Pitching and Defence: An Early Season Review of The Toronto Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays recently completed 32 games in 34 days. Let’s review how Toronto’s pitching and defence measure up against the other MLB teams.


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This article, which focuses on pitching and defence, is the first of a two-part early-season review of the Blue Jays’ 2022 campaign. The second article will address Toronto’s hitting and baserunning.

 

Toronto signed Kevin Gausman, Yusei Kikuchi, and Yimi Garcia to bolster their pitching. Also, Matt Chapman was acquired primarily to strengthen the Jays’ infield defence. How have the starters, bullpen and defence performed by the 32-game mark?

 

The first thing to note is that offence in MLB is down from previous seasons. During the 2017-2021 period, the MLB average ERA was 4.66; it was 3.81 after the games on May 11, 2022. People have cited many reasons why runs are down compared to previous campaigns, including the shortened Spring Training, different baseballs, league-wide use of humidors, and expanded pitching rosters in early 2022. As some have speculated, cold weather may be a factor but perhaps not. In April 2022, the average runs per game were 3.97, lower than the 4.47 average April mark established during the 2017-2019 and 2021 seasons. I excluded 2020 from the April calculation because that season began in July.

 

Several batting metrics have slipped compared to previous seasons. During the 2017-2021 period, the average American League stats are as follows: OBP – 0.320; SLG -0.422; OPS -0.743; and HR/9 – 1.32. In 2022, the comparable numbers are as follows: OBP – 0.300; SLG -0.365; OPS -0.665; and HR/9 – 0.97.

 

Table 1 shows the pitching data for Toronto’s pitching staff, rotation and bullpen. In prior seasons, the xERA marks in the 3.65-3.82 range would have been excellent. However, in a reduced-offence environment, the rotation has the best xERA mark of the Blue Jays pitching staff at 3.65, but their MLB starter ranking is 17th. Among bullpens, the Jays’ relievers grade out at 29th with their 3.82 mark. Let’s look at the rotation and bullpen separately.

 

Table 2 illustrates the metrics of Toronto’s starting pitchers. Alek Manoah has been terrific. His ERA, FIP, xERA, OPS, xOPS and HardHit% are much better than the median. According to the attached chart, Manoah’s xERA, xSLG and Barrels% percentile rankings are no worse than 85th among all pitchers. Manoah’s ERA and FIP are 91st and 72nd percentile among MLB starters.

 

Gausman has performed well. His BB% is 99th percentile among all MLB pitchers, and his ERA, FIP and xERA starter percentile rankings are 84th, 100th and 87th, respectively. Ross Stripling has provided solid starts for the Blue Jays. His FIP and xERA slot are in the 81st and 66th percentile, fabulous for a number six starter.

 

Jose Berrios is off to a slow start in 2022. As Table 2 illustrates, his ERA and FIP are worse than the MLB starter median. Table 3 shows that his HardHit% is elevated from 2021, which is consistent with the increase in his xSLG from 2021’s 0.416 to this season’s 0.645. Another noteworthy data point is the 4.7 percentage point reduction in the in-zone Swing & Miss% from 2021’s 16.5%.  Perhaps Berrios’s less than stellar start to the 2022 campaign is just small sample-size noise because his velocity and spin rates are similar to those of 2021, not to mention the percent of pitches thrown to the heart and shadow zones is comparable to previous seasons. But make no mistake. So far in 2022, batters are hitting Berrios’s pitches harder at an increased rate, striking out less and swinging and missing at a lower frequency than in previous campaigns.

 

Kikuchi has struggled thus far in 2022. However, he has had very good outings in his two most recent starts, evidenced by the Game Score grades of 64 and 61. So far in 2022, Hyun Jin Ryu made two starts, below-average according to Game Score, before his assignment to the Injured List on April 17.

 

It is early days, but if history is a guide, Toronto’s group of starters should improve their level of play moving forward.

 

Table 4 shows some critical data for Toronto’s bullpen arms. FIP is a good measure of a reliever’s performance, but it is limited because contact on non-home run batted balls is not reflected. Julian Merryweather is a case in point. His FIP is 2.44, which is much better than the 3.68 median for relievers. However, his xERA is 5.62, which is the 13th percentile and his HardHit% is 7th. Merryweather’s 0.77 HR/9 is better than the MLB average for relievers (0.87). Therefore, batters facing Merryweather are not hitting home runs at a high rate but are still making hard contact on batted balls.

 

Regarding xERA, Garcia has been very good (74th percentile), and Tim Mayza, David Phelps and Adam Cimber have been better than average.

 

Jordan Romano’s performance is interesting. His 12 saves are tied for the MLB lead, and his WPA is positive (0.24). However, his HardHit% is 1st percentile (MLB worst) and his xSLG ranks in the 17th percentile among MLB pitchers. Romano’s Whiff% is 87th percentile among all pitchers, which is excellent. In 2022, batters facing Romano swing and miss at a very high rate, but when they make contact, it is hard. In 2021, Romano’s Whiff% and HardHit% were 85th and 84th percentile, respectively. More work is needed to determine why Romano’s HardHit% has ballooned since 2021. However, similar to Berrios, people should acknowledge that Romano’s opposition batters are crushing his pitches when contact is made.

