Using advanced metrics, we might be able to find positive signs in the early struggles of the Toronto Blue Jays hitters
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Earlier this year, roughly one thousand months ago, I discussed a novel approach to examine batted balls developed by Tom Tango, MLB Advanced Media’s Senior Data Architect, and applied it to the 2019 Blue Jays. The approach centres on four “buckets” of batted balls, categorized by their exit velocity and launch angle. Tango summarised these four buckets in his original post:
● balls hit 95+, at 24+ degrees: these are the best indicator of a batter’s talent
● balls hit 95+, under 24 degrees: these are a very solid indicator of a batter’s talent
● balls hit under 95, at 8-32 degrees: this tells you how average a batter is
● balls hit under 95, outside of 8-32 degrees: this tells you everything bad about a batter, mishitting on both speed and angle
For a more detailed explanation of these buckets and their predictiveness, feel free to check out my earlier post.
After breaking down how each Blue Jay hitter performed in 2019, I concluded on a relatively positive note:
In 2020, the Blue Jays could put out a batting lineup made up exclusively of guys with solid batted ball profiles, in terms of pwOBACON. Biggio, Teoscar, Rowdy and Shaw each produced above-average rates of hard-hit balls with loft and low rates of weakly-hit balls with extreme launch angles. Gurriel, Jansen and Grichuk each produced average rates of the worst kind of batted balls, but also produced very strong rates of hard-hit balls. Bo and Vlad could stand to generate more loft, but nevertheless produce a lot of hard contact and are still only in their early-twenties.
While each Blue Jay has things to work on in order to squeeze out every drop of potential, the foundation for a positive offensive season is there.
I thought it would be useful to check in on the kinds of batted balls the 2020 Blue Jays have been producing so far this season. As plenty of others have noted, while we’re only 15 or so games into the season (depending on the team), we’re also one-quarter of the way into the season.
It’s obviously too early to derive much meaning from outcome-based stats, which require a lot more plate appearances to be meaningful reflections of past performance (let alone predictive of future performance). However, it’s not too early to take a more granular look at batted balls, particularly using an approach with solid predictive power in small samples.
A batter who hits a ball well enough that they can crack an exit velocity of 100mph despite getting underneath it is probably a good batter, despite that batted ball likely being an out. Check out this list of 2020 batted balls with a 100mph-plus exit velocity, sorted by launch angle (and watch the videos, as they really help capture the intuitive nature of the pwOBACON approach).
Here are the steepest hit (65 degree) 100mph-plus batted balls: one by Matt Olson and another by Marcell Ozuna. In both cases, there’s a loud crack, the announcers immediately comment on the batter just missing it, the ball stays in the air for a while and the fielder struggles mightily to catch it. Moreover, in both cases, possessing the ability to hit towering pop ups correlates to being a good hitter — Olson has a career wRC+ of 129, while Ozuna owns a 113 career mark.
Work your way down the list and you’ll see more and more above-average hitters — like Joey Gallo (career 116 wRC+), Mark Canha (114), Joc Pederson (119) and Carlos Correa (130) — including the Jays’ own Cavan Biggio (113), who nearly sent this ball out of the park in Washington.
The table below includes every Blue Jay hitter with at least 20 plate appearances, as well as their wRC+, the share of their plate appearances that belong to each of the aforementioned batted ball buckets and how that share ranks relative to all major league hitters (with a minimum of 20 PA). A higher percentile rank equates to a higher share of that particular batted ball type (which is good for the first two buckets, okay for the third bucket and bad for the last bucket).
Let’s start with the Jays’ primary bright spot so far in 2020: Teoscar Hernandez. In my analysis of his 2019 performance, he stood out for having a high rate of hard-hit air balls (bucket one) and a low rate of weakly-hit balls with extreme launch angles (bucket four). In 2020, he’s not only improved in both of those regards, he’s also started hitting a high rate of hard-hit grounders/liners (bucket two) as well. His success at the plate this season appears to be on extremely solid foundation.
Hernandez is also a useful example of when one’s rate of weakly-hit balls with intermediate launch angle (bucket three) is not particularly important. When a batter hits a lot of hard batted balls and few weakly-hit balls with extreme launch angles, they don’t really need to hit weak liners in order to be productive.
Cavan Biggio was another 2019 standout. This season, while he’s maintained his elite rate of hard-hit air balls, he’s producing fewer weakly-hit balls with intermediate launch angles and a lot more weakly-hit balls with extreme launch angles. Rowdy Tellez is in a similar boat — an increased rate of hard-hit air balls, along with a lot fewer bucket three batted balls and a lot more of the worst variety.
