The Toronto Blue Jays are in a position where the COULD aim high when targeting pitching with Ryu and Wheeler being excellent targets
Let me be clear, the title of my post is absolutely not intended to be a revelation. By this point in the off-season, plenty of Blue Jays fans have locked in on Zack Wheeler and Hyun-Jin Ryu as optimistic targets for the Blue Jays. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg aren’t coming to Toronto, but one of the aforementioned two certainly could.
At the very least, as Shi Davidi mentioned in a Thursday evening article, “Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kyle Gibson, Jordan Lyles, Tanner Roark, Michael Pineda, Wade Miley, Rick Porcello and Dallas Keuchel are among the starters they have some degree of interest in.” Davidi added that the Jays would “like to add two starters”.
A few weeks ago, I highlighted Lyles as a strong secondary target for the Blue Jays. The way I see it, the front office would give the team’s 2020 competitiveness a real shot in the arm if it added one frontline(ish) starter, as well as a mid-rotation guy. Lyles is my preferred choice for the latter need.
[Obviously, adding two or three frontline(ish) starters would be an even bigger boost to the team’s 2020 chances. Here, I’m trying to give myself the same sort of financial constraints that the actual front office faces. That said, I agree that Rogers should start loosening the purse strings this off-season and allow the front office to go after Cole or Strasburg.]
In terms of who the primary target would be, I supported going after Wheeler and Jake Odorizzi. With the news that Odorizzi has accepted the qualifying offer from the Twins, I took a closer look at Wheeler’s performance over the last couple of seasons. In doing so, I came away with a stronger appreciation of his quality and a stronger feeling that the Jays should pursue him aggressively.
Moreover, when poring over Wheeler’s numbers, I came away with a stronger appreciation of Ryu’s quality. To be honest, when I wrote that post about Odorizzi, Wheeler and Lyles being my preferred targets, I opted not to add Ryu because I assumed he’d re-sign with the Dodgers. They’re a great team, he’s a great pitcher, they are among the biggest spenders in baseball and he would get to keep living in Los Angeles. The Dodgers just seem like the kind of team that definitely get to keep their good free agents. However, now that he has rejected their QO, has not yet signed an extension and is among the pitchers the Blue Jays are interested in, I also want to explain exactly why he’d make an excellent signing.
Wheeler and Ryu have one primary thing in common: they are both very good at pitching. Before I get in to how good they both are, it’s worth noting the ways in which they are different. Age is one thing, with Wheeler not turning 30 until the 2020 season is already a couple of months old and Ryu hitting 33 just before Opening Day.
Their approaches to pitching are another way they differ. This past season, Wheeler threw his four-seamer, which averaged 97 mph, nearly 60% of the time. Only Noah Syndergaard, Cole and Jacob deGrom surpassed that four-seamer velocity. In addition, he threw his slider regularly (20%) and his changeup (9.1%) and curveball (9.9%) occasionally.
In contrast, Ryu threw five different pitches at least 10% of the time: his four-seamer (26.4%), which averaged a modest 90.9 mph, his changeup (27.3%), his cutter (19.4%), his sinker (14.2%) and his curveball (12.1%). Ryu’s changeup is his marquee pitch and was one of the most effective pitches in baseball last season. It generated 24.1 weighted runs above average, behind only the four-seamers of Cole (34.4) and Lance Lynn (25.7), Luis Castillo‘s changeup (27.7), Justin Verlander‘s slider (31.4) and Charlie Morton‘s curveball (24.8).
The two are likely due for somewhat different contracts. FanGraphs’ crowdsource project estimates a contract of four years, $72 million for Wheeler and three years, $48 million for Ryu. Kiley McDaniel estimates that Wheeler will get $1 million less per year and, more significantly, that Ryu will get one less year than the crowd does. So, basically, they are both looking at similar annual salaries, but Wheeler seems likely to get an extra year or two in term, logical given his age.
The two pitchers are also similar in terms of their injury history. Both were pretty effective in 2013 and 2014, their first two years in the majors, with Wheeler producing 3.4 fWAR over 285.1 innings and Ryu producing an impressive 7.8 fWAR over 344 innings. Unfortunately, both missed significant time in 2015 and 2016—Wheeler made zero appearances due to Tommy John surgery, while Ryu made one appearance (in 2016) due to back, shoulder and elbow issues—and only managed about a half-season worth of appearances in 2017.
In contrast to 2015-17, Wheeler has been a workhorse over the last two seasons, pitching 182.1 innings in 2018 and 195.1 innings in 2019. Ryu, too, has pitched more consistently over the last two seasons, though he missed three months in 2018 with a groin injury. He pitched 82.1 innings that season and followed it up with 182.2 innings this past season.
In 2018 and 2019, Wheeler and Ryu have been both excellent and consistent. Their strong overall performances are reflected by better-than-average marks in both seasons in terms of ERA-, FIP-, xFIP-, SIERA and xwOBA. The only mark that was close to average, Wheeler’s 2019 ERA-, can probably be explained away by the Mets’ terrible defence (-93 DRS, 29th in the majors). The fact that Mets pitchers collectively posted an ERA- (103) meaningfully higher than their FIP- (94) and xFIP- (97) is further evidence.
Looking under the hood only bolsters my opinion of these two pitchers, as they have produced better-than-average K%, BB%, K-BB%, HR/9 and xwOBACON in each of the last two seasons. Ryu struck batters out less often in 2019, but improved in terms of walk and contact suppression. Wheeler maintained a fairly similar strikeout rate both seasons, but improved upon his walk rate. He did give up more homers and dangerous contact this past season than the one before it, but was still better than most starters at contact suppression.
Comparing the two directly, at least in terms of their 2018-19 performance, suggests that there isn’t much separating these two pitchers.
Ryu has the edge in terms of generating strikeouts relative to walks (20.3% K-BB% vs. Wheeler’s 17.1%), a result of the two having nearly identical strikeout rates (24.1% vs. 23.8%) but Ryu having a much lower walk rate (3.7% vs. 6.7%). The two have basically been equally effective at contact suppression, with Wheeler (0.86 HR/9 and .347 xwOBACON) owning a very slight edge over Ryu (0.88 HR/9 and .352 xwOBACON).
Ultimately, since Ryu’s superior walk rate was the only significant difference between the two, he also owns the superior overall metrics—Ryu has an edge over Wheeler in terms of FIP- (72 vs. 80), xFIP- (75 vs. 93), SIERA (3.60 vs. 4.04) and xwOBA (.279 vs. .288). He also owns a much, much better ERA- than Wheeler (54 vs. 92), with the Dodger defence (52 DRS over the last two season) likely a big factor.
The current Steamer projections also view the two as pitchers of roughly similar quality. Ryu is expected to produce 2.9 WAR over 171 innings, whereas Wheeler is expected to produce 3.1 WAR over 191 innings. Ryu is viewed as the slightly better pitcher (4.08 FIP vs. Wheeler’s 4.24), but Wheeler is seen as slightly more durable.
Clearly, the Blue Jays would be making a great decision adding either of these two pitchers. Another thing that’s quite clear is that the fans of plenty of other teams are saying the same thing. Ultimately, it’s a refreshing change to see the Jays at least linked with quality major leaguers this off-season. Seeing them actually sign one of them would be a clear sign that the front office is ready to move this team to the next level.
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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.