What can Blue Jays fans expect from the centerpiece of one of the team’s biggest trade deadline deals?
In what was the second biggest deal for the team at the 2018 trade deadline (behind the Roberto Osuna trade), the Blue Jays traded J.A. Happ to the New York Yankees in return for minor league outfielder Billy McKinney and infielder Brandon Drury.
Many fans, myself included, were looking forward to adding prospects at the trade deadline, especially for someone who was widely considered to be the best arm on the market. Instead, the Blue Jays centered the deal around big leaguer Drury, whose 2018 season was largely lost due to injury and losing his starting spot to Rookie of the Year candidate Miguel Andujar in New York.
The common question, and a fair one to ask both at the time and now, was “why Drury?”
Why go for a big leaguer, with average to below average results so far, who already has completed somewhere between two and three years of big league service time, rather than going younger and getting prospects to keep stockpiling the minor league system?
The answer to that question may simply be that general manager Ross Atkins felt Drury was better than any combination of prospects the Yankees or any other team was willing to give up. In that case, that is fair. Taking lesser prospects just because they are prospects is not a smart strategy, so if Drury (and McKinney) was the best offer he got, then he had to pull the trigger on it.
With that said, is it possible that Drury is better than his current performance is letting on?
Looking at performance to date, he has been a below average offensive player in his career (92 wRC+) and in his best season he put up a 1.1 WAR (0.7 WAR in his career), so let’s not jump to that conclusion yet. His underlying numbers do not suggest a breakout is imminent so it is hard to get too excited about him at face value.
However, prior to the 2018 season, it was reported that Drury was going all in on the launch angle craze in Major League Baseball and worked with the coaches who helped J.D. Martinez in order to hit more balls in the air.
Drury’s groundball percentages from 2015-17 were 56.3%, 50.1%, and 48.8% respectively. Clearly not the type of skill set that usually turns into more home runs, so he rightly identified this weakness and where the game was going, and decided to make an adjustment.
He could always hit a lot of doubles, as evidenced by the 37 he hit in 2017 with Arizona, but turning those into home runs would obviously make for a much better result.
Did it work? Hard to say.
As mentioned, he missed most of 2018 for an assortment of reasons, mostly injury, and the time he was healthy was largely in the minors (61 games).
However, looking at his Statcast batting profile, he was able to substantially increase his launch angle in 2018, albeit in a very small sample size. His launch angle was 13.4 this past season, an increase over 9.1 and 7.4 the two years prior. His groundball percentage declined to 42.1%, which was a stark improvement from earlier in his career, so it appears he was hitting more balls in the air.
Unfortunately, that did not lead to much in terms of performance. His hard hit percentage remained about the same as always, as did his barrel percentage. The one positive is that his BABIP was a very low .214, which indicates a significant amount of bad luck with balls in play.
He finished the 2018 season with a DL stint and a line of .169/.256/.260 (44 wRC+) in 26 games.
Of course, all of this is with a paltry 86 plate appearances worth of sample size, so not significant enough to draw any conclusions, positive or negative. All we could really decipher from this is that he clearly made an adjustment in his swing path in order to hit more fly balls, and it seemed to work as far as hitting more balls in the air.
Can it lead to better performance going forward? Maybe. Maybe not. A lot of times “late bloomers” are players who did well in the minors and just took a while to develop, rather than a magical swing change turning them into more talented players.
Logically, a bad offensive player is not going to become a star due to a swing change. It usually requires talent, and maybe a minor adjustment can turn that talent into greater performance.
That is where there might be some optimism for Drury. His minor league track record is very good (.828 OPS and .386 OBP in 526 AAA plate appearances). Even in his brief stint in the minors in 2018 with the Yankees AAA affiliate, he put up very strong numbers (.294/.403/.447, 144 wRC+, although his groundball percentage was 48%).
There seems to be offensive talent there. Maybe not star talent, but enough to make one intrigued at his potential, as the Yankees were prior to this season, and the Blue Jays were at the deadline. So in his case, a minor adjustment to his swing or approach at the plate might actually be worthwhile.
If he succeeds in turning his doubles into more home runs, as he wanted to prior to the 2018 season, then he becomes a far more interesting player, especially given the positions he plays (second and third).
So far in his career, Drury’s defensive metrics favor him at second base (career +4 DRS, -1.6 UZR) rather than third base (career -5 DRS, -3.1 UZR). He is not a great defensive player anywhere in the field, but might be able to put up average defensive performance at second if given the chance, with the versatility to cover third if need be.
Of course, with the long awaited and imminent arrival of Vladimir Guerrero Jr, there is no real long-term avenue at third base for Drury, so being a better defensive second baseman might be in his best interest if he stays in the Blue Jays organization. Devon Travis and his spot on the team is not assured, while the front office seems to believe Lourdes Gurriel Jr can become a shortstop defensively, so the path for playing time certainly appears to be there for Drury at second.
The Blue Jays have been incredibly fortunate to have some late blooming sluggers develop on their watch over the past few years. Expecting that out of Drury might be a bit much, but perhaps the front office sees something in him that the numbers do not.
Baseball has evolved into launch angle, exit velocity, barrels, and home runs. This front office has certainly bought into the hype given the players they have targeted, with Drury being no exception. Drury has also bought into that hype but unfortunately did not get much opportunity in the big leagues last season to see how it went.
Now he has to turn his desire to become a better home run hitter into actual results. Whether he does or not remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, he should have a lot of opportunity on a rebuilding Blue Jays team.
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Srikant Kabse is a long time baseball fan, accountant, and writer. He currently resides in New Jersey, but grew up in Scarborough Ontario where his love for the sport and for the Blue Jays began as a child. Aside from baseball, Srikant’s interests include fitness, basketball, and traveling.