CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

<< Previous Article
Premium Article On the Beat: North Cou... (04/29)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Prospectus Today: Chan... (04/27)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Prospectus Today: Pitc... (05/01)
Next Article >>
Premium Article The Biz Beat: Yankee T... (04/30)

April 29, 2009

Prospectus Today

Let's Get Real

by Joe Sheehan

The Toronto Blue Jays have the best record in baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays have played well for three weeks. Both statements are true, but one carries greater impact. Unfortunately, it's the one most likely to lead you to the wrong conclusion.

When it comes to evaluating surprise teams, the important thing to do is to figure out what parts of the performance are potentially real, and which parts aren't. For example, an analysis of the Florida Marlins on April 20 would have noted that their offense was being helped by a crazy-high empty batting average by Emilio Bonifacio, and some starters' ERAs that didn't match their peripherals. The parts that weren't real outweighed the ones that were (such as the work done by Josh Johnson and Jeremy Hermida). Predicting a fade was a trivial exercise.

In the case of the Blue Jays, you have the best offense in the American League, one that's posted a .283 team EqA and a circuit-pacing 133 runs scored. These numbers are being posted by a team that missed the postseason in 2008 largely because of a .253 EqA and its weak 714 runs scored. PECOTA pegged them for 712 runs, and I had them scoring 738. The Jays are scoring more than an extra run per game above expectations, despite making just one change of note to their lineup, and returning a whole bunch of players on the wrong side of 27.

That one change, however, can be considered "real." Rookie Travis Snider can hit, and he's off to a .278/.350/.537 start in a platoon role, playing against all right-handed pitchers and the occasional lefty, and starting almost exclusively in left field. The power he's shown is real, and his contact rate and plate discipline are acceptable for a 21-year-old. He's a significant upgrade over the hole that was in left field for this team a year ago.

The Jays' other young left-handed hitter is raking as well. Adam Lind, locked in at DH, is bopping at a .314/.392/.512 clip. This is the hitter we expected him to be two years ago, and after a number of false starts and problems getting playing time, he's flourished under Cito Gaston, hitting .293 with power (albeit a lack of walks) under the skipper a year ago, and putting it all together this season.

The two lefty bats are real, but it's fair to say that the pre-season projections for the Jays factored in their presence. A look at the rest of the roster reveals a number of veterans having career months, performances that have been valuable, but offer little predictive value. Lyle Overbay has drawn 15 walks-five intentional-and roped eight extra-base hits in 52 at-bats, generating a 965 OPS. Marco Scutaro has 21 walks drawn and a .415 OBP to go with four homers and a .463 SLG. Rod Barajas is hitting .286, which doesn't seem that impressive until you consider his career mark of .242. Aaron Hill is batting .371. Scott Rolen is batting .321. The top two guys off the bench, Kevin Millar and Jose Bautista, are hitting .351 and .344, respectively.

I'm not sure what percentage of those performances are sustainable, but I know it's a low number. For a collection of middling veterans and guys who were waiver bait to be running over the league the way Overbay, Scutaro, Millar, Rolen, and Bautista are is a fluke. Hill is a good player whose return upgrades the Jays, but he's 70 points above where he'll end up as well. He, the two lefty bats, and maybe Alexis Rios-the auntie at the orgy with a .237/.298/.355 line that does at least include an uptick in his walk rate-are a viable core that should help score 4.5 or 4.6 runs per game the rest of the way. One or two of the veterans may hold on to their numbers and have a fluke season, but on the whole that group is going to lose 50 points of batting average and a ton of walks from here through the rest of the season.

The Jays' pitching, so fantastic a year ago, has been effective in the face of several injuries this season. Ricky Romero, currently injured, and Scott Richmond have been effective, as has Brian Tallet in limited work. Brett Cecil should be up by midseason, and while the current rotation includes waiver bait Brian Burres and David Purcey's walk-the-park act, it's not hard to see this as an eventual strength again, if not what it was a year ago. I'm impressed by J.P. Ricciardi's ability to rebuild an effective rotation after the losses from last season, and I suspect that the 786 runs I predicted the Jays would allow will end up being a little high (noting that I missed on overall run levels by a bit as well). The rotation's performance is real.

The Jays' bullpen has also been better than expected. Off of last year's fantastic performance, some regression seemed likely. Even with B.J. Ryan blowing up like a prop in a Jerry Bruckheimer film, the pen has been exceptional, holding opponents to a .190/.300/.335 line and ranking fourth in MLB in WXRL. Predicting the short-term performance of relievers is something of an exercise in dart-throwing, but the skill sets and peripherals of Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, and Jesse Carlson all provide reasons to be optimistic. The bullpen's performance is real, especially if Ryan is kept away until healthy.

