If the Toronto Blue Jays are looking to fill a rotation spot, they should give Jacob Waguespack a chance to prove himself
The Blue Jays’ weekend sweep of the Athletics was bittersweet, given Matt Shoemaker‘s heartbreaking knee injury and the recurrence of Aaron Sanchez‘s fingernail issue. The starting rotation has been a strength for the Jays—ranking 12th in the majors with 2.2 fWAR—despite the absences of Ryan Borucki and Clayton Richard. Marcus Stroman has been a big part of that success, quietly amassing the fifth-most fWAR (1.1) in the majors so far. Clay Buchholz and Trent Thornton have performed well enough so far, particularly given that the former is coming back from an injury of his own and the latter is four starts into his MLB career.
So, the Blue Jays will need to fill at least one spot in the rotation, potentially two. Off days mean that only four starters are required for the next two turns through the rotation. As such, the main (short-term) question is whether or not Sanchez will be able to make his scheduled start on Saturday. If he can, the Jays can hold off on making a decision about their fifth starter until Saturday, May 4th. If he can’t, a decision must be made for Saturday. Earlier today, JFtC’s Karen Soutar ran through some potential options to fill the spot.
The three obvious internal options are Thomas Pannone, Sam Gaviglio and Sean Reid-Foley, but I see reasons to look elsewhere. On Sunday, I wrote about Pannone’s quality performances as a reliever. That, and the fact that he is one of two lefties in the bullpen, lead me to prefer keeping him in that role. Similarly, I’d prefer keeping Gaviglio in the bullpen as a multi-inning reliever—he has performed far better over his career as a reliever (2.81 FIP) than as a starter (5.18 FIP). Sean Reid-Foley has struggled so far this season, walking 17.4% of the batters he’s faced between Toronto and Buffalo, while giving up 2.2 HR/9.
My preference is for the Jays to give Jacob Waguespack a chance to start a game or two in the big leagues and see what he can do. I’ve been banging the drum hard for the unheralded reliever-turned-starter, as his production suggests he should be given much more attention than he is. I understand that evaluators don’t see a future big league starter in Waguespack, but at some point, strong statistical production should give credence to the possibility that there’s something there.
Strong underlying stats
Good pitchers strike batters out, while limiting walks and homers. Waguespack checks all three boxes.
Over the 2018-19 seasons, he struck out more batters than most Triple-A starting pitchers, posting a 21.2% strikeout rate that ranked in the 64th percentile among 106 pitchers with at least 15 Triple-A starts and who started in at least two-thirds of their appearances.
He walked batters a little less often than most, posting a 7.3% walk rate (54th percentile). His combination of solid strikeout and walk rates helped him post a very strong K-BB% (13.9%, 69th percentile).
Waguespack is particularly effective at limiting the most dangerous contact. Triple-A batters struggled to hit homers off him, reflected in his 0.67 HR/9 (79th percentile). Batters also struggled to hit him for doubles and triples, with his .123 ISO against ranking in the 85th percentile among Triple-A starters.
Making sense of his 3.55 FIP and 4.92 ERA
Waguespack’s strong strikeout, walk and home run numbers lead us to his excellent 3.55 FIP (90th percentile). That mark is in stark contrast to his 4.92 ERA (30th percentile), so it’s important for us to better understand the gap (which is larger than all but three other starters in our comparison group).
Unsurprisingly, it’s the result of his high BABIP (.336, 24th percentile) and low left-on base percentage (60.2%, 4th percentile). Basically, he has allowed more base hits than “normal” and more of those base runners have scored than “normal”.
These two issues are the result of some combination of poor performance and bad luck. If the contact he’s giving up is of a high quality, he would give up more hits and run a higher BABIP/low LOB% than most. On the other hand, those extra hits could’ve been soft grounders that found holes. If bad luck was the culprit, we’d expect his future BABIP and LOB% to look a lot more “normal”—a roughly .300 BABIP and 72% LOB%.
A look at his wOBA against helps us highlight one type of bad luck he seems to have dealt with: cluster luck. Waguespack has posted a .320 wOBA, which is roughly average (56th percentile) among his comp group and splits the difference between his strong FIP and poor ERA.
On the one hand, he rates poorer in terms of wOBA than FIP because of his high BABIP—wOBA accounts for those extra hits while FIP does not (as it focuses only on strikeouts, walks and homers). On the other hand, he rates better in terms of wOBA than ERA because wOBA is unaffected by cluster luck. A pitcher who gives up one single in each of the five innings they’ve pitched has the same wOBA as a pitcher who gives up five singles in one inning and none over the other four. However, the former almost certainly has a lower ERA than the latter, thanks to cluster luck.
As such, it is unwise to put too much stock into Waguespack’s poor ERA. Those runs happened, there’s no debating that. However, his future ERA at Triple-A is more likely to resemble the strong FIP he has posted thus far at the level.
Very strong batted ball profile
Waguespack is able to limit homers so effectively because he generates so many ground balls (52% GB rate, 92nd percentile) and so few fly balls (30% FB rate, 86th percentile). He also effectively limits liners (18% LD rate, 89th percentile).
Not only is he effective at limiting fly balls, he is effective at limiting how far the flies he does give up travel. The average fly ball he gives up (that either clears the wall or is caught for an out) travels only 279 feet (82nd percentile).
This contact-quality suppression also shines through in the rate at which Waguespack gives up fly balls that travel at least 325, 375 and 400 feet (I chose these three thresholds as they reflect the typical distance to the outfield fence at the foul lines, power alleys and dead-centre field). Only 1.9% of the batters he’s faced at Triple-A hit a fly ball that travelled at least 325 feet (97th percentile). 0.6% hit flies of 375 feet or more (94th percentile), while 0.2% hit flies of 400 feet or more (86th percentile).
Promoting Waguespack is a calculated leap of faith
Ideally, the Blue Jays would be in a position to promote a pitcher who has stellar evaluations and pristine numbers across the board. In reality, that situation is quite rare.
Like the promotions of plenty of pitchers before him, taking a shot on starting Waguespack in the majors right now is a calculated leap of faith—his immediate success is far from guaranteed, but there are good reasons to believe he could hold his own. Moreover, the (unofficial) motto for the 2019 Blue Jays season is “let’s see what we’ve got here”. So, let’s see what we’ve got here.
Best as I can tell, the Blue Jays have a pitcher who is average (or a little better) at generating strikeouts and limiting walks, but is elite at generating low-quality contact. Moreover, Waguespack is special in other ways. He was an undrafted free agent who signed with the Phillies in 2015 as a reliever. Working his way from rookie-ball up to High-A, he posted a 2.93 FIP over his 76 first appearances, all in relief. In May 2017, he was moved into the rotation due to injuries. Less than a year later, he was starting in Triple-A, after posting a 2.83 FIP over 23 starts between High-A and Double-A.
While I’m cautious in my optimism that the team will use Waguespack to solve their short-term rotation issue, the fact that he was acquired by the team last summer and then added to the 40-man roster this off-season suggests that the front office holds him in high regard. We will find out shortly if that regard is high enough to get Waguespack an MLB debut this Saturday or next.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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