The Toronto Blue Jays offense seems to have taken off since Jose Bautista’s extra inning home run in Los Angeles.
After an [insert preferred adjective here] start to the season, the Blue Jays have righted the ship. A 3-12 start has been followed up by a season-stabilizing 16-14 stretch. Splitting the season this way might be arbitrary, but the game that started this winning run was the extra innings-game against the Angels, one that feels in hindsight like a potential season turner.
The team lost Tulo (the fourth Jay on the DL in eight days), setting the stage for a long run of games without the left side of their infield (the 5th best SS/3B pairing in 2016 by WAR). Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes established themselves as solid bullpen options with five scoreless innings of work. Jose Bautista won the game with his first home run of the season.
The improvement in results following that game would’ve been positive enough if the full opening day lineup had been in place throughout. Instead, most of the last 30 Blue Jays lineups included significant amounts of Darwin Barney, Ryan Goins, Ezequiel Carrera, Chris Coghlan and Luke Maile.
I think they’re all top-notch dudes, but none of them was projected to produce a league-average wOBA (around .319) this season. Unfortunately, on top of that, they are each struggling to meet even those expectations (all data up to and including Saturday’s game).
Barney’s xwOBA has been consistently below expectations so far, with a strong start driven mainly by luck (his wOBA was much higher than his xwOBA during the first 15 games). Gogo’s actually been a victim of bad luck, with a strong xwOBA undercut by a weak wOBA (his xwOBA – wOBA ranks 43rd in the majors this season).
Carrera has seen the most playing time of the bunch, but hasn’t been producing, benefiting from good fortune all season. On a positive note, he has been having better plate appearances over the last month (higher xwOBA). Coghlan is another depth batter who hasn’t met expectations, but has made strides recently.
Luke Maile has had a rough 2017 season. He can definitely contribute with the glove (his 0.6 adjusted fielding runs above average ranks 26th among 76 MLB catchers) and he called a hell of a game on Sunday, but he hasn’t been able to contribute at the plate (his xwOBA ranks 384th among 389 batters with 30+ AB, while his wOBA is the second lowest of the group).
I start off on these negative notes to underline the strong contributions of the (relatively healthy) Blue Jays starters over the last month. Each has produced an xwOBA that exceeds his pre-season wOBA projection, helping the team make up for weak contributions by the replacements.
Justin Smoak has been on fire all season (his 2017 xwOBA ranks 19th in the majors). After a slow start, Russell Martin had the second highest xwOBA among catchers for a couple of weeks, before ultimately hitting the DL. Kevin Pillar has exceeded expectations through both improved performance (his 2017 xwOBA ranks 11th among CF) and good luck (wOBA > xwOBA). Devon Travis has been raking (his xwOBA over the last month ranks fourth among 2B).
Perhaps sparked by that game-winning home run (his five-game xwOBA average was at its lowest point of the season before the extra-innings game), Jose has been a man reborn at the plate (his xwOBA since April 21 ranks 33rd in the majors), surpassing even his lofty projections.
Kendrys Morales is the only starter to see his performance dip over the last month. Process-wise, he was dominating at the plate to start his Jays career (his xwOBA before April 21 was 10th highest in the majors), but wasn’t producing equivalently strong results (his .112 xwOBA – wOBA was 8th highest in the majors). Now, slower batters who face the shift tend to end up with positive xwOBA – wOBA in the long run (they’re less likely to get infield singles due to their speed and more likely to ground into outs due to the shift). Over the last three seasons, Morales has had a .036 xwOBA – wOBA, perhaps a good estimate of his long-run baseline. Over the last month, he has still managed to produce an xwOBA that beats his pre-season projection, but relatively neutral luck (.040 xwOBA – wOBA) has led to less than projected results.
Before joining the Jays very expensive DL (the $12.7 million spent on players currently on the DL leads the majors), Steve Pearce saw a significant improvement in his hitting. After struggling in the first couple weeks of 2017 (his xwOBA ranked 250th out of 254 with 30+ AB prior to April 21), Pearce began to mash (his .318 isolated power ranks 19th in the majors after April 21).
With their best hitters hitting, the Jays have put together very solid plate appearances over the last month. The team’s xwOBA surpasses its strong 2016 mark, as well as pre-season wOBA projections. Unfortunately, the team’s wOBA has lagged its xwOBA (though to a lesser extent than over the first 12 games). Nevertheless, the team has been producing more runs per game than it did in 2016 or was projected to produce in 2017.
This is really key. We entered the season believing that a strong offence would be integral to the Jays’ postseason chances. Then a 3-12 start (caused in large part by a struggling offence) left the team in a deep hole. Even in that abyss, Jays fans justifiably felt that getting out was still doable, if the bats got going as we know they could. Well, for one month all seven of the best (healthy) Blue Jays bats exceeded expectations. Each even ranked among the top 120 highest xwOBA over the ongoing stretch of games.
This should give us all a lot more confidence that their pre-season offensive projections (sixth best offence in the majors) weren’t fantasy and are still achievable this year. A projection-meeting offence, combined with the solid pitching we’ve seen all year (I’ll explore that side of the team in another post) will give the Blue Jays a fighting chance at a playoff spot in 2017.
*Featured Image Credit: Arturo Pardavila III UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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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.