It can be difficult to find positives in the Blue Jays’ 2019 season, but Gurriel & Biggio are doing their best to provide some
2019 always seemed like it was going to be the toughest season in the Blue Jays rebuild. 2017 and 2018 were by no means pretty, but a relatively veteran-laden lineup, including plenty of 2015-16 heroes, offered some pre-season second wild card spot optimism. 2020 was earmarked as a year of potential strength, with the first wave of prized prospects expected to start settling in, while 2021 was viewed as the season the Blue Jays might start contending.
In contrast, 2019 was going to be a season where a number of post-prospect guys in their mid-20s would get a chance to show whether they would play a role in those Jays teams of the 2020s, making it sort of an in-between season—no playoff contention, a likely sub-.500 record, but also a roster made of few of the team’s top prospects.
Unfortunately, many of those mid-20s guys just haven’t performed as expected, with their numbers collectively sitting “around the 20th percentile” of their pre-season expectations (as Andrew Stoeten put it in a recent podcast)—Billy McKinney (69 wRC+), Jonathan Davis (-3), Brandon Drury (57), Teoscar Hernandez (66) and Rowdy Tellez (88).
McKinney and Hernandez have each been demoted to Buffalo to work on their approaches at the plate. Hernandez has hit for power (.258 ISO) since his June 5 promotion, but continues to struggle with the strikeout (32.4% K rate). Positively, he’s producing at an average rate overall (103 wRC+). Negatively, his underlying contact is much, much weaker than average (.245 xwOBA).
Tellez has been a below-average hitter this season (88 wRC+), a particular problem for a designated hitter. Positively, he’s been producing good contact (.335 xwOBA) more effectively than the average designated hitter (.321). Bad luck, the shift and below-average speed are all potential explanations for why his results at the plate aren’t more in line with his underlying contact and plate discipline, so there’s hope (if it’s mainly bad luck) that he will be an above-average producer over the second half of the season.
Drury has simultaneously been one of the unluckiest batters in the majors—the .037 point gap between his xwOBA and wOBA is the 14th-largest in the league (min. 200 PA)—and one of the worst performing batters in the majors—he owns the eighth-lowest wRC+ (57) in the majors and the 37th-lowest xwOBA (.299).
Davis has hit very well for Buffalo this season (149 wRC+), both before and after his May promotion to the Blue Jays, with power (.264 ISO) and getting on-base—an 18.8% walk rate and a .338 BABIP have helped Davis to a .438 OBP—his main strengths at Triple-A. Unfortunately, in the majors, Davis has shown no power (.061 ISO) or patience at the plate (3.9% BB rate), contributing much, much less than average (-3 wRC+).
Each of these guys will likely have more opportunities to show that they are major leaguers. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that none of them have been able to fully grasp the opportunities that have already been presented to them.
Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s promotion was expected to liven up the season (and it certainly has in some ways), but his inability to immediately be a 150 wRC+ hitter has dampened enthusiasm a bit. Obviously, that is an absurd expectation for a rookie and I believe that the vast majority of Jays fans understand that it can take time for a 20 year old to get used to hitting in the big leagues. I also believe he will be fine in the medium- to long-run. However, given the absurd rookie performances by other recent top prospects, like Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto, it sucks that ours had to be the one to have a normal period of adjustment to start his MLB career.
Similarly, Jays fans were anticipating getting to see the start of a long and productive career for Danny Jansen behind the plate at the Rogers Centre. Unfortunately, he’s struggled immensely (48 wRC+), striking out (22.8% K rate) more often than he did in the majors last year (17.9%) and not generating much good contact (.304 xwOBA, .089 ISO, .229 BABIP).
Fortunately, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (151 wRC+, before last night’s two-homer game) and Cavan Biggio (124) have both been electric at the plate since their May 24 call-ups from AAA Buffalo, giving Jays fans some genuine reasons to be excited.
For Gurriel, the call up came after he started the season with the big league team, but was demoted after some early struggles (41 wRC+ through April 14). He’s the kind of hitter who doesn’t walk much, but strikes out at an average-or-worse rate, so he lives and dies by the batted ball. His .100 ISO and .250 BABIP through April 14 just weren’t enough. His time at AAA Buffalo was by no means a resounding success (94 wRC+), but he was able to double his ISO (.203) and get his BABIP up above .300 (.309).
In the month since his call-up, Gurriel has been one of the best hitters in the majors. With two homers last night, he leads the majors in dingers (14) since May 24. His 188 wRC+ ranks third among MLB hitters with 100+ PA since his call-up, driven by the second-best ISO (.380) in the majors (it’s up to .416 after last night’s homers). As you’d expect, power numbers like that include some batted ball luck. However, Gurriel’s .289 xISO shows that he’s made a ton of legitimate extra-base contact.
When it comes to batters like Gurriel, who rely so much on batted balls to produce at the plate, it’s feast or famine. As fans of the team he plays for, we should try our best not to sweat the rough stretches, as there’s likely a ten-plus-game hitting streak around the corner for him.
The fact that Gurriel has looked more-than-playable in left field (1 DRS, -0.9 UZR) is icing on the cake for the Jays, given their less-than-abundant stock of upper-level outfield prospects.
In contrast to Gurriel, Biggio spent his time at AAA Buffalo dominating, producing a 151 wRC+ that remains a top ten mark among International League batters (min. 150 PA). He walked more often (19.5%) than he struck out (16.1%), produced a well-above-average amount of power (.203 ISO) and got on base a ton (.352 BABIP). In short, he hit like a guy who no longer belonged in the minors.
111 plate appearances into his big league career (not including last night’s game), he certainly looks like he belongs in the majors. He’s been an above-average producer at the plate (124 wRC+), hitting for extra bases more often than most (.211 ISO) and walking twice as often (17.1%) as the average big leaguer.
His strikeout rate (27.9%) has looked less like it did at Triple-A and more like it did last season at Double-A, but there are clear reasons to believe that it might fall as his sample size increases.
As many others have pointed out, Biggio has shown extraordinary pickiness at the plate. The most eye-popping evidence is the fact that he’s swinging at pitches outside the zone (12.4%) less often than all other major leaguers with at least 100 PA this season.
One result of that pickiness is a low swinging strike rate (7.8%). That mark is very similar to the mark he posted at Triple-A (7.3%) before his call-up. So, while he’s generating swinging strikes as often as he did at Triple-A, he’s striking out a lot more.
A batter’s swinging strike rate predicts their strikeout rate reasonably well. For example, the graph below shows the two rates for all International League batters with 100+ PA this season. A batter with a 7.3% swinging strike rate, like Biggio, would be “expected” to strike out 16% of the time. Biggio struck out 16.1% of the time.
A very similar relationship shows up in this season’s MLB data and it suggests that a batter with a 7.8% swinging strike rate can “expect” to strike out 18.2% of the time. Biggio, however, has struck out in 27.9% of his plate appearances, nearly ten percent more than predicted by his swinging strike rate.
Take this kind of analysis with a grain of salt, as it is far from comprehensive—countless factors influence a batter’s strikeout rate. However, it does offer a compelling reason to believe that Biggio’s strikeout rate going forward could be much lower than it has been so far. Similarly, while Jays fans are more than happy with his power production so far (.211 ISO), his .233 xISO suggests that he’s been short-changed somewhat.
With their excellent production at the plate over the last month, Gurriel and Biggio have made Jays games a little more interesting to watch. The team has still lost a lot more games than it’s won over that stretch, but this season was always more about watching strong individual performances by the club’s long-term pieces than it was about winning games. It’s a relief to finally start seeing such performances happen on a semi-regular basis.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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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.