Right now, the Toronto Blue Jays are a playoff team and they are one that could put up a fight in the expanded postseason
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It seems fair to say that the 2020 Blue Jays have performed beyond the expectations of neutral observers and even most Jays fans. A simple reflection of this is the fact that no team has increased its FanGraphs playoff odds more than the Blue Jays — the team began this shortened and unusual season as outsiders to make the playoffs (29.8%) and are now virtual locks (96.9%).
At this point, with three-quarters of the season completed and the postseason soon upon us, it’s useful to reflect on just how well the Blue Jays have played and to look ahead to how this team might look in the playoffs.
One important caveat to note before we jump into any statistical analysis is the peculiarity of our current circumstances. Comparing team performances over three-quarters of a season is usually reasonably meaningful, as each team would have played 120 or so games, with a decent amount of overlap in team schedules, particularly among teams in the same league. In 2020, neither is remotely true, so I really can’t say whether or not this analysis means anything in a predictive sense. It simply tells us what the Jays have done against the opponents they’ve faced and compares this to what other teams have done against the opponents they’ve faced.
Overall, the Jays are clearly better than most major-league teams right now. Their 25-20 record, tenth-best in the majors, is straightforward evidence of that (all stats are through Saturday’s win against the Mets) and is fairly well supported by their offence (4.80 runs scored per game, 13th-best) and defence (4.71 runs allowed per game, 13th-best). Moreover, they more than hold their own against the AL and NL East teams that are engaged in a contained schedule with one another — the Jays record ranks an impressive third among the ten East teams, as does their defence, while their offence ranks fifth.
Hitting is a clear strength for the team. I think if fans had to pick a particular area where the team was most likely to succeed this season, effective contact probably would have been it, given their decent performance in that regard last season, highlighted by their 5.2% barrel rate (10th-best in the majors).
The 2020 Jays have more than met those expectations. Not only have they improved upon last year’s barrel rate (5.7%, seventh-best in the majors), they’ve also generated a much more diverse array of quality batted balls — 21.2% of Blue Jay plate appearances have resulted in either “solid contact” or a “flare/burner” (the other two positive types of batted balls described by Statcast), which ranks fifth in the majors. Last season, the team’s 20% mark on those batted balls ranked 22nd in the majors. Put it all together and you arrive at the Jays’ .409 xwOBACON, tied for fifth in the majors, an improvement over last season’s .386 mark (14th-best).
All that said, I’m even more impressed by the team’s improved plate discipline, a strong sign that a young team (in fact, the youngest team of hitters in the majors) is developing well. Relative to 2019, the Jays have both decreased their strikeout rate — down to 22.2% (11th-best) from 24.9% (25th) — and increased their walk rate — up to 9.3% (14th-best) from 8.4% (19th). These dual improvements have helped the Jays post an above-average walk-to-strikeout ratio (0.42, 12th-best), obviously another improvement over 2019 (0.34 BB/K, 22nd).
Given the team’s comprehensive strength at the plate, it is unsurprising that the team rates well in terms of overall hitting metrics. Whether one prefers advanced stats, expected stats or the slash line stats, the Jays have taken a massive step forward from 2019. While we must remember that the two seasons are made of very differently sized samples, the leap forward seems big enough to assume that it isn’t entirely the result of statistical noise, but rather quite a bit of fundamental improvements.
While the base running mistakes we’ve seen this season are frustrating, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture: the Jays have also improved a lot in this area of the game. So far, they’ve produced -0.2 BsR (17th-best in MLB), not good, but also not objectionable and an improvement over last year (-7 BsR, 24th).
The underlying base running metrics provide a bit more context to the Jays’ performance on the base paths. First off, the team is actually pretty good at stealing bases (1.6 wSB, sixth) and a little bit above average in terms of beating out double plays (0.5 wGDP, 15th). They are, however, subpar in terms of advancing between bases (-2.3 UBR, 24th), which certainly jibes with what our eyes are telling us.
These Blue Jays are no slouches at preventing runs either, evidenced by their 4.71 runs allowed per game, the 13th-best mark in the majors.
Obviously, effective run prevention comes down to solid pitching from a team’s starters and relievers, and competent fielding to limit damage on any balls in play. While the Jays have kept their runs allowed down, the contributions from these three components have varied a bit in quality.