The Jays' pitching is also once again benefiting from a strong defense. With the return of Aaron Hill, the team leads the AL in Defensive Efficiency and is fourth in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency in the early going. The Jays have ranked highly in Defensive Efficiency for a few years now, bolstered by Rios and Vernon Wells in the outfield, and benefiting from occasional dalliances with John McDonald at shortstop. Only Snider is clearly subpar, though the evidence is mixed on Scutaro. This may not be the best defense in the league, but it is certainly an above-average group. This is also real.

Since he returned to the Jays' bench last June, Cito Gaston's record as manager is 63-41. It may be that the question of whether that number is real drives all the rest. For me, the key factor here has been his handling of Lind and Snider. You may recall that when Gaston was managing the Blue Jays in the 1990s, he had both John Olerud and Shawn Green come up under him. His handling of both was frustrating at times, with Olerud often platooned as a young player, and Green treated similarly when he came up in 1995. But when Gaston took over last summer, he was handed Lind and played him every day, and has continued to do so this year. Given Snider, he's protected him against left-handers so far, which is mildly discouraging, but considering Snider's age and inexperience, not indefensible.

Gaston appears to have learned from past experience, and changed his approach. That may be real.

Finally, there's the schedule. You can't hold this against the Jays, who are playing the hand they've been dealt, but they have benefited from a schedule that has thus far included none of their three AL East rivals, teams that may be the three best in the league. The Jays have played every team in the AL Central, as well as the A's and Rangers in the West. They have illustrated a point I think every analyst would agree with: if you put the Jays in any other division, they would be at worst a contender, and often a favorite. The pessimism about their chances this year stems in no small part from their having to play perhaps the toughest schedule in baseball. They haven't gotten into that yet, and in fact, they won't see the Red Sox, Yankees, or Rays for another two weeks. They play every AL team other than the Mariners before seeing any of those three, and in fact, the Jays don't play the Rays at all until June 29. (In a whack-job of a schedule, the Jays play just nine of their first 78 games against the big three, then get them 42 times in their next 71 contests.)

Until we see the Jays tested in the division, we can't consider them real. Their pitching, especially the bullpen, has been impressive in light of their losses, their young left-handed hitters have bolstered the offense, they have played strong defense, and Gaston seems to have learned from some mistakes he made in the past. However, with so much of their success built on overperformance by mediocre veterans and a soft schedule, skepticism is warranted It will probably be warranted, given the schedule, until well after the All-Star break.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Nathan

If Rolen is actually healthy, I think he has a good chance to beat his PECOTA projection. His talent level is one that would normally allow him to be productive at 34, and a lot of his recent struggles have arguably been more about nagging injuries than a sharply declining baseline production level. He won't hit .321, but I wouldn't be surprised if his .808 OPS is for real. Rolen's work at 3B is also an important part of the Jays' defensive package.

Apr 29, 2009 11:52 AM
rating: 1
 
Rowen Bell

I don't disagree. However, isn't it generally true that any fully healthy player should be expected to beat his PECOTA projection, since the PECOTA will implicitly factor in some likelihood that performance will be impaired due to injury?

Apr 30, 2009 06:24 AM
rating: 1
 
Aaron/YYZ

That's interesting that this is one of the better indicators for the impact on perception that the unbalanced strength of schedule has. Thoroughly frustrating for Blue Jays fans to have it confirmed again that as much as anything we're stuck with poor luck in having to play the Yankees/Red Sox/Rays trio constantly.

Apr 29, 2009 12:13 PM
rating: 1
 
akachazz

Good article, as usual. This is why I just renewed my subscription.

Apr 29, 2009 12:18 PM
rating: 0
 
Dr. Dave

"[T]he Jays play just nine of their first 78 games against the big three, then get them 42 times in their next 71 contests."

Prediction: the resulting drop in the standings will be called a "fold".

Apr 29, 2009 12:19 PM
rating: 5
 
Evan
(47)

I wonder if it will cost someone a job.

If JP doesn't make any moves at the deadline, and then the team fades badly, people will blame him.

Apr 30, 2009 10:30 AM
rating: 0
 
jtsports01
(338)

Lyle Overbay has struggled over his last two seasons, partly because of a wrist injury that required surgery. He looked good at the end of 2008 and perhaps now is finally recovered. I would think he has a chance to beat his PECOTA projection as well.

Not that past performance is any indication, but as I recall the Jays did pretty well vs. the Yanks and Sox last year.

