The Toronto Blue Jays passed the mid-point of the 2021 season. How has their defence and baserunning performed compared to their American League opponents? What, if anything, can Management do to address defensive and baserunning performance issues?
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The Blue Jays find themselves in the hunt for a 2021 playoff spot. In previous articles, I analyzed Toronto’s pitching and hitting thus far in 2021. Turning to both the Blue Jays defence and baserunning, these game elements have been relatively poor this season. Let’s take a look.
I used the following metrics to measure defensive performance: Def, DRS (“Defensive Runs Saved”) and Outs Above Average (“OAA”). For those who want a Def, DRS and OAA refresher, FanGraphs and Statcast are the websites to visit.
Because of high-speed cameras and data regarding infielders, batters and baserunners, OAA is more precise and rigorous than DRS. Accordingly, I place much more weight on OAA than DRS when evaluating an infielder’s defensive play, but I use both metrics. If pressed, I would favour OAA over DRS in an 80:20 split.
OAA is a more accurate measure of an outfielder’s range and probability of making catches than DRS for outfielders. However, DRS has value because it also includes assessing an outfielder’s performance in throwing and cutting off balls that limit base runners from advancing beyond their current station. Therefore, analysts should utilize both OAA and DRS to evaluate an outfielder’s defensive performance. However, I would still lean more towards OAA because of its inherent relative accuracy compared to DRS. Perhaps a 65:35 weight.
The Blue Jays are a relatively poor defensive team. As a group, Blue Jays infielders have produced a -9 OAA, which ranks 12th among American League teams. The sad tale continues: Toronto’s outfielders are 14th among American League clubs due to their -11 OAA. Tampa, who the Blue Jays are chasing for a wildcard spot, has the best infield and outfield in the American League. Boston’s outfield slots in at #6; their infield is #14. The Yankees infield is 9th best; their outfield is lucky #13.
Table 1 summarizes Toronto’s defensive numbers by position.
Table 2 provides a summary of the defensive rankings for the Blue Jays infield and outfield defenders.
The Blue Jays have received average or better defence from the catcher position (Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, each with DRS scores above zero), first base (Vlad Guerrero Jr. – 0 OAA) and the pitchers (as a group). Marcus Semien has been the best defensively among American League second basemen in OAA, Def and DRS.
Five positions require more in-depth analysis: shortstop, third base, and the three outfield posts.
The tables presented provide evidence that the defence from Toronto’s shortstop position has been below average. If you remove Semien’s DRS contribution when he has played shortstop for the Blue Jays, the DRS from Bo Bichette is below-average. Bichette’s -7 OAA ranks 32nd of 36 MLB shortstops.
The data included in Table 1 and Table 2 demonstrate that, collectively, the Blue Jays’ third basemen have been well below-average defensively in 2021. In the good news department, Santiago Espinal’s numbers have been more than acceptable. In limited opportunities (255 innings), he produced a +1 OAA and a +4 DRS. Joe Panik recorded a -6 DRS and a -5 OAA at third; Cavan Biggio has been below-average at third base, as evidenced by his -3 DRS and -5 OAA. In terms of OAA, Toronto’s third basemen rank 27th among MLB teams.
Toronto’s left-field contingent, led primarily by Lourdes Gurriel Jr., ranks 11th in OAA in the American League. Gurriel Jr. has a +3 DRS, which is mainly attributable to his arm. However, his range is limited, and his reads are lacking, which results in fewer outs on catchable balls.
Gurriel Jr.’s OAA is minus eight, which ranks last among the 38 MLB left fielders. He is a below-average left fielder. Yes, he has a cannon for an arm. Still, too many catchable balls become base hits.
The data included in Table 1 and Table 2 demonstrate that Toronto’s centerfielders have lagged their American League counterparts. Blue Jay centerfielders have been better than the average outfielder (+1 OAA). However, other American League centerfielders have posted higher OAA marks. Concerning OAA at the player level, the centerfield scores are as follows: Randal Grichuk with a 0 OAA, and Jonathan Davis and George Springer have each posted a +1 OAA. In terms of DRS, Grichuk is minus two and Davis and Springer are minus one.