 

Table 5 shows some other metrics to note. Mayza has a 0.58 WPA, which is tied for 20th in MLB. Garcia and Merryweather are well-below average in this stat. Toronto’s bullpen has posted a 20.5 K%, which ranks 28th. In contrast, the Yankees’ K% is fifth-best at 26.4%. Turning to Whiff%, Toronto’s pen ranks 27th best at 24.2%; the Yankees are first at 31.4%.

 

The K% and Whiff% data illustrate that Toronto’s bullpen would elevate its performance if there were more strikeouts and opposition swings and misses. Perhaps Nate Pearson could help in that regard.

 

 

In a nutshell, the Blue Jays pitching thus far in 2022 can be summarized as follows:

  • Manoah, Gausman and Mayza have been excellent
  • Toronto’s pitching staff has MLB’s highest HardHit% and is 23rd in Barrel%. In other words, opposition batters make hard contact on pitches from Jays’ pitchers at a very high rate.
  • Berrios and Romano have significantly elevated HardHit% grades
  • Concerning K% and Whiff%, the Jays’ relievers are below-median

The Blue Jays’ defence has improved this season. Table 6 shows the data for the 2022 Blue Jays. A simple way to see how the Jays have improved their defence is to sum their OAA rankings by position for 2022 and 2021. The 2022 total is 84, and 2021’s sum is 130.

 

Before I delve into the numbers, here are a few comments concerning OAA and DRS. Regarding infielders, OAA covers approximately 90% of what an infielder does. It is the best single measure to determine the infielder’s performance on the field. There are some limitations, such as OAA does not reflect a first baseman’s ability to field poor throws and make an out possible. Concerning outfielders, OAA is a catch probability measurement. It does not consider other elements of an outfielder’s responsibilities, including assists, throwing to the correct base and hitting the cut-off man. If I were to assign a weight to OAA and DRS to evaluate outfielders, I would suggest 70% to OAA and 30% to DRS.

 

The player performances to note are as follows:

  • Vlad Guerrero Jr. has performed at an average level for first basemen. This is unfair to him because OAA does not reflect the number of poor throws that Guerrero Jr. scoops that saves the out for the Jays. However, Toronto’s first base OAA rating has improved from 25th to 13th.
  • Bo Bichette has struggled at short. His OAA ranks 25th, which has slipped from 2021’s 20th
  • Santiago Espinal has the second-highest OAA (5) among second basemen. He is a more than able defensive replacement for Marcus Semien.
  • There has been improvement in all three outfield positions. It should be noted that Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s OAA is average, which is a noticeable improvement over 2021’s minus 9 OAA. It is a small sample size (55 attempts), but perhaps he can continue to be average. Indeed, his route-running has improved since 2021.
  • Alejandro Kirk has defended very well. His 4 DRS and his positive Catcher Framing mark are good.

 

One final element to address is Toronto’s increased use of shifts. Table 7 shows the changes concerning infield shift utilization starting in 2019. Table 8 illustrates the differences in outfielder positioning after 2018. The highlights are as follows:

  • Toronto has used the standard infield alignment for 22.9% of pitches, which is lower than the 2022 American League average and less than the Jays’ 2019 mark of 62.0%.
  • The American League average shift deployment is 36.3%, which Toronto topped with 68.7%.
  • Concerning the outfield, Toronto has employed the standard alignment 62.5% of pitches, lower than the American League mark of 92.6%.
  • The Blue Jays have used a fourth outfielder for 6.4% of pitches, higher than the 0.8% average.
  • Regarding strategic outfield alignment, Toronto has used it for 31.2% of pitches, more than the 6.2% average.

 

Table 9 and Table 10 show the BABIP figures for the various defensive alignments. It is impossible to determine what would have happened if a particular defensive positioning was not used in a given situation. However, the BABIP difference between the standard infield alignment and the shift suggests that the Blue Jays have benefited from the use of the shift.

The Last Word

Overall, the 2022 Blue Jays have pitched below expectations early in the season. Manoah, Gausman and Mayza have excelled. However, Berrios has underperformed primarily because his pitches have been hit hard at a very high rate. Yet, the pedigree of Toronto’s starters points to better performance in the future. Romano has also struggled in terms of allowing hard contact.  The bullpen has been below average in hard contact allowed, strikeouts and Whiff%. Accordingly, Management should address these bullpen deficiencies sooner than later. The defence is improved compared to the 2021 club. Overall, the Blue Jays’ pitching and defence should be a competitive advantage for the Blue Jays as the 2022 season unfolds.

 

 

 

*Featured Images Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.

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Bob Ritchie

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.