The Toronto Blue Jays are just past the mid-point of their 2020 MLB season. How well has the Jays pitching performed compared to their American League foes?
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As of September 4, the Blue Jays have played 38 games, which would be a small segment of a typical 162-game schedule. However, 2020 is anything but a standard MLB season. Therefore, with the usual caveat concerning small sample sizes, let’s take a look at the Jays 2020 pitching at the team level.
This analysis will address the following aspects of Toronto’s pitching:
- Key metrics
- The profile of batted balls
- An examination of expected pitching data and what they indicate for the balance of the 2020 campaign
- Why it has performed so well
Key Pitching Metrics
Table 1 is a summary of key metrics. The highlights are as follows:
- As a staff, Blue Jays pitchers rank fourth in HR/9, K%, batting average, and FIP in the American League
- The Jays have posted an ERA and SIERA that scores third and seventh-best, respectively
- The relievers have excelled on a relative basis with a grade of no worse than fourth in HR/9, K%, batting average, ERA and FIP
- The starters are middle-of-the-pack in respect of the same metrics
- On a negative note, the Jays pitching staff ranks eleventh in BB%
The bullpen has pitched in 52.2% of the total innings pitched for the Blue Jays. That contribution towards total innings ranks as third-highest in the American League and 5.4 percentage points higher than the median.
Toronto’s pitching has been a very positive force in the 2020 season.
Table 2 presents the profile of the Jays batted balls. The highpoints are as follows:
- Compared to the American League median, Toronto’s GB% and FB% are similar
- The positive metrics, which are consistent with the highly-ranked ERA and batting average, are the Line Drive%, Pop Up%, Weak%, and Barrel%
In other words, low rates of line drives and opponents barreling up the ball, and a high rate of weak contact and pop-ups, have contributed to the relatively-lower batting average.
Expected Pitching Data
Table 3 contains expected batting data. The points to consider are as follows:
- At the team level, the xSLG and xwOBAcon rank first in the American League
- The xBA, xwOBA, and Hard Hit% are either second or tied for second-best
The expected data is a point of optimism for the Blue Jays because it gives some indication of what to anticipate of Blue Jays pitchers for the balance of the 2020 campaign. Likewise, the batted-ball data tell the same story. In relative terms, opposing batters do not make good contact on pitches from Blue Jays pitchers.
What Explains the Poor Contact?
To answer that question, we will incorporate a process-of-elimination approach. I will first explore reasons that do not explain why there has been relatively poor contact on pitches thrown by Toronto’s pitchers. By doing so, we can also learn some additional aspects of the performance of the pitchers.
The Factors That Do Not Explain the Poor Contact
The elements that do not differentiate the Jays pitchers from their American League counterparts are as follows:
- Pitch mix
- Plate discipline
- Throwing first strikes
Table 4 illustrates the pitch mix of the 2020 Blue Jays. The notable points are as follows:
- At the team level, 56.5% of the Jays pitches are in the hard category, which is very close to the American League median of 56.1%
- For the Jays starters, 55.8% of their pitches are hard; for relievers, it is 57.1%
- The Jays bullpen throws fastballs (51.4%) and sliders (22.4%) primarily
- However, the average velocity of fastballs and sliders for the Jays is similar to the American League median
Pitch mix does not explain the poor contact of opposing batters.
I examined the Maddux Plate Discipline for Hitters in a recent article. That concept is summarized as follows: “A Maddux hitter would swing at pitches when they are thrown in the zone and would lay off of pitches thrown out of the zone.” But, from a pitching perspective, the pitcher wants the opposite. The objective is to have the hitter swing at pitches out of the strike zone and not swing at pitches in the strike zone.
Table 5 reflects the plate discipline of opposition batters when facing Toronto’s pitchers. The key points are as follows:
- Concerning Toronto’s starters, opposition batters swing at slightly more pitches out of the zone compared to the league median, but those hitters make more contact on those pitches than the median club
- Opposition batters swing at more pitches in the zone than the median; however, they make less contact
- The Jays starters’ mPDI is slightly below the American League median
- Similarly, the Toronto bullpen does not score well in mPDI with its 0.287 mark, which is below the median (0.312)
- The story is that opposition hitters who have faced the Jays bullpen, compared to the median for relievers, swing at fewer pitches out of the strike zone and more pitches in the strike zone
Plate discipline does not answer the question, “why poor contact.”
Throwing First Strikes
Table 6 shows the Jays first-strike record. At the team level, the Jays throw a first strike 56.9% of the time, which lags the American League median (59.1%). As the table illustrates, the American League average OPS after a 1-0 count is 0.808; it is 0.636 after a 0-1 count. Both the Jays starters (54.1%) and relievers (58.4%) trail the league’s median in terms of the first-strike percentage.
The quest for the answer to the contact question continues.
The Factors That Do Explain the Poor Contact
The elements that do separate the Jays pitchers from their American League counterparts are as follows:
- Pitch movement
- Pitch location
According to Statcast, the Jays average velocity on fastballs and cutters is a tick above the median for the league. However, the Jays vertical movement on both hard and soft pitches is above the American League average. On the other hand, the horizontal direction is below average. If I had to choose between vertical or horizontal movement as a pitcher, I would select vertical drop because it results in a change of plane for the batter. Accordingly, I think pitch movement partially explains why batters make relatively-poor contact on offerings from Jays pitchers.
We have arrived!
Pitch location is the primary reason why the Blue Jays pitchers induce relatively-weak contact. They avoid the heart of the plate.
Statcast has developed an attack zone diagram. As you can see, it divides the pitch location into four zones: heart, shadow, chase, and waste. Table 7 presents the relevant data for the Blue Jays. The highpoints are as follows:
- In respect of total pitches, the Jays throw the second-lowest percentage of total pitches into the heart of the zone, where the American League median xBA is 0.368
- The Jays have also generated the second-lowest percentage of total pitches in the shadow zone, where the American League median xBA is 0.326
- In terms of pitches concerning batted balls, the Jays relative ranking on offerings to the heart is consistent with their record on total pitches
- The percentage of pitches to the shadow zone vis-a-vis batted balls exceeds the median by less than one percentage point
- For both total pitches and pitches on batted balls, the Jays have a slightly better-than-median percentage of pitches in the chase zone and the related 0.284 xBA
The Jays pitchers do an excellent job of limiting the number of pitches thrown into the heart and shadow areas of the hitting zone. These parts of the zone are the danger areas from a pitcher’s perspective. Combine that with the above-average vertical movement on their offerings, and possibly effective pitch sequencing has resulted in an above-average performance of the Jays pitchers.
The Last Word
Toronto’s pitching staff has performed very well in 2020. The primary reason why Jays pitchers have fared well is that they limit the number of pitches thrown to the more dangerous areas of the plate. Also, the above-average vertical movement has contributed to that good performance. Certainly, the expected batting metrics point to a continuation of the Jays excellent pitching for the duration of the 2020 campaign.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.