Jays From the Couch takes the look at the Toronto Blue Jays batted ball luck during this tumultuous season
This season has really gotten away from the Jays, hasn’t it? While the Achilles heel has been the suddenly terrible rotation, this post will focus on another important problem: the offence’s bad batted ball luck. To be clear, the presence of bad batted ball luck is something that’s tricky to definitively prove. At best, we can point to a bunch of numbers (and usually, the eye test) and say, “this looks a lot like a team that has dealt with bad batted ball luck”.
Before I get to it, I want to note that batted ball is only one variety of baseball luck. Cluster luck is another—it is when a team’s hits are either highly concentrated or highly balanced, leading to an abnormally high or low number of runs relative to the team’s number of hits. The Blue Jays have benefited from some cluster luck this season. On the whole, they have been below-average producers at the plate, with a 94 wRC+ ranking 20th in the majors. However, the team’s above-average production with runners on base (112 wRC+, 8th) has propelled it to an above-average level of run production overall (4.58 RS/G, 9th).
Nevertheless, this good cluster luck appears to be outweighed by bad batted ball luck. A stat that is unaffected by cluster and batted ball luck is Statcast’s xwOBA, which accounts for batters’ walks, strikeouts and contact quality. The Blue Jays rank fifth in the majors in xwOBA (.348). This suggests that, with neutral luck, the Blue Jays’ above-average run production could have been among the league leaders two months into the season.
Let’s start with the classic indicator of batted ball luck: batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Statcast’s BABIP is equal to non-home run hits divided by non-home run, non-strikeout at-bats (sac flies are not included, unlike Fangraphs). As the name implies, BABIP captures how often batters are putting the ball in play and getting hits. Sabermetric theory assumes that teams “should” have a BABIP around .300. Any big differences are more than likely due to good or bad batted ball luck.
The Blue Jays have the 29th-highest BABIP in the majors (.278). That is usually a clear sign of bad batted ball luck. However, with the Blue Jays recent history, we can’t be so sure. The Jays haven’t had a “normal” BABIP since 2015, when their .302 mark ranked 16th in the majors. Each of the last two seasons, the team found itself near the bottom of the league, posting a .292 mark in 2016 (27th) and a .278 mark in 2017 (30th).
It’s at this point that the similarities between 2017 and 2018 end. It’s fair to say, given Statcast’s data, that the 2017 offence was legitimately bad and that the terrible BABIP was fairly well-deserved. The Jays had the 26th-highest xBABIP in 2017, producing a .298 mark. This suggests that the contact quality Jay batters were producing on balls in play last season wasn’t very good. Essentially, they earned that low BABIP. [The fact that their xBABIP was 20 points higher than their BABIP is not particularly meaningful, as xBABIP has less extreme values than BABIP.]
2018 is a much different story. The Blue Jays own the 2nd-highest xBABIP in the majors, producing a .334 mark thus far. Jay batters are producing (what appears to be) elite contact on balls in play, but getting terrible results. Given these facts, you’d be unsurprised to learn that the Jays have the biggest xBABIP-BABIP gap in the majors right now. In fact, it’s not even close—the Jays have an xBABIP that is 56 points greater than their BABIP. Next on the list is the Nationals and Cleveland, with gaps of 35 points.
The defensive shift is a possible explanation. If Jay batters face a shifted infield more often than most, they may hit a lot more well-struck balls at fielders—the contact is good (high xBABIP), but the results aren’t (low BABIP)—which wouldn’t really qualify as bad batted ball luck. That doesn’t seem the case here. When results are filtered to include only “standard” infield alignments, as defined by Statcast, the Jays still find themselves atop the xBABIP-BABIP list, with a 57 point gap. How about outfield shifts? Again, when results are filtered to include only “standard” infield and outfield alignments, the Jays have the highest xBABIP-BABIP in the majors (59 points).
Let’s broaden our scope a bit and examine all batted balls. Let’s also shift gears away from simple batting average to a more well-rounded hitting stat, weighted on-base average (wOBA) and its Statcast cousin, expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). The Blue Jays currently own the fourth-best xwOBA on batted balls (.421). This implies that the contact Jays batters have generated so far is of the highest quality, likely to result in plenty of extra base-hits. However, in terms of wOBA on batted balls, the team is middle-of-the-pack, ranking 15th with a .360 mark.
Put those two marks together and you have the largest xwOBA-wOBA on batted balls in the majors, with a 61 point gap. The next team is a bit behind the Jays, with the Mariners ranking second with a 51 point gap. Just like before, the shift doesn’t appear to be the explanation. If we only examine instances where the batter faced standard infield and outfield alignments, the Jays retain a large xwOBA-wOBA gap (57 points), still tops in the majors.
