June 23, 2011
Painting the Black
Birds of a Different Feather
During the 2010 season, the Blue Jays’ offense went avant-garde, scoring runs in an unprecedented, experimental manner. Their Guillen Number (the percentage of their runs that scored on home runs) was an absurd 53.1 percent. No other team in the Baseball Prospectus database has ever topped 50 percent, and even the 2011 Yankees—much-maligned for their dependency on the long ball—are sitting at a league-leading 45.6 percent. Jose Bautista’s breakout and the rest of the lineup’s endless succession of solo shots made the Jays an infuriating, yet exploitable foe.
Many questioned what the Jays could do for a sequel. The answer has been a bit underwhelming, as the Jays have raised their on-base percentage (from .312 to .323) at the expense of their slugging percentage (which has fallen from .454 to .414). Their Guillen Number is no longer historic, even in the context of the franchise; at 37.9 percent, it represents the ninth-highest rate in Blue Jays history, as both regression toward the mean and the struggles of Travis Snider, Edwin Encarnacion, Juan Rivera, and Aaron Hill have conspired to keep Toronto's batted balls grounded.
Regardless of their Guillen Number’s return to normality, the Blue Jays’ offense continues to be a trendsetter and has blazed a new trail of offensive abnormality in 2011. This latest trace of weirdness has its roots in 2010, when the Jays hit right-handed pitching better than left-handed pitching. That was a rarity, as you would expect the opposite to be true, but last year's Jays fought convention at every turn. Against righties, they hit .258/.320/.475, compared to a .215/.286/.379 line versus lefties.
That disparity wasn’t the result of having more left-handed batters than righties, as even the Jays’ right-handed hitters struggled against southpaws (718 OPS) relative to their work against same-handed pitchers (801 OPS). In 2011, Toronto’s wacky split has switched sides. The team’s righties are hitting righties (690 OPS) worse than they hit lefties (883), while the lefties are hitting righties (766) better than they hit pitchers of their own handedness (705).
All told, the Jays have a 708 OPS versus righties and an 839 OPS versus lefties. There’s nothing odd about the direction of that split, but it is unusual in its magnitude. Not only is that the widest platoon split in the major leagues, but it is also three standard deviations from the mean. It’s still early in the season, so by September, the Jays could be closer to the rest of the pack, but for now, they own the somewhat dubious distinction of having the most lopsided lumber in baseball. (Note: the “Net” column in the following table is simply the absolute value of the split, which keeps the numbers positive across the board.)
Of course, the Jays are not actually lopsided relative to the rest of the league. They have the highest OPS versus lefties and the 12th-highest versus righties. In that sense, they're the converse of the Rays, who are the most even in their handling of lefties and righties but rank in the middle of the pack against both. (That raises a philosophical question: Would you rather be good versus one hand and poor against the other, or mediocre against both?)
The downside to the Jays’ slant is that by struggling against right-handed pitchers, they have left themselves open to being exposed by most of the league’s starting pitchers. In the same way that if given a choice, you take the positional player over the pitcher of equal quality, you should also take the left-handed batter over the righty of equal quality, since left-handed pitchers are relatively scarce.
Having a middle-of-the-road offense against righties weighs down the Jays’ excellence versus lefties. A team built like the current Jays squad can succeed, but if their average performance against righties persists and the brass decides to attempt a fix, they may have to look for an out-of-house solution. Kevin Goldstein ranked only one left-handed position player, Anthony Gose, in Toronto’s Top 11 (although Eric Thames barely missed). The team’s top positional prospect still in the minors, Brett Lawrie, would be of assistance if he could continue to handle right-handed pitching after a promotion, but in the meantime, the Jays may have to make do with what they have and hope that the rest of 2011 looks more like 2010.