A lot has changed in Toronto since their playoff run ended in October. Alex Anthopoulos has moved on to warmer places, David Price is taking the mound for Boston, and Ben Revere is suiting up for the Nats. The Jays have also made significant changes to the pitching staff, adding some desperately needed depth. While those additions are nice, they’re mostly window dressing, as the pitching is still only decent. Thankfully, the Jays only need mediocre pitching, because their hitters straight up mash.
The Blue Jays were a magnificent offensive team in 2015. We know it. You know it. Sam Dyson definitely knows it. But I don’t think many of us realized just how good Toronto’s hitters were last year. In addition to leading baseball in runs scored, the Jays led the league in HR, BB, SB%, TAv, and most other offensive statistics that you can think of. Basically, the offense could do it all. In order to fully visualize that, look no further than this fantastic tweet from Gideon Turk, which charts OBP against SLG.
The Blue Jays are quite literally on their own level. Not even the mile high Rockies came close to their slugging superiority.
The Blue Jays weren’t simply a collection of mashers at the top of the order, either. Their no. 8 hitters had a higher combined OPS than 18 other teams' cleanup hitters. With that kind of length, the Blue Jays simply bludgeoned teams. They scored 10 runs or more 26 times (the next highest was Texas with 16), and nine runs or more 33 times (Rangers and Astros tied with 20). They were so much better than everybody else that the gap between the Blue Jays and second-place Yankees in runs (127) was greater than the gap between the Yankees and the 26th ranked Cincinnati Reds (124).
Part of this was that Blue Jays were simply a fantastic situational hitting team. Once runners got on base, Toronto managed to post a whopping .879 OPS, compared to .735 with the bases empty. When you combine that with a team that led the league in on-base percentage, you end up with a lot of guys crossing home plate.
Toronto was also an extremely adept baserunning team, which isn’t encompassed in TAv. They led baseball in stolen base percentage, at 79.3 percent, and finished second to the Rangers with 18.6 BRR. Kevin Pillar alone accounted for 6.1 BRR, which tied him for fourth in all of baseball, ahead of noted speedsters like Elvis Andrus, Adam Eaton and now former Jay, Ben Revere.
So what does this all mean going forward?
Well, for starters, it suggests the Jays will probably take a step back. But how much of a step back are we talking about? PECOTA thinks the answer is “a big one,” projecting the Blue Jays to drop by to 126 runs. That would still be the best in baseball—which is a pretty strong Fun Fact on its own—but by less of a margin than 2015. So why is that?
The first thing that jumps out is those situational stats. A production gap that large with runners on vs. bases empty is, mathematically speaking, nuts. Simply due to pitchers working out of the stretch, there should be some increase in performance with runners on base, but the Blue Jays more than tripled the league's normal split differential. While it’s true that both Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion have historically performed significantly better with runners on base (since 2012, Donaldson’s numbers have a .188 difference in OPS, with Encarnacion not far behind him at .133), unusually strong hitting with runners on should by default not be assumed to be a sustainable skill.
One would also think the baserunning would be tough to repeat too, with Jose Reyes and Ben Revere now wearing other uniforms. However, even without those two, Toronto would have been in the top five in all of baseball in BRR, and actually would have had a higher stolen base rate at 75.5 percent.
That just leaves plain old regression. As one would expect, some of the Blue Jays are projected to take steps back, as so many of them put up monster seasons in 2015. This is normal. PECOTA believes that Edwin Encarnacion will drop from a True Average of .324 down to .303, and that Russell Martin will give back some of his tremendous power output, putting up a (still very solid (for a catcher)) TAv of .269. With Encarnacion getting older, one can understand the expectation that he might transition from “superstar slugger” into a “very good hitter.” Similarly, regression is the reasonable bet for the 33-year-old catcher.
However, when we get to Josh Donaldson, we need to take a deeper look at the projection. Because PECOTA takes the long view at a player’s history into account, the system is projecting the star third baseman to hit .276/.352/.492 with a .300 TAv, en route to a 5.3 WARP season. Those numbers are right in line with his career totals, and they would surely make Donaldson an All-Star once again. However, it would also be the third baseman’s worst season since he has become a full-time player. Yes, Donaldson struggled mightily in the minors, and then in his first 300 PAs in the big leagues, and PECOTA remembers every sorry strikeout. But in the offseason between 2012 and 2013, Donaldson worked with renowned hitting guru Bobby Tewksbary and completely overhauled his swing. Those changes certainly took, as Donaldson has put up True Averages of .326, an injury-marred .305, and .324 since the start of the 2013 season. So while we can understand the .300 TAv PECOTA projection, Donaldson’s mechanical changes have turned him into a completely new hitter. It's not obvious that, in evaluating Donaldson today, his pre-2013 performances matter, well, at all.
From the hot corner, we move across the diamond to look at the first base position. As expected, PECOTA thinks Chris Colabello’s .411 BABIP season was a bit of a mirage, expecting him to fall back from a TAv of .304 in 2015 to .276 in the upcoming season. Similarly, the system thinks the Blue Jays won’t get a lot out of Justin Smoak, expecting him to put up a TAv of .263, which is actually very similar to his .267 from 2015. So on the surface, the Jays should be looking at some subpar performance out of a traditional slugging position. This is where it’s important to note that all of these PECOTA projections are based on the player’s 50th percentile outcome, and our depth chart assigns playing time based on, basically, the same assumption. But when a team has two players sharing time at a position, there is twice as good of a chance that one of them hits his 60th, 70th, even 90th percentile, in which case the playing time would likely tilt toward him. The Blue Jays don't need both players to hit 80th-percentile projections to get 80th-percentile production; they just need one. If it happens—.285 TAv for Smoak and .300 for Colabello—the Blue Jays should continue to get excellent production from both corner infield spots.
The final area where the Jays could see some increased production is at the keystone sack. Ryan Goins is not a good hitter. But there’s a chance he’s not a terrible hitter. PECOTA projects him for an awful TAv of .224, which makes sense if you’ve seen his entire career. However, something funny happened to the (now) 28-year old when he took over the position full-time in July: he stopped swinging.
Until he became a full-time player on July 27th, Goins was swinging at 46 perrcent of the pitches he faced and had an OBP of .269. From that point on, he dropped his swing rate to 41.3 percent. That might not seem like much, but it helped raise his walk rate from 5.6 percent to 12.6 percent, and his overall batting line from .223/.269/.316 up to a very solid .279/.366/.393. Obviously, he could revert to his free-swinging ways, but if Goins can maintain even a little bit of this patience until Travis returns, it will do wonders for helping turn the lineup back over to the big boys and putting more runs on the board.
When you add in a full season of Troy Tulowitzki, and maybe some performance from Dalton Pompey or Michael Saunders, there are certainly a lot of ways for this Blue Jays lineup to be nearly as good as it was last year. If they aren't, they're still going to hit a lot of home runs, score a lot of runs— and win a lot of games.
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