This might come as a surprise, but the Toronto Blue Jays have a rather balanced lineup
Heading into the season, the Jays offence was seen as the team’s weakest link. The bullpen was solid last season, with returning staff bolstered by solid under-the-radar signings. The rotation took the team to the playoffs in 2016 and those who were healthy last season pitched pretty well, especially J.A. Happ and Marcus Stroman. Yet, a month into the season, the Blue Jays rank third in the majors in runs scored (after Wednesday night’s win against the Twins). [Ideally, we wouldn’t be behind two divisional rivals.]
What’s been the recipe for their success? Balance. [Hmm, it’s almost like the front office knew what it was doing this winter.]
When assessing hitting production, I’m partial to two statistics. Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is a great stat for capturing the overall productivity of a batter, measured in terms of results. It is based on weighted on-base average (wOBA), which accounts for walks, singles, doubles, triples and home runs. wRC+ is useful because (unlike wOBA) it is adjusted for the league, park and season the batter played in. wRC+ is produced by Fangraphs. Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) is another great stat, produced by Statcast. Instead of capturing walks, strikeouts and batted ball results (like wOBA and wRC+), xwOBA captures walks, strikeouts and batted ball quality. xwOBA assigns each batter with the expected number of singles, doubles, triples and home runs based on a batter’s launch angle and exit velocity combinations.
Regardless which stat we use, the Jays boast a notably high number of batters who are excelling after one month of baseball. While seemingly trivial, the PA cut-off is important with exercises like this, as I want to avoid cherry-picking the results that prove my point. I want to use a group of batters who have essentially been the “everyday guys” so far this season. The way I see it, 15 AL teams put out nine batters to start each game, while 15 NL teams trot out eight (proper) batters to start each game. So, I’d like my PA cut off to result in a sample as close to 255 batters as possible. At the moment, that means a cut off of 61 PA (which results in a sample of 256 batters).
Let’s start by examining balance via actual results. wRC+ is constructed such that 100 is considered league-average. Well, the Jays have six batters who are currently producing above-average results at the plate. Those six all rank among the Top 100 batters in baseball right now.
Six above-average batters puts the Jays in a tie for third in the majors. The Braves and Dodgers are the only teams with seven of these batters. The Angels, our main rivals for the second wild card spot, only have two above-average batters—Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons (Shohei Ohtani, with an impressive 180 wRC+, misses the PA cut off with 51).
Blue Jay hitters stand out even more if we raise the wRC+ cut off. Other teams might be just as loaded with above-average batters, but the Jays are uniquely loaded with well above-average batters. Let’s focus on the Top 100 batters, which leads us to use a cut off of 117 wRC+.
The Blue Jays and the Rays are the only two teams with six batters who have seen 61 or more plate appearances and have been able to maintain a wRC+ of 117 or better. Just behind them are the usual suspects. Further down the list, we have the Angels. At the bottom, those terrible, terrible Rangers. In case you were wondering, that lone Ranger batter is not Rougned Odor (56 wRC+), because he sucks.
Let’s shift gears to the batters’ underlying performances. So far this season, the league-average xwOBA is .334. The same six Jays who are producing an above-average wRC+ are producing an above-average xwOBA. This is important going forward this season, as their strong xwOBAs imply that their great results at the plate are backed up by great contact. If this wasn’t true, their strong results would have simply been luck-driven and unlikely to be replicated over the next five months.
Let’s take a moment to admire Teoscar Hernandez‘s .500 xwOBA. That number is stupid, in the best possible way. I’ll have more to say about him in a future post but, for now, I’m happy to eat humble pie. He is doing way better, way sooner than I expected and I’m very happy about it. He has must-watch plate appearances. I sincerely hope his current combo of incredible power (.338 ISO, tenth-best in majors) and league-average plate discipline (0.44 BB/K) continues through his years of team control. That second-best in the majors xwOBA is a big vote of confidence in the sustainability of his performance.
For that matter, let’s admire all six of these Jay hitters. I covered Steve Pearce‘s exploits last week. There’s nothing to worry about with regards to Justin Smoak. Kevin Pillar might actually be a good hitter now (another post for the near-future). And Yangervis Solarte and Curtis Granderson are just mashing the ball.
These six players cost the team a combined $23 million this year and have already generated 3.5 fWAR. That kind of production converts to a market price of about $31 million. For one month of production. The Shapiro/Atkins front office acquired four of them via trade/free agency and extended Smoak when everyone thought it was crazy to do so. They are geniuses. They’re human, so they make mistakes—Kendrys Morales‘ contract and trading Liam Hendriks (2.1 fWAR for the Athletics since 2016) for Jesse Chavez, to name two. But, at this point, if you hate on the two of them, you might as well write “I hate facts” on your forehead. It saves everyone else the trouble of figuring it out on their own.
How does the Jays haul of six batters with a .334 xwOBA or better compare to the rest of league? Pretty well. They find themselves tied for fourth, behind the Tigers, Yankees and Phillies (seven). The Angels rank near the bottom, with only three such batters (Trout, Simmons and Justin Upton).
As with wRC+, the Jays’ balanced attack really stands out when we focus on Top 100 batters—those with an xwOBA of .364 or better. In fact, no team in the majors has as many Top 100 xwOBA batters as the Blue Jays. This isn’t surprising as the Jays have the second-best team xwOBA in the majors (.366, behind only the Red Sox). It’s worth pointing out that the average Blue Jay hitter, in terms of xwOBA, would be in the MLB Top 100. These boys can really hit!
This balance helps explain why the Jays have produced so many runs so far this season. Each extra above-average hitter that a team has in their lineup has an increasingly positive effect on the team’s production. As noted by Fangraphs in a 2015 post about the Tulo trade, “in a good line-up, the whole really is greater than the sum of the individual parts, because good hitters create more opportunities for other good hitters to turn their production into runs.”
Let’s finish up by looking at everyone else. How much production is each team getting from the batters who either 1) have been below-average regulars or 2) have had less than 61 PA? The Blue Jays numbers paint a verrry interesting and optimistic picture. The team’s secondary batters are among the worst producers, in terms of outcomes (wRC+), but are the second-most productive group in the majors, in terms of underlying contact (xwOBA). The implication is that they have been extremely unlucky and that results are more likely to get better than get worse or stay the same in the coming weeks and months.
This jibes with the wOBA-xwOBA of individual Blue Jays. Virtually all of them have a negative gap, led by guys like Randal Grichuk (among the league leaders), Gift Ngoepe and Lourdes Gurriel. That differential is Statcast’s way of highlighting lucky (wOBA>xwOBA) and unlucky (xwOBA>wOBA) hitters.
The Jays’ hitting has driven the team into playoff contention right out of the gate. Impressively, their third-best run production is well supported by their second-best quality of contact (xwOBA), implying that this success is very sustainable. A key to that sustainability is diversification. The team’s early success hasn’t come from a few batters BABIPing their way to runs, but contributions from a number of players, whether regular, backup or utility. Just as the front office planned.
*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.