Travis Shaw‘s situation is a little bit more nuanced. A lot more of his plate appearances are resulting in hard-hit balls than last season (25% vs. 19.3%). However, when we separate buckets one and two, we see that he’s putting those hard-hit balls in the air half as often as he did in 2019, with the vast majority of these at a launch angle below 24 degrees. Positively, he’s avoiding the worst type of batted balls. It’s also important to his relatively low PA count, thanks to his multi-game absence due to a family issue.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is another interesting case. This season, the average major league hitter has either walked or struck out in 32.6% of his plate appearances. Gurriel has only done so in 25.5% of his plate appearances, a mark that puts him below roughly three-quarters of MLB batters. The result is a lot of batted balls, evident in the fact that he doesn’t rank particularly low in any of the four buckets. Unfortunately, relative to 2019, he’s producing much fewer hard-hit air balls and slightly more weakly-hit balls with extreme launch angles. On a more positive note, he’s producing more hard-hit grounders/liners (though the increase isn’t as large as the decrease in bucket one batted balls) and more weakly-hit balls with a decent, intermediate launch angle.
Randal Grichuk has also traded hard-hit air balls for hard-hit grounders relative to 2019, though in his case, the increase in hard-hit grounders has been equal in magnitude to the decrease in hard-hit air balls. In terms of the other two types of batted balls, not much has changed for Grich — a below-average rate of bucket threes, an average-or-slightly-higher rate of bucket fours.
Stepping away from batted balls for a moment, it’s worth mentioning that, so far, Grichuk’s quest to cut down on the strikeouts has continued positively in 2020. Last we checked, back on September 9, I noted that Grich had struck out at a pretty average rate of 22.6% since June 21st (not a cherry picked date, but rather the day a Ross Atkins-Birds All Day interview was posted, in which Atkins highlighted Grichuk’s efforts in this regard). Over 361 plate appearances from June 21st, 2019 to August 11, 2020, Grichuk has maintained a solid 23% strikeout rate (the MLB average over this stretch was 23.2%).
In Danny Jansen‘s case, the notable difference with 2019 is his increased rate of walks and strikeouts — this season, he’s ended a PA without a batted ball 42.5% of the time, compared to a lower-than-average 28.7% of the time last year. In terms of batted balls, there are both positive and negative changes from 2019. Positively, Jansen is still producing a solid rate of hard-hit air balls and a relatively low rate of bucket four balls. Negatively, he’s essentially stopped hitting hard grounders, which has contributed to his overall hard-hit rate falling by more than half.
In 2019, Bo Bichette and Vlad Guerrero Jr. both stood out for their very high rates of hard-hit grounders, with both ranking in the 90th percentile league-wide.
Positively, Bichette has turned his slightly-below average rate of hard-hit air balls into a slightly-above average rate. And he’s still producing a high rate of those bucket three batted balls. Unfortunately, that stellar rate of hard-hit grounders/liners has fallen below the MLB average, while his previously-low rate of weakly-hit balls with extreme launch angles has increased significantly.
Guerrero’s ground ball problem has probably been the most-discussed part of the early 2020 season. He hits a lot of them — according to FanGraphs, 63.6% of his batted balls are groundballs, a rate that ranks 16 out of 344 hitters with at least 20 plate appearances. And, indeed, his rate of hard-hit balls with a sub-24 degree launch angle ranks in the 97th percentile. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised that he was still able to generate a league-average rate of hard-hit air balls. And, in terms of all hard-hit batted balls, Guerrero’s 36.2% rate ranks in the 95th percentile across the majors. It can be frustrating to watch him underperform, but the hitting abilities are there. If this is what he does when he’s off, I can’t wait to see what he does when he’s on.
Joe Panik and Brandon Drury lag behind the aforementioned players in terms of plate appearances, but there are interesting points to make about their batted ball mix as well. Panik’s low rate of hard-hit air balls is unsurprising, but I am intrigued by his decent rate of hard-hit balls with a lower launch angle and his very low rate of bucket fours. Unfortunately, it’s all a bit undercut by his 34.8% strikeout rate.
On the other hand, in limited action, Drury has halved his 2019 strikeout rate and increased his rate of hard-hit air balls from average to above-average. There are still a few too many bucket four batted balls, but I’m very comfortable predicting that his wRC+ will increase going forward.
In order to get a rough idea of the situation at the team level, I also took a look at how the Blue Jays ranked among MLB teams. In general, the data seems to match the sense I got examining the batters individually — a lot of hard-hit balls, both above and below 24 degrees in launch angle, few weakly-hit liners and a few too many weakly-hit balls with extreme launch angles.
Last night’s game unexpectedly lined up perfectly with my writing this article earlier in the evening, offering a sign of offensive promise. The Blue Jays hit seven home runs against the Marlins, each with an exit velocity of at least 95mph and a launch angle of at least 23 degrees (Hernandez’s homer was the only one below 24 degrees). In total, the Jays hit nine of these bucket one batted balls, tied for the most in a single game this season, as well as another 11 hard-hit balls with lower launch angles. They also hit six balls with a projected distance of at least 398 feet (each were home runs), the highest by any team in one game this season.
After looking into things a bit, I feel a little more calm about the Blue Jays offensive struggles. An optimistic narrative is that they are a group of generally inexperienced major leaguers who are trying to develop in very unusual times. While they are certainly struggling, and that can be hard to watch, there are also clear signs of big potential, evident both when watching the games and examining the data.
*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.