The Toronto Blue Jays passed the mid-point of the 2021 season. How has their hitting performed compared to their American League opponents? What are some issues to watch for in the second half of the 2021 campaign?
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The Blue Jays find themselves in the hunt for a 2021 playoff spot. In a previous article, I analyzed Toronto’s pitching thus far in 2021. Turning to Blue Jays hitting, some aspects are impressive, but there are some issues to watch for going forward. Let’s take a look at four batting elements.
- Overall performance
- Percentage of runs from home runs and balls in play
- Plate discipline
- Contributions from batting order slots
Hitting: Overall Performance
As of June 30, the Blue Jays ranked second in the American League with a 112 wRC+. Houston leads the pack with a 123 wRC+. Among Eastern Division playoff rivals, the wRC+ marks are as follows: Boston – 106; Tampa – 100; and New York – 100. Concerning runs per game, Houston is first (5.62), Toronto second (5.18), Boston third (5.06), Tampa sixth (4.90) and New York tied for eleventh (4.11).
The hitting star for the 2021 Blue Jays is Vlad Guerrero Jr., who posted a 196 wRC+ by the end of June. His Hard Hit%, xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, and Barrel% rank in the 95th percentile or better among MLB hitters. Other notable hitters include Marcus Semien (136 wRC+), Bo Bichette (126 wRC+), Teoscar Hernandez (120 wRC+) and Randal Grichuk (103 wRC+). Both Santiago Espinal (112 wRC+ in 111 plate appearances) and Reese McGuire (92 wRC+ in 112 plate appearances) have been pleasant surprises. However, both players are BABIP beneficiaries with their respective 0.365 and 0.350 marks.
On the disappointing front, Cavan Biggio’s 2021 wRC+ slipped from 2020’s 124 to 97. Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s 90 wRC+ is lower than his 2020 135 wRC+. George Springer’s 120 wRC+ is fine, but he has recorded only 73 plate appearances due to injuries.
Hitting: A Cautionary Note
The Blue Jays 112 wRC+ is very good. However, Guerrero has inflated that 112 mark with his 196 wRC+. To better understand Vlad’s impact, I isolated the impact of the best hitter on each of the noted teams. Accordingly, I replaced the best hitter’s wRC+ with the league average wRC+. The wRC+ results are as follows:
- Toronto – 101
- Houston – 118
- Boston – 99
- New York – 95
- Tampa – 98
For fun, I calculated the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays wRC+ by substituting the MLB average hitter for Josh Donaldson, Toronto’s best hitter that season. Toronto’s 2015 wRC+ was 117, best in the American League; it was 110 after the Donaldson adjustment, still best in the American League.
Another way to isolate the impact of Vlad is to consider the number of batters per team who rank in the 90th percentile or higher among American League hitters. The results are as follows:
- Toronto – 1
- Houston – 3
- Boston – 1
- New York –1
- Tampa – 0
- 2015 Blue Jays – 4
Without Guerrero, Toronto’s wRC+ would rank in a tie for eighth in the American League. Therefore, the cautionary note is that, as a group, the other Blue Jays batters have been just a tick above average. We should be aware of this fact as the 2021 season progresses.
Hitting: Percentage of runs from home runs and balls in play
Table 1 illustrates how Toronto and a selection of teams generate their runs.
Concerning runs from balls in play as a percentage of total runs scored, the Blue Jays are in line with New York and Tampa with their 55% score. Toronto hits many home runs; they rank first in the American League at 1.50 home runs per game. The figures for the other teams are as follows: Houston – 1.27 (#5); Boston – 1.26 (#6); New York – 1.33 (#4); and Tampa – 1.22 (#9). Accordingly, I don’t think Toronto’s run-scoring production is too dependent upon the long ball.