Statcast has a new way to flag batted balls: “hard-hit” balls. [I can’t find a proper definition for a hard-hit ball, but I’ve deduced that the criteria is any batted ball with an exit velocity greater than 95 mph.] The Jays generate a lot of hard-hit balls, ranking second in the majors (584). However, they own the third-largest xwOBA-wOBA gap with them.
Maybe those hard-hit balls are worm burners? Some certainly are, but the Jays still rank second in the majors with 367 hard-hit liners or fly balls. The team finds itself sandwiched between the Red Sox (368) and Angels (366). The Jays’ xwOBA-wOBA gap on these hard-hit air balls? Fifth-highest in the majors.
Let’s focus on the best hard-hit air balls: barrels. These batted balls are not only hit hard, their launch angle is in a sweet spot that leads to lots of homers and extra base-hits. Do the Jays barrel? Yes, very much so—the team’s 123 barrels rank third in the majors, behind the Red Sox and Yankees. Are they being rewarded for all of those barrels? Not so much—they only rank 16th in barreled home runs and 27th in barrel wOBA. The Jays’ xwOBA-wOBA on barrels? You know the drill by now—they own the fourth-highest mark in the majors.
Batted balls with a projected distance of 400ft or more? The Jays lead in xwOBA-wOBA. Batted balls with a project distance of 400ft or less? The Jays lead. Balls hit to the right half of the field? The Jays rank third. Balls hit to the left half of the field? The Jays rank second. Against right-handed pitchers? The Jays are tied for third. Against lefties? The Jays rank first. Playing at home? The Jays rank third. Playing away? The Jays rank first.
The league-average xwOBA on a batted ball is .392. The Jays rank ninth in the number of batted balls hit with an xwOBA of .392 or more (essentially, batted balls with above-average quality). That’s decent. Unfortunately, they rank second in the number of these above-average batted balls that go for outs. In terms of the rate at which above-average quality batted balls go for outs, the Jays rank first (40.1%).
The Jays make lots of good contact. They also avoid making poor contact as well. Statcast defines three types of batted balls as having “poor” quality: those that batters get under (and likely become pop-ups), those that batters top (and likely become easy grounders) and those just generally hit weakly. The Jays have produced the third-lowest number of poorly hit batted balls and the lowest Poor Contact per PA rate in the majors (38.4%). As a bonus, they even have the sixth-highest xwOBA-wOBA among these low-quality batted balls, producing less than expected on these as well.
For the season, the Jays have had a good, but very unlucky offence. The team ranks fifth in walk rate (good) and 20th in strikeout rate (not good), which results in a middle-of-the pack BB/K (0.40, 15th). On batted balls, they have generated some of the best contact quality in the majors, without a ton to show for it. Why? It’s hard to say. It seems like the shift, whether infield or outfield, isn’t the answer.
Maybe a lack of speed is the issue? This does make sense as an explanation—slower runners wouldn’t be able to turn a well-hit ball into as many extra bases as faster runners. Does this fit the data? Not in this case. Five of the 15 “unluckiest” batters in the majors this season (in terms of xwOBA-wOBA on batted balls) are Blue Jays. While two of them (Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce) are slow, the other three (Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel and Teoscar Hernandez) have each posted an average sprint speed of 28 ft/s or more this season (the league-average is 27 ft/s).
I’m left with bad luck as the explanation for this contact/results gap. I think this idea passes the eye test too. One of Statcast’s search filters is “Only Show Plays with Video”. This filters the results to plays that were exceptional in some way. The Blue Jays are tied for second in well-hit batted balls that led to outs via a defensive effort good enough for MLB.com to post a video clip of it (with 42 of them). Click the link, click on TOR and then click on the camera icon beside each batted ball event to take a look at the plays. There are a lot of solid plays by the fielder, with a few that are highlight reel worthy. Loud outs.
That said, I’m not going to conclude with “the Jays offence has suffered from a lot of bad batted ball luck…postseason, here we come!” The Blue Jays are in a tough spot in terms of contending for a playoff spot in 2018 (the Jays are in a great spot as a franchise going forward, though). In order to get back in the SWC race—they are currently nine games back of the Mariners and five games behind the Angels—they need their offence to get going (propelled by better batted ball luck), their rotation to pitch at a roughly average level, their bullpen to keep trucking along and the multitude of players returning from injury to get going quickly.
As many others have written, the team has a month or so to turn things around. Cut the gap to a few games and the team gets a bit more time to justify trying to contend in 2018. However, if they’re still 9+ games behind the SWC on Canada Day, I’d have to imagine the transactions start flying. Once you make peace with the fact that the team likely isn’t making the playoffs, you can start to get excited about the potential prospects our guys can return (a detailed look into those potential returns is for another post, if/when the time comes), not to mention the fact that 2019, regardless of whether we are in the playoff race or not, will be fun as hell.
Featured Photo Credit: DaveMe Images
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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.