The clear positive among them is the bullpen. What makes this all the more interesting is that virtually all of the key bullpen contributors are either new to the team (A.J. Cole, Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis and Shun Yamaguchi), newly promoted from the minors (Thomas Hatch and Julian Merryweather) or new to the role (Anthony Kay and Ryan Borucki). This seems like a strong sign that the front office can put together effective bullpens without spending much money, an important skill in the modern MLB.
This relief group stands out among 2020 bullpens, both in terms of keeping hitters in check — they’ve maintained a strong wOBA (.296, seventh) and xwOBA (.299, third) — and preventing runs — their 3.63 ERA ranks fifth in the majors, while their 3.86 FIP ranks seventh.
That said, it’s important to note the bullpen’s 4.73 xFIP (18th) and provide some useful context. A group of pitchers will run an xFIP well above their FIP if they give up more fly balls than most and run a lower home run-to-fly ball ratio than most, which certainly applies to this Jays bullpen.
The question is, should we expect to see Blue Jay relievers give up more homers going forward? While I can’t provide a definite answer either way, I think it’s important to note that only 9.7% of the flies or liners the Jays bullpen surrenders are barrels, which is the third-lowest rate in the majors. This implies that the low home run total isn’t necessarily the result of good luck, but perhaps an ability to suppress dangerous contact. This is something to keep an eye on.
In terms of the key underlying metrics, Blue Jay relievers are excelling at striking batters out (24.2% K rate, 12th-best) and limiting homers (0.79 HR/9, second), barrels (3.4%, second) and effective contact in general (.343 xwOBACON, second). Going forward, if they were to cut back on walks (11.7%, 23rd), they’d be near-unstoppable.
The team’s fielding has been more of a mixed bag. Watching games, I’ve seen my share of both great defensive plays and really bad errors. In terms of the data, fielding metrics require a particularly large sample size before we can be confident of their accuracy, so in a short season, it can be tricky to glean any meaningful information from them.
This is evident in the DRS and UZR data so far this year — when one compares the two (after removing the DRS of pitchers and catchers, as UZR does not account for those positions), there is a very weak correlation (R² of 0.17). The Dodgers are a good example of the small-sample issues with fielding metrics, as they rank first in DRS (34), but 22nd in UZR (-3.6).
Similarly, there is a meaningful gap between the Blue Jays’ non-catcher/pitcher DRS and UZR — DRS (-18, 26th-best) suggests that the Jays have had one of the worst group of fielders in the majors, while UZR (1.5, 12th) suggests that the Jays’ fielders have actually been a little bit above average. Typically, Statcast’s outs above average (OAA) metric can serve as a kind of tiebreaker between DRS and UZR, but they are not providing league-wide OAA data at the moment.
That said, Statcast is providing outfielder OAA data in individual player pages. Randal Grichuk has the largest gap between his DRS (-7) and UZR (-1.5) among Jays outfielders. However, he’s also posted a +1 OAA, so who knows. It’s obviously charitable to the Jays to say “maybe their terrible DRS isn’t an accurate reflection of their fielding”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true to some extent or another.
Regardless the statistic one uses to evaluate teams by starting pitching, the Jays rank somewhere between average and (more often) well below-average. For example, Jays starters have been alright at limiting earned runs (4.64 ERA, 15th-best). However, thanks to their struggles at racking up strike outs (22.5% K rate, 17th), limiting walks (9.8% BB rate, 24th) and limiting homers (1.78 HR/9, 24th), the Jays’ rotation has posted a subpar FIP (5.15, 22nd). Their decent ERA seems to mostly be a result of the rotation’s high strand rate (75.6% LOB%, eighth-highest).
The rotation’s xFIP (4.60, 17th) offers some hope that their poor FIP (and elevated HR/9) is partly down to bad luck (they do own the fourth-highest HR/FB). However, the Jays’ rotation has surrendered a pretty high rate of barrels relative to flies and liners (15.9%, eighth-highest), so maybe all those homers are just the result of allowing good contact, not bad luck. Their wOBACON (.395, 23rd-best) and xwOBACON (.409, 22nd) also suggest that their poor results are mostly down to allowing a lot of good contact.
