The Toronto Blue Jays September Call Ups have been a pleasant surprise, particularly the young bullpen arms
The last two Septembers in Toronto were all about making the playoffs. This year, not so much. In place of playoff excitement, us Toronto Blue Jays fans have had to make do with getting excited about our partial glimpse at our future. While it’s been a mixed bag, there have been some positive surprises.
For a stats guy like me, the tricky part is trying to make useful observations with the small sample size that comes with month-long call-ups. Fortunately, we have Statcast this year! Any statistic, including Statcast’s xBA and xwOBA, becomes a more reliable indicator of both past and future success with a larger and larger sample size. However, there is evidence that these statistics are more useful than most in small sample sizes. In particular, their focus on exit velocity and launch angle helps remove the noise that can exist in results-based stats.
Urena and Hernandez: Too many Ks, but good contact quality
Two of the Jays top prospects, Richard Urena and Teoscar Hernandez, have seen a decent amount of playing time in September. Unfortunately, neither has made an obvious case for a place on the 25-man roster for 2018. Each has produced xBA and xwOBA marks well below the MLB average. Of course, given their status as prospects, this is not entirely unexpected—Urena is only 21 with no AAA experience, while Hernandez picked up baseball relatively late and has more upside than most 24 year olds.
Statcast does point to one clear area of promise for both: the contact quality they generate on batted balls. A big reason for their below-average production at the plate is their over-30% strikeout rates. On batted balls, Urena has posted well above-average marks for both xBA and xwOBA. This seems driven by his exceptionally high line drive rate (40.6% vs. roughly 13.5% at the AA level). Hernandez has been less impressive, but still sports an average xwOBA on batted balls.
Tom Koehler should get another chance to start before the season is over
At starting pitcher, the Jays call ups have essentially been guys auditioning for 2018. The one getting the most attention, Brett Anderson, has actually been the least impressive of the bunch. In his five starts with the Jays, Anderson has a really high xBA and xwOBA. Even if we remove his last start, in which he gave up 8 ER in 1.1 IP vs. the Royals, his xBA (.308) and xwOBA (.369) remain well above-average. I would still give him a shot in Spring Training next year on a minor-league deal, but that has more to do with his performance in 2015 (.240 xBA, .290 xwOBA in 180.1 IP) than what he’s done this year.
While Chris Rowley and Tom Koehler have been shifted into bullpen roles lately, each showed promise in their very short time in the rotation. Rowley’s xBA and xwOBA were basically league average, while Koehler’s one start (at the Trop, no less) saw him give up very little good contact. Rowley will almost definitely return to AAA Buffalo next year. Koehler, on the other hand, has enough potential and experience to be an important depth piece at the MLB level, serving as an MLB-ready 6th, 7th or 8th starter. His recent history provides some modest optimism—over 350+ IP as a starter in 2015 and 2016, Koehler generated a .253 xBA and .330 xwOBA, both only slightly worse than the average MLB starter. Not bad for a depth piece.
The new relievers have been just as good as the old ones
The great performance of the 2017 Jays bullpen seems like one of those facts that we all kind of know, but don’t fully appreciate. It’s been a tough season overall and the fact is that the Jays bullpen is tied for first in blown saves. But, they’re also seventh best in WAR, tenth in FIP, seventh in xBA and sixth in xwOBA. They’ve been overworked (third most IP) and have battled through it. In September, these overworked relievers have been given time to rest, with call-ups stepping up in their place. In general, their performances have been very promising—Luis Santos, Carlos Ramirez, Matt Dermody and Tom Koehler have all posted better than average xBA and xwOBA marks out of the bullpen this season.
Santos and Ramirez are two that seem to have come out of nowhere. Santos has mainly been used as a starter in his MiLB career (posting a cumulative 3.91 FIP for the Jays organization since 2015), but has done very well out of the bullpen for the big club. Ramirez is an outfielder-turned-reliever, whose simple four-seamer/slider combo has proven very effective in 2017 at each stop he’s made. Santos has excelled at limiting good contact—his .249 xBA on batted balls is the seventh best in the majors this season (among 373 RP with 30+ AB). Ramirez is more of a specialist at missing bats, while avoiding too many walks—his 18% K-BB% is 89th (among 370 RP with 10+ IP this season).
Dermody is a familiar face for Jays fans. Who can forget his excitement during the wild card celebrations last year? I’ve got a lot of respect for what Dermody’s done this season, responding to adversity by showing what he’s got. He made one appearance in April and got absolutely lit up by the Orioles, giving up three homers, a single and a walk to the six batters he faced. He was sent back down, but since getting called up in late July, he’s been an extremely solid producer. Over 20 IP, he has posted a .193 xBA and a .240 xwOBA, good for 39th and 18th best among 199 RP with 50+ AB since July 26th.
Dermody’s bread and butter has been generating weak contact. He doesn’t strike out many batters (15.5% K%), but has done an excellent job at avoiding walks (4.8% BB%). When we focus on batted balls, Dermody’s xBA (.236) and xwOBA (.253) go from great to extraordinary, ranking fourth and seventh among 120 RP who have allowed 50+ batted balls since July 26th.
Tom Koehler is only getting his feet wet as a reliever, having pitched 22.1 innings out of the bullpen during his Marlins career. But, like his performance as a starter for the Blue Jays, he has been a solid producer out of the bullpen this season. With better than average xBA and xwOBA as both a starter and reliever, Koehler seems like a decent pick for the long-man/6th starter role next season. His sample size is small, so he still needs to prove himself. But if the front office can non-tender him and sign him on a more team-friendly deal, he can be a cheap, useful and versatile piece for 2018.
Tim Mayza got some serious light shone on him in Spring Training. One of my first posts for Jays from the Couch found that his skill set (mid-90s fastball and a power slider) is very valuable in the majors. That said, he entered 2017 with only a handful of innings pitched at the AA-level, so our collective excitement had more to do with 2018 and beyond than this season. He did pretty well in AA this season and seemed to improve after a promotion to AAA, which set him up for an August call-up.
His MLB experience hasn’t been uniformly positive, but there is a lot to like. First of all, his large xBA-BA and xwOBA-wOBA suggest that he has been unlucky—he hasn’t been great, but he has given up far more hits than you’d expect based on exit velocity and launch angle. Most impressive has been his performance on strikeouts and walks—his 24.6% K-BB% ranks 25th among 370 RP with 10+ IP this season. His 30.2% strikeout rate is particularly exciting because he’s maintained it over 65 batters faced, just below the number of batters faced (70) at which a pitcher’s strikeout rate can be considered fairly reliable.
Solid performances by Tom Koehler and the group of young-ish relievers have been a silver lining during this anti-climactic September. The team needed a swingman like Koehler all season, so I envision him getting a (deserved) chance at the spot in 2018. Moreover, I really like the thought of the 2018 bullpen being anchored by cheap, controllable arms (like Roberto Osuna, Joe Biagini (probably), Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes and Dominic Leone) and reinforced by more cheap, controllable arms (like Dermody, Ramirez, Santos and Mayza).
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*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison 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.