Toronto’s centerfield defence is not a significant concern because they have produced scores that are a tick better than the average outfielder. Also, Springer has been a better-than-average defender in centerfield in his career. He will likely be the primary Blue Jays centerfielder for the balance of the 2021 campaign.
The OAA figures presented in Table 1 and Table 2 suggest that right field should be a concern for the Blue Jays. Toronto has deployed three players in right field in 2021: Grichuk (0 OAA), Teoscar Hernandez (–3 OAA and Biggio (-3 OAA). The DRS data paints a more cheerful picture: Grichuk – +3; Hernandez – +1; and Biggio +1.
Suppose one assumes that Springer will be the primary centerfielder for the remainder of this season. In that case, Grichuk is likely to see his playing time as a right fielder increase, which should produce better defensive results for the Blue Jays.
With a Grichuk move to right field, Hernandez should see more time in left field. In a limited number of innings (135), he has generated a +1 OAA and a -1 DRS in left field. Hernandez would be a defensive upgrade over Gurriel Jr.
FanGraphs publishes the BsR metric, which is a measure of a player’s baserunning performance. There are three components to BsR:
- Weighted Stolen Bases (wSB) estimates the number of runs above or below average a player contributes to his team by stealing bases and being thrown out.
- Ultimate Base Running (UBR) pertains to the baserunner’s performance in advancing or not advancing while on base.
- Weighted Ground into Double Play Runs (wGDP) measures the extra outs a player costs his team (or saves) by hitting into more double plays (or fewer) than average given his opportunities.
Table 3 contains base running data for the Blue Jays.
Concerning wSB and UBR, the Blue Jays are median in each metric among American League teams. The Blue Jays have 41 stolen bases. Their success rate is 76%; the American League Average is 40 stolen bases and a 76% success rate. The wSB figure is consistent with the stolen base data found at Baseball-Reference. Baseball-Reference does not have a metric comparable to UBR. If you combined the wSB and UBR scores, the Blue Jays rank ninth among American League teams in wSB+UBR.
Toronto ranks twelfth in wGDP: they ground into a relatively high number of double plays. Baseball-Reference’s data is consistent with the wGDP figure. Toronto has the tenth highest GDP rate (11.0%); the American League average is 10.3%. The Yankees have the highest GDP rate (12.8%), Boston is fifth (9.5%), and Tampa has the lowest GDP rate (6.0%).
Blue Jays’ baserunning has been relatively poor so far this season. Although their BsR score (-4.1) is better than New York’s (-12), Toronto trails Boston (-1.2) and Tampa (+7.8).
Leaving aside pitching and hitting, Toronto is a flawed team. From a defensive standpoint, the Blue Jays rank near the bottom in the American League. The Blue Jays are a little better, relatively speaking, in terms of baserunning, but they are below average. Tampa, the American League East team ahead of them in the wildcard race, is the American League’s best for defence and baserunning. Accordingly, unless the defence and base running improve, the Blue Jays must excel at pitching and hitting if they hope to secure a playoff spot.
What should the Blue Jays do?
Concerning baserunning, Toronto can improve by being more alert on the base paths and having a better approach when the risk of grounding into a double play is present.
Management needs to address the defence immediately. I have summarized my views by position as follows:
- Catcher, first base and second base are fine.
- Shortstop is a weakness that Management cannot tackle this season. Although a Semien-Bichette position switch is an option, my opinion is that it is too late into the season to contemplate seriously.
- From a defensive perspective, Espinal is the best in-house, third-base option for the Blue Jays.
- Springer, Grichuk, and Hernandez should play centerfield, right field and left field, respectively. Corey Dickerson, a tick above-average defensively in left field, could also see some playing time in left.
There are players outside of the Toronto organization that Management could consider acquiring. That is a topic for another day.
The last word
The Blue Jays are a flawed baseball club. Their hitting has been top-tier, albeit somewhat unbalanced in terms of batting-order length. The starting rotation has stabilized recently, and additions to the bullpen have helped the cause. However, Toronto is well below-average defensively. Shortstop, third base and the outfield have underperformed compared to their American League rivals. Another team weakness is baserunning: Toronto is below-average on the base paths. The combination of poor defence and baserunning reduces the Blue Jays’ chances of securing a spot in the postseason. Management should take action to address these areas of underperformance.
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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.