Apr 29, 2009 12:59 PM
rating: 1
 
chartjes
(897)

Joe, as a long-suffering Jays fan I am pleased to see them off to a great start but not so blinded to see that they haven't played any of the AL Big Three yet.

As I see it, the whole season hinges on whether or not they can somehow keep the pitching together. I was totally shocked that the Jays didn't call up Cecil when Litsch and Romano went down, and it makes me wonder if was simply to prevent him from being Super 2 early.

The offense will be better than last year, and I am also keenly aware that the current group cannot possibly keep that output up all year. So if they can somehow keep up their run-prevention ways, maybe for the first time in a LONG time the Jays will play some games that man something for them in September.

Stranger things have happened but 14-6 stretches get hidden in the middle of mediocre seasons all the time.

Apr 29, 2009 13:41 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Scott Richmond is the type of pitcher who will have a tougher time with the better hitting teams. I applaud how well he has pitched, but Litsch and Romero have to get well before the onslaught. If all are healthy, I could see Cecil eventually replacing Richmond rather than Purcey, who has the greater upside. Although in the short run it wouldn't be surprising to see Purcey sent down to improve his control.

This is all typical of the Jays' pitching. They are great at finding quality pitchers out of nowhere, but they can't keep them healthy.

-Scoresheetwiz in Toronto

Apr 29, 2009 14:15 PM
rating: 1
 
jlister

Jerry Manual's 9th inning tactics today can be filed away in Sheehan's cabinet of cripplingly stupid managerial maneuvers.

The Omir "Extra Base" Santos experiment as a starter cannot be over soon enough.

Apr 29, 2009 15:27 PM
rating: 1
 
modofacid

Jerry has had me pulling my hair out for about a week now. Tactically even worse than Willie...he just has more charisma.

Apr 30, 2009 08:02 AM
rating: 0
 
ndubby

You're right - that should've been a reply to Dr. Dave above.

May 01, 2009 07:43 AM
rating: 0
 
greensox

What is this - the fourth article you've written explaining how the first week, then the 2nd and then the 3rd aren't dispositive of the season?
We get it.

But it still won't make the mediocre As a top 8 team, the Indians a top 11 team or the RedSox to win 102 games.

Objectivity is a wonderful thing.

Apr 29, 2009 15:47 PM
rating: -1
 
ndubby

The Jays went 20-17 and 17-19 against BOS/NYY in 2006 and 2007, and 25-29 against BOS/NYY/TB in 2008.

Obviously it will be tougher against the big 3 than against the rest of the league. But to say the Jays will completely fold when they start playing them seems rash.

Apr 29, 2009 15:59 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

I'm pretty sure Mr. Sheehan is not saying that.

Apr 29, 2009 17:55 PM
rating: 1
 
greenfrog

I've watched the Jays pretty closely for years. IMO these are the key factors that will determine whether they hang in the AL East race:

- Positional player health. The team doesn't have a lot of depth to cover players like Rolen, Scutaro, Overbay and Barajas--or even their outfielders. A few injuries and the lineup is suddenly a lot weaker (this will change as some of the better prospects mature, but for now the depth is lacking)

- Whether Litsch, Janssen, Romero can return to the rotation and stay healthy. At the moment the Jays have an ace, a solid #5 (Richmond), and a good swingman (Tallet). They need to shore up the #2-4 slots in the rotation

- Whether one of Mills or Cecil heats up enough to join the pitching staff this summer. The team already has a good staff, but as they say, you can never have enough pitching

Whatever happens, I'm enjoying every moment of the team's fantastic start.

Apr 29, 2009 16:45 PM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

A few things to say here.
1) McDonald has not had even occasional dalliances at SS this year. It seems that Gaston loves the energy and kamikaze baserunning that Scutaro has been providing. He's tagged from first on pop-ups (successfully) twice this week, and pulled off the scrappiest double I've ever seen tonight against Greinke. Both of the Jays two early runs tonight would not have occurred without Scutaro's smart hustling. McDonald has played the field for 11 innings thus far. As Bautista is now the official backup to Rolen, it would take an injury to Scutaro or Hill to get McDonald regular playing time again.
2) It may be a great benefit to the Jays that the "meat" of their schedule occurs from mid-May onwards. By then, some of their hurt wings will start returning - Romero, Janssen and Litsch may be ready by then. As the schedule gets really heavy towards the summer, Cecil/Mills may be ready and Marcum may even return by early August according to early reports.
3) The batting averages for many (Overbay, Hill, Bautista, Millar, Barajas) will go down, but their secondary skills will remain.

