Thoughts on the Blue Jays’ productive Tuesday

 

The Toronto Blue Jays made a flurry of moves on Tuesday, including the trade of Kevin Pillar to the Giants

 

 

 

 

The Blue Jays got a lot of business done on Tuesday. It started off with a long-anticipated trade of Kevin Pillar to the Giants. Then, there was a minor but interesting trade that netted the Jays Socrates Brito from the Padres. Finally, just before game time on Tuesday evening, the team announced the signing of Randal Grichuk to a five-year deal that keeps him in Toronto until 2023. Each move will have different effects on the team’s present and future, but each has interesting positives for the Blue Jays.

 

Kevin Pillar for Derek Law, Alen Hanson and Juan De Paula

First, it’s important to pour one out for Pillar and his contributions to the team. Cam Lewis of Blue Jays Nation captured things well: Kevin Pillar did more for the Blue Jays than anybody reasonably could have expected.

 

In terms of the players coming to the Blue Jays, there is a mix of MLB-ready talent and long-term potential.

 

Derek Law looks to be a major-league reliever. Expectations are for him to be a middle-inning guy, but there is reason to be optimistic that he can surprise Jays fans. For one, he’s got a career FIP- of 89 over 105.2 innings of relief, with decent numbers across the board—he’s struck out 21.7% of batters, walked only 6.9% of them and has given up a modest 0.85 HR/9. His career xwOBA (.310) similarly speaks to above-average performances.

 

A devil’s advocate would point to his 139 FIP- in 2018 as evidence that he’s no longer the pitcher he was in 2016 (65 FIP-). Last season, he produced a career-low strikeout rate (18.2%) and career-high walk rate (12.1%) and home run rate (1.35 HR/9).

 

However, there are valid counterpoints to these knocks. He posted a career-high swinging strike rate (10.9%), so maybe bad luck contributed to those strikeout and walk rates. The small sample size (13.1 innings) is also likely relevant. Moreover, the contact quality he gave up doesn’t jibe with his 1.35 HR/9—his 4.5% barrel rate is pretty similar to the reliever average last season (4.2%). Plus, he ran one of the biggest wOBA-xwOBA gaps on batted balls among relievers—his .117 mark was the ninth-largest among 420 relievers who surrendered at least 30 batted balls in 2018.

 

Alen Hanson’s key strengths are positional versatility—he’s played 52+ big league innings at every position but 1B and C—and speed—he’s accumulated 4.3 BsR over roughly a single season’s worth of plate appearances (577) and has produced above-average sprint speeds (ranging from 28.2 ft/s to 29.2 ft/s) in each of his three seasons in the MLB. Unfortunately, he’s not much of a hitter—he’s posted a career wRC+ of 72 (6th percentile) and a career xwOBA of .243, the lowest mark in the majors since 2016 (min. 500 PA)—so it remains to be seen how he’s used by the team. An assignment to AAA Buffalo would not be surprising.

 

Juan De Paula is the long-term asset. He’s still a ways away from the bigs, with only one start at full-season ball, but the potential to be a back-end starter or late-inning reliever is there. Over two seasons (109.1 IP) at Short Season-A, where he was a couple years younger than the average pitcher, he did a phenomenal job at avoiding the long ball, giving up only one homer (0.08 HR/9). There is also evidence he can suppress effective contact of any kind, with his .258 BABIP an eye-popping number. His strikeout rate (22.1%) is fairly average and he has struggled a bit with walks (11.4% BB rate).

 

While there is plenty of development left ahead of De Paula, he is a legitimate pitching prospect who now finds himself in the #30 spot of MLB Pipeline’s Blue Jays top prospect list.

 

Rodrigo Orozco for Socrates Brito

While the least newsworthy move of the day, I think the acquisition of Brito is plenty interesting. Now, a look at his Fangraphs page might leave you wondering why that is, given his MLB wRC+ of 46 and fWAR of -0.2. However, given that he’s only had 175 major league plate appearances, caution is necessary when reading into these numbers.

 

Instead, let’s look at his Triple-A stats. Most promisingly, Brito has increased his ISO each of his three seasons at the level, from .145 to .158 to .222. He’s also increased his walk-to-strikeout ratio each season, from 0.22 to 0.34 to 0.42, and his BABIP each season, from .349 to .352 to .384. These across-the-board improvements at the plate have helped him improve his wRC+, from 100 in 2016 and 2017 to 140 in 2018. A fella with a 21.8% strikeout rate and a .222 ISO at Triple-A (2018) is mighty intriguing, to say nothing of his way above-average BABIP.