While the strong performances of Blue Jay hitters and relievers are positive signs for the team’s postseason chances, it is important to add some context to the starting rotation’s poor overall metrics, as these numbers do not reflect the performance of the pitchers I would expect to actually start for the Jays in playoff games.
In 2020, the first round of the playoffs is a best-of-three affair, so the Jays just need to line up three starters to pitch five or so effective innings before letting their strong bullpen loose for the remaining innings. Obviously, subsequent rounds will be more difficult, but if you’re a Jays fan who is worried about their ability to get to the second round, please give your head a shake. Making the playoffs this season was not part of the plan, let alone advancing past the first round (even in this unusual format). If the Jays make the playoffs, they will be playing with house money. If they make it past the first round, that will be doubly true.
So, can the Jays cobble together 27 innings of effective pitching? Absolutely!
Hyun-Jin Ryu is the obvious Game 1 starter and his immense quality will give the Blue Jays a good chance to start the first round with an all-important W. It is so cool that he is a Blue Jay. While he could last anywhere from five to nine innings, let’s be conservative and pencil him in for five.
I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Taijuan Walker since he’s joined the Jays and, at this point, I have him starting Game 2. While his 2020 strikeout (20.1%, 67th-best among 100 SP with 30+ IP) and walk rates (9.5%, 81st-best) have each been a little subpar, he has shown an impressive ability to limit hard contact. So far, only 19.6% of the batters he’s faced have produced a batted ball with an exit velocity at or above 95 mph, the 11th-lowest mark among 100 starters with at least 30 innings pitched this year.
An interesting aspect of Walker’s season has been the six solo homers he has given up (1.27 HR/9, 52nd-best), as well as the fact that he is one of only 15 starters who have pitched at least 30 innings and not given up a multi-run home run. This home run mix appears to be driving the large gap between his ERA and FIP, as he is conceding a lot fewer runs than one would expect, given the number of home runs he’s allowed.
His performances with and without runners on base are different in some interesting ways. Without runners on, he’s struck out 22.7% of batters, just slightly below average, walked 5.9% of his opponents and produced a .384 xwOBACON, both better marks than most starters. Together, this amounts to a .323 xwOBA, itself better than average.
With runners on, he’s struck out only 15% of batters and walked 16.7% of them, both poor marks, but also produced a .339 xwOBACON, reflecting the lack of homers and general hard contact he’s given up. The combination of all of this is a .353 xwOBA, both worse than average and worse than his mark without runners on.
These stats suggest to me that, with runners on, he’s been prioritising limiting effective contact over limiting walks and generating strikeouts. Given the lack of backbreaking multi-run homers, this plan is certainly working. I can’t say how sustainable it is, but it’s paying off right now.
For Game 3, I think it would make sense to run with whichever veteran has returned to form (and/or from injury) by then, between Matt Shoemaker, Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling, Chase Anderson and Tanner Roark. Given what he’s been through, it’d be awesome if Shoemaker was ready to deliver by then. Ray had a promising last start and has a strong track record. Stripling was pretty good in the very recent past, so he could start delivering soon as well.
A huge strength for the Blue Jays in a three-game series is the bullpen. If the Jays get five innings per game from their starters, the relievers will be on the hook for 12 in total, a number that can be covered entirely by relievers who are having strong seasons, particularly Rafael Dolis, Anthony Bass, Julian Merryweather, Ryan Borucki, A.J. Cole and Thomas Hatch.
Excepting his appearance against the Yankees, Anthony Kay has been solid too, as has Shun Yamaguchi, who recovered from some early hiccups in his first two games and has been doing well since. And then there are Ken Giles and Jordan Romano, the team’s ace closer (fifth-most fWAR among RP since 2014) and the apparent heir to the throne. Giles has just returned from the IL, while Romano is still rehabbing, so it remains to be seen the level they’ll be at by then.
With Sunday’s win over the Mets, the Blue Jays now own a 26-20 record, ninth-best in the majors. The team’s offence (4.85 runs scored per game, tenth-best) and defence (4.67 runs allowed per game, 12th-best) are each above average.
It’s been a strange season, but it’s important to appreciate how well the team has come together and performed. It’s certainly been nice to look ahead to the fun seasons to come. In the meantime, I’m excited about the first round, because this team can put up a strong fight against any opposition.
*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.