Hitting: Plate Discipline
The Maddux Plate Discipline Index (“mPDI”) for hitters measures the performance from three aspects of batting. One, not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone; two, swinging at pitches in the strike zone and three, making contact on those swings. In 2020, the Blue Jays mPDI was 0.696, which ranked fourth-best in the American League. Toronto’s 2021 mPDI ranks even higher: Toronto is in a third-place tie at 0.695. The mPDI’s for the other noted teams are as follows:
- Houston – 0.695 (tied for #3)
- Boston – 0.672 (#12)
- New York – 0.701 (#1)
- Tampa – 0.692 (#6)
Toronto’s hitters are swinging at out-of-zone pitches at a higher rate in 2021 (31.6%) than they did in 2020 (30.2%). However, the Blue Jays are swinging at in-zone pitches at an elevated rate in 2021 (71.2%) compared to 2020’s mark of 69.4%. Notably, the Jays have made less contact on swings out-of-the-zone this season (61.2%) than they did in 2020 (62.7%). Toronto has been more successful at making contact on in-zone swings this campaign (86.1%) than last season (84.1%).
Overall, Toronto’s hitters have maintained their good plate discipline record from the 2020 season.
Hitting: Contributions from batting order slots
Table 2 illustrates the wRC+ marks by batting order for Toronto and a selection of teams. From the beginning of 2021 up to and including June 30, the Blue Jays have four batting order slots with production exceeding 100 wRC+. Houston, in contrast, has seven slots that have been above average. This Toronto-Houston result is consistent with the earlier findings. Namely, the following:
- Houston has more top-tier hitters than Toronto. Specifically, Houston has three hitters in the top decile in terms of wRC+; Toronto has one, Vladdy.
- Vlad’s impact on overall team wRC+ is much more significant than Yordon Alvarez’s contribution to Houston’s club wRC+.
- Toronto’s offence ex-Vladdy is just a hair better than average; Houston’s offence is less reliant upon Alvarez’s bat than Toronto’s dependence upon Vlad.
Toronto’s relative reliance upon Guerrero is risky for two reasons. First, he could incur an injury that may keep him out of the lineup for an extended period. Toronto’s otherwise average offence to date is likely to disappoint. Second, if Vlad goes into a slump, other teammates will have to pick up the slack. However, those players have been average overall.
Hitting: What to look for going forward
Toronto needs better performance in the second half of the season from the middle of the lineup. I have identified four candidates from whom Toronto needs to excel during the final months of the 2021 campaign.
Springer should generate a wRC+ in the range of his career 134 mark. If he moves higher up in the lineup, one or more of the top-four Blue Jays hitters will slide down the batting order, lengthening the lineup.
Biggio has performed well after his injuries and rehab session with the Buffalo Bisons. The encouraging aspect of his performance was his newfound ability to hit the fastball. Before his stint with the Bisons, including 2020, Biggio posted below-average xBA and xSLG marks on fastballs. However, Biggio has produced above-average xBA (0.284) and xSLG (0.490) scores since his return. This improvement is likely attributable to a change in his swing mechanics.
Gurriel Jr., a streaky hitter, started the 2021 campaign slowly with wRC+ marks of 53 and 79 in April and May, respectively. He produced a 131 wRC+ in June; he is a career 112 wRC+ hitter.
Grichuk, who owns a career wRC+ of 105, started his season very well with April’s 125 wRC+. However, his performance has declined: May’s wRC+ was 116 and June’s was a disappointing 76.
On a going-forward basis, I have more confidence that Springer and Biggio can be better-than-average hitters for the balance of the season. Their future performance should lengthen Toronto’s lineup. Grichuk and Gurriel Jr. can also be better than average going forward. However, their streakiness, as depicted in the Statcast charts below, gives me pause.
The Last Word
Among American League teams, the Toronto Blue Jays have produced a wRC+ and a runs-per-game mark that is second only to Houston. However, Vlad’s extraordinary wRC+ has masked his teammates’ otherwise overall average wRC+. There is good news for Blue Jays. With the return of Springer and the expected continued good play from Biggio, Toronto will be able to lengthen their lineup. Hence, the team will be less reliant upon Vladdy and become a more balanced offensive force in the second half of the 2021 season.
*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.