 

Looking deeper at his power only confirms this optimism. Last season, Brito hit eight homers that travelled at least 400-feet, representing 1.7% of his Triple-A plate appearances. That rate put him in the 84th percentile among Triple-A batters with at least 200 PA in 2018. For further context, he was just ahead of power hitters like Luke Voit and Dan Vogelbach.

 

Brito also has plenty of value beyond his bat. Indeed, in 2018, Fangraphs rated him average-or-better in terms of speed, fielding and arm but below-average in terms of his hit and game power tools.

 

His speed is evident in his limited Statcast sprint data. In his three MLB seasons, he’s posted average speeds of 29.6 ft/s (14th-best in 2015), 29.9 ft/s (7th-best in 2016) and 29.9 ft/s (10th-best in 2018). The guy can run. It hasn’t fully manifested on the basepaths—he owns a career 0.5 BsR in the majors and a career 0.4 wSB at Triple-A—but it remains there to be tapped into.

 

In the majors, he’s played a bit at all three outfield positions (350.1 innings overall) and done so effectively—he owns a career 6 DRS and 4.1 UZR (14.6 UZR/150). In the minors, he’s also played across the outfield, mainly in center and right, logical given his speed and arm. According to Clay Davenport, Brito has produced 8 FRAA over 136 AAA games in right field and 6 FRAA over 82 AAA games in center. Clearly, he’s been an effective outfielder over multiple seasons at the highest levels of baseball.

 

In Orozco, the Jays are losing a 24 year old prospect (coincidentally, Tuesday was his birthday) who reached High-A in 2018. While he produced a solid 124 wRC+ at the level last season, his very limited power (.085 ISO) and only so-so defence (-4 FRAA over 89 games in left and right field) meant that he was never likely to be a major leaguer of note. Nevertheless, I wish him well in his journey and development.

 

Randal Grichuk signs with the Blue Jays until 2023

The final move of the day was the Grichuk extension. While most veteran Jays have been traded, there was a sense among Jays fans that Grichuk was the most likely extension candidate. The logic is obvious. 2019 represents his age-27 season, so he has plenty of prime years left in him. Plus, he’s been an above-average player in terms of his hitting, base running and fielding.

 

As a hitter, his career 109 wRC+ (and 115 mark last season) is much more indicative of his hitting quality than his batting average (.247) or OBP (.297). Seeing people trash the extension on account of these two stats isn’t surprising, but it is still a bit annoying. The guy has a .244 career ISO. That is the 18th-best mark in the majors since his rookie year (2014). When you lump the good in with the bad, he’s clearly a more productive hitter than most major leaguers.

 

As a runner, he’s been solid if unspectacular (5.3 BsR), with his value coming more from his ability to make good decisions when the ball is in play (4.9 UBR and 2.0 wGDP) than his base-stealing skills (-1.6 wSB). His underlying sprint speed (consistently around 28.5 ft/s throughout his big league career) jibes with his slightly above-average production as a base runner.

 

As a fielder, he has been both effective and versatile. He has played over 800 innings at each outfield position and done so well—he’s produced 9 DRS as a left fielder (849 innings), 12 DRS as a centre fielder (1510.2 innings) and 3 DRS as a right fielder (1493 innings). Jon Jay is the only other major leaguer who has played 800+ innings at all three outfield positions since 2014, though he rated as a slightly below-average CF (-1 DRS).

 

A still relatively young outfielder with plenty of seasoning and above-average hitting, base running and fielding value is exactly the kind of player the Jays should be giving an extension to right now. It makes sense in a vacuum and makes even more sense given the limited upper-minors outfield depth in the Blue Jays system. Another positive aspect of the deal is that it’s front-loaded, which means the Jays still have a ton of salary flexibility beyond 2020.

 

Concluding Thoughts

While it’s tough to say goodbye, it was time to move on from Kevin Pillar, who netted the team a solid MLB-ready reliever (Derek Law) and a solid long-term pitching prospect (Juan De Paula). Socrates Brito might contribute more to the big league team than his past MLB performance would lead one to expect. Randal Grichuk will patrol the Jays outfield and produce gobs of power into the team’s contention years. Plus, as a bonus, Anthony Alford has a much clearer path to the majors. All in all, Tuesday was a good day for the Blue Jays (aside from losing again to the Orioles).

 

 

 

 

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Jeff Quattrociocchi

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.