I'm not predicting playoffs, but I reserve the right to remain optimistic until I have no more reason to be.

Apr 29, 2009 19:11 PM
rating: 3
 
Nathan

I second this. Normally, I roll my eyes when a player is described as scrappy. However, Scutaro's baserunning is the only reason the Jays ever got on the board last night. It was well above and beyond what is normally expected of major leaguers.

Apr 30, 2009 09:06 AM
rating: 1
 
Drew

I think Joe was saying that MacDonald helps explain their premium defense the past couple years.

Apr 29, 2009 23:35 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Possibly, but if so, it's sloppily worded

Apr 30, 2009 04:56 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Was Olerud really platooned all that much? Seems he was getting 550 AB each year and about 135-140 games each year except for 1990, when the incumbent Fred McGriff was around.

Green was closer to 130 games a year and 400 AB, but in 1995 for example, also had a bit of competition with an Joe Carter and Devon White in the outfield, Molitor a DH, and Carlos Delgado and Shannon Stewart on the bench.

Looking back, there sure was a lot of good talent on the bench for those 1990s Blue Jays teams.

Apr 30, 2009 00:03 AM
rating: 1
 
mackle


joe..i believe the focus here should be on gaston..everyday
he manages it reinforces that john gibbons should never have been managing a major league team...the blue jays lost
2 years of contending by letting gibbons sit in the dugout..
gaston has changed the club's hitting philosphy and has
brought a calm confidence over the franchise..its hard to figure that out in pecota..

Apr 30, 2009 04:32 AM
rating: 1
 
Adrian

One thing I've noticed is that several teams currently out-performing their projections - the Blue Jays, the Royals, the Mariners, the Pirates and the Reds - have Defensive Efficiencies in the top 10 of all MLB.

Recently Bill James did a study on under- and over-performing teams, and one of the conclusions he drew was that one seeming feature of teams that over-perform their projections is strong infield defense. Obviously DE includes more than just infield defense, but all the same it will be interesting to see how this plays out over the course of the season, fpr the Jays and for the other "surprise" teams.

Apr 30, 2009 09:34 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Wouldn't it be funny if defense turned out to be one of the prime indicators of team success, yet has also been the hardest thing to measure?

Apr 30, 2009 13:45 PM
rating: 0
 
antonsirius

I do wonder how much the new coaching is having an impact... the Jays essentially have three hitting coaches on the bench right now (Gaston was a hitting coach before becoming a manager, Gene Tenace holds the official role, and Dwayne Murphy -- hitting coach for the World Series-winning 2001 D-Backs -- is the first base coach). That staff was in place at the end of June last year; August and September were probably the club's two best offensive months, and we've seen what they've done so far in 2009.

Apr 30, 2009 09:46 AM
rating: 1
 
You must be a Premium subscriber to post a comment.
Not a subscriber? Sign up today!
<< Previous Article
Premium Article On the Beat: North Cou... (04/29)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Prospectus Today: Chan... (04/27)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Prospectus Today: Pitc... (05/01)
Next Article >>
Premium Article The Biz Beat: Yankee T... (04/30)

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
Fantasy Article Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner: Week Nine
Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: Table-Setting Thieves
Fantasy Article TTO Scoresheet Podcast: Episode 57
Fantasy Article Free Agent Watch: Week Nine
Premium Article Rubbing Mud: Context is King
Premium Article Daisy Cutter: How the Kipnis Got His TAv
Premium Article Release Points: Where Have You Gone, Stephen...

MORE FROM APRIL 29, 2009
Premium Article On the Beat: North Country Thunder
Premium Article Prospectus Hit and Run: Catching the Next Wa...
Premium Article Under The Knife: Same Old Stories

MORE BY JOE SHEEHAN
2009-05-05 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: April Fools
2009-05-04 - Prospectus Today: Taking Wing
2009-05-01 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Pitching Diagnostics
2009-04-29 - Prospectus Today: Let's Get Real
2009-04-27 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Changing Gears
2009-04-24 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Ladies and Gentlemen, Toni...
2009-04-23 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Schedule Strength
More...

MORE PROSPECTUS TODAY
2009-05-05 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: April Fools
2009-05-04 - Prospectus Today: Taking Wing
2009-05-01 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Pitching Diagnostics
2009-04-29 - Prospectus Today: Let's Get Real
2009-04-27 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Changing Gears
2009-04-24 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Ladies and Gentlemen, Toni...
2009-04-23 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Schedule Strength
More...

INCOMING ARTICLE LINKS
2009-04-30 - Prospectus Hit and Run: Pair Up in Threes