitting out the bulk of 2017.
Beyond the MLB starting five, there isn’t a no-doubt top-level depth in the upper minors—Joe Biagini‘s three starts with an xwOBA of .400 or more have belatedly moved me into the “put him in the MLB bullpen” camp—though there are a couple of interesting options.
Sam Gaviglio produced a solid .309 xwOBA in his Saturday afternoon start, the 11th best start out of 46 by Blue Jay starters this season. In five starts as a Buffalo Bison, he showed a newfound ability to strike batters out, while keeping his walk rate in check—among 54 pitchers with 5+ starts in the International League, he ranked seventh in K% (26.9) and third in BB% (3.7). That he produced a 26.1 K% and 4.4 BB% in his only MLB start this season, suggests he may be able to carry that Bison success over to the Blue Jays. Gaviglio also struck out 6 of 18 batters in two long relief appearances for the Jays this season, walking only one.
Over 14 career MLB starts (13 last season, one in 2018), Gaviglio has produced a .355 xwOBA. Between 2017 and 2018, 195 starting pitchers have faced 250+ batters. Gaviglio ranks 155th by xwOBA, giving some credence to his ability to be a passable #5 right now. Obviously, it would be great if improvements he’s made since joining the Jays (alluded to by his elevated K/BB) allow him to maintain even better numbers as a starter than he’s shown in his career.
Ryan Borucki, the Jays’ main upper minors pitching prospect, now has eight career AAA starts under his belt. His strong 2.96 ERA and 3.52 FIP marks suggest he’s handling the challenge well. Mr. Groundball is up to his usual tricks, leading those 54 International League starting pitchers with a 57% groundball rate this season.
Given the strength of the team’s offence and bullpen, the rotation doesn’t need to be good, just better. If Happ keeps contributing above-average pitching and Estrada builds on his recent strong performances, that’s two of five starters in good shape going forward. If Sanchez and Stroman can work their way to even league-average performances and Gaviglio (or Borucki or even Jaime Garcia) pitches like a #5, the rotation could improve quickly enough to salvage this season.
HEAD ON OVER TO THE JAYS FROM THE COUCH VS ALS STORE AND GET SOME GREAT SWAG THAT YOU WILL LOOK GREAT IN AND YOU CAN FEEL GREAT ABOUT.
YOU CAN ALSO HEAD TO OUR JAYS FROM THE COUCH VS ALS FUNDRAISING PAGE TO MAKE A TAX DEDUCTIBLE DONATION DIRECTLY TO ALS CANADA.
THANK YOU FOR VISITING JAYS FROM THE COUCH! CHECK US OUT ON TWITTER @JAYSFROMCOUCH AND INSTAGRAM. LIKE US FACEBOOK. BE SURE TO CATCH THE LATEST FROM JAYS FROM THE COUCH RADIO AND SUBSCRIBE TO OUR YOUTUBE CHANNEL!
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.