One of the benefits of the Toronto Blue Jays getting younger is the fact that they have become a lot faster overall
The 2019 Blue Jays have evolved considerably since Opening Day. There have been a number of promotions (namely those of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette) and countless transactions (discussed here, here and here), all of which have contributed to making the Jays considerably younger—the team has the third-youngest 25-man roster in baseball and is the only one without a player over the age of 32.
With youth has come speed—as currently constructed, the Blue Jays lineup is made almost entirely of players who possess above-average speed for their position.
Behind the plate is Danny Jansen. While his 27.3 ft/s sprint speed is slightly above-average for a major leaguer (55th percentile among all players with at least 25 sprints), it is positively elite for a catcher (94th percentile) and a clear improvement over Russell Martin, whose highest average speed in the Statcast era was 26.3 ft/s (2015).
Up the middle is the bloodline-duo of Cavan Biggio (28.3 ft/s) and Bo Bichette (28.5 ft/s), who rank in the 80th and 83rd percentile league-wide. It seems that shortstop is a relatively faster position than second base these days, with Biggio’s speed ranking in the 87th percentile for his position and Bichette’s ranking 69th percentile for his. Both represent improvements over recent incumbents at the two positions—last season, Aledmys Diaz averaged a speed of 27.9 ft/s, while Devon Travis owned a mark of 26.9 ft/s. Back in 2016-17, Troy Tulowitzki averaged 25.6 ft/s.
The outfield, too, is full of speedsters, including Teoscar Hernandez (29 ft/s), Derek Fisher (28.9 ft/s), Randal Grichuk (28.1 ft/s) and (the currently injured) Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (27.6 ft/s). Hernandez acquits himself well for his position (63rd percentile), despite centre field being the fastest in baseball. Fisher, listed as a left fielder, is one of the fastest at his position (91st percentile), while Grichuk (73rd percentile) and Gurriel (57th percentile) each rate above-average at theirs.
These four outfielders are a step or two quicker than those of recent years. Since 2015, four outfielders other than Grichuk and Hernandez have accumulated more than 500 PA with the Blue Jays: Kevin Pillar, Jose Bautista, Ezequiel Carerra and Michael Saunders. Pillar, not by any means a slow runner, posted a 27.8 ft/s average sprint speed in both 2017 and 2018. That said, all three Blue Jays who could potentially suit up in centre field on a given day (Hernandez, Fisher and Grichuk) are currently averaging faster marks. Similarly, none of the three are slower than Carrera was in his most recent season with the Jays (28.1 ft/s in 2017). Bautista was a favourite of mine, but speed was not his strong suit, with his sprint speed averaging around 25.5 ft/s from 2015-17. While a little quicker than Bautista, Saunders (26.9 ft/s in 2016) would similarly struggle to keep up with the current crop of outfielders.
All told, three of five infield positions and all three outfield positions (plus an extra) are being manned by Blue Jays with above-average sprint speeds. Nevertheless, further positives can still be gleaned from the team’s less-speedy base runners.
The most high-profile player in this bunch is Vladdy Jr.. While his 26.3 ft/s average sprint speed is a little below-average among third basemen (37th percentile), he is much faster than Yangervis Solarte (24.7 ft/s), last season’s primary third baseman. Moreover, he’s not much slower than Josh Donaldson, the player he is fundamentally replacing. JD’s average sprint speed fluctuated a bit since 2015, when it was a near-average 26.7 ft/s. While he was a step quicker in 2016 (27.1 ft/s), key in that season’s ALDS-winning run, he decelerated over the next two seasons (26.5 ft/s in 2017 and 25.4 ft/s in 2018).
Brandon Drury also compares favourably to Josh Donaldson—listed among third basemen, Drury (26.7 ft/s) runs faster than most of them (55th percentile). Over at first base, it seems that the transition from Justin Smoak (23.3 ft/s, 2nd percentile among 1B) to Rowdy Tellez (25 ft/s, 20th percentile among 1B) will soon begin in earnest. Finally, Billy McKinney (27.3 ft/s, 55th percentile league-wide), the team’s fourth outfielder while Gurriel is on the IL, is faster than most major leaguers.
While some of the speed gains are big and others are small, the point remains that, as a team, the Blue Jays are faster than they have been in recent years.
This can be evidenced by comparing the 2019 Blue Jays’ average sprint speed to those of recent seasons. [Statcast does not make team-level speed stats publicly available, so a crude workaround is necessary: for each season and team, I took the weighted average of every player who finished the season playing with a given team. As such, take this with a grain of salt.] After ranking 24th in average sprint speed back in 2015 (26.8 ft/s), the Blue Jays fell to 29th in 2016 (26.5 ft/s), 30th in 2017 (26.2 ft/s) and 30th in 2018 (26.5 ft/s). This season, the Jays are averaging 27.1 ft/s (19th). Moreover, that mark likely underrates the Jays’ current speed, as some of the fastest runners were promoted mid-season (Fisher, Bichette and Biggio), giving them less weight in the team-level calculations.
While speed is only one component of effective base running, there is also evidence that the team has gotten more productive on the base paths. Back in 2015, the Blue Jays were quite productive base runners, with their 11 base running runs above average (BsR) ranking 4th in the majors. However, the last three seasons saw the team among the league’s worst base running teams, ranking 25th in 2016 (-9 BsR), 29th in 2017 (-15.8 BsR) and 30th in 2018 (-27.1 BsR). However, in the 73 games since the simultaneous call-ups of Biggio and Gurriel on May 24th, the Blue Jays rank 16th in the majors, with -0.9 BsR.
The most desired fruits of the rebuild (playoff contention and a championship) lie ahead, in the (hopefully near-) future. In the meantime, it’s these improvements—as well as the team’s .500 record and +41 run differential over the last 50 games—that Jays fans can look to as evidence that things are trending in the right direction.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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