The moves made by the Toronto Blue Jays this winter have been the source of much consternation in the analytical community. The Jays have doled out more than $100 million in guaranteed money to B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett, and they’ve traded for Lyle Overbay, who was a below-average first baseman with the bat last season.

The payroll is ramped up; the fan base is mobilized. However, the general sense of things is that these additions won’t meaningfully alter the AL East pecking order. I disagree–in strong terms. If pressed, right now I’d likely predict the Red Sox to win the division, but it’s a particularly close call for me, with the Yankees and, yes, the Blue Bays both meriting serious deliberation. I like Ryan’s chances to be an elite, shutdown closer for the life of his contract, but mostly my enthusiasm for Toronto’s immediate future comes down to how the pitching staff’s tendencies dovetail with the strengths of the defense. That means the additions of Burnett and Overbay are critical and, ultimately, wise.

Burnett’s contract has been wisely pilloried ($55 million for a pitcher who’s been on the disabled list six times since 2000), but he does have considerable breakout potential. I say that because he’s possessed of a rather rare tandem of skills: high strikeout rates and strong groundball tendencies. This past season, Burnett fanned 8.53 batters per nine–good for sixth in the NL–and he also ranked sixth in the NL with a groundball/flyball ratio of 2.42. Here’s the exhaustive list of qualifying pitchers who in 2005 ranked in the top of their respective leagues in both categories:

Pitcher                     K/9 league rank        GB/FB league rank
Jeremy Bonderman            9th                     7th
Mark Buehrle                20th                    11th
A.J. Burnett                6th                     6th
Chris Carpenter             12th                    7th
Matt Clement                10th                    17th
Freddy Garcia               19th                    3rd
Dan Haren                   13th                    10th
John Lackey                 2nd                     12th
Kevin Millwood              11th                    14th
Brett Myers                 3rd                     19th
Roy Oswalt                  19th                    20th
Andy Pettitte               18th                    13th
C.C. Sabathia               6th                     6th
Brandon Webb                20th                    1st
Carlos Zambrano             10th                    12th

Generally speaking, that’s a nifty list to be on. As you can see, Burnett is one of just three pitchers to rank in the top 10 in both measures. Given the proper defense behind him and better health, Burnett could thrive.

In Toronto, he’ll certainly have the former. Here’s how the Toronto infielders stack up in terms of Rate, which is a measure of how many runs above (or below) average a fielder saves per 100 games. A Rate of 110 means ten runs saved above average, while a rate of 95 would signify five runs lost versus the mean:

Pos.     Player                   2005 Rate
1B       Lyle Overbay             111
2B       Orlando Hudson           114
3B       Corey Koskie             105
SS       Russ Adams                82

According to these numbers, Overbay and Orlando Hudson were exceptional, and Corey Koskie was solidly better than your standard-issue third sacker. I’m a bit of an agnostic when it comes to the utility of defensive statistics, but these numbers mostly cohere with observational realities. What stands out is how poorly Adams fares. Adams has good lateral range, but his throwing arm is a bit weak for the position, which, of course, leads to a number of wayward tosses to first. In 2005, Adams made 26 errors at short, exactly half of which were of the throwing variety. As for all other AL shortstops, 46.0% of their total errors were throwing miscues. So Adams is a bit above the mean in terms of throwing errors as a percentage of total errors.

This is where Overbay comes in. Overbay has excellent range by first base standards, and he’s also tremendously adept at scooping errant throws. In 2005, the Jays trotted out Eric Hinske and Shea Hillenbrand as their first basemen. Some numbers:

                     2005 Def. Innings at 1B            2005 Rate
Hinske               859.2                              94
Hillenbrand          587.1                              99

In acquiring Overbay, the Jays have made a mammoth defensive upgrade at first, from which Adams will benefit greatly (watch as his throwing-error tally craters next season). As for Overbay’s offense, the Rogers Centre is a good park for doubles, which is Overbay’s core skill with the bat, so he should find it an accommodating environment. Don’t be surprised if he rings up 50-plus two-baggers, as he did in 2004.

The thrust of Overbay’s value to the Jays, however, is the degree to which he improves an already strong infield defense. The impact of the defense on this team’s success will extend beyond merely helping Burnett’s ERA to do a Triple Lindy. In 2005, Toronto tied Baltimore for the second-highest pitcher GB/FB ratio in the AL. That’s without Burnett in the fold, and that’s without a full season from Roy Halladay, whose GB/FB of 2.60 would’ve ranked second in the AL had he logged a qualifying number of innings. The upshot is that the already groundballing Jays staff should be even more groundballing in 2006. It’s worth re-emphasizing: with such a strong infield defense in place, the Jays are going to do a fine job of keeping runs off the board.

Needless to say, Halladay and Burnett must stay healthy and combine for at least 400 innings for the Jays o have a shot at toppling the Yankees and Red Sox. It’s impossible to say whether that will happen, but at the very least it’s a reasonable proposition. What the Jays have crafted this winter is an infield defense that ideally complements the tendencies of the pitching staff. This team ranked sixth in the AL last season in runs allowed, and they figure to be even better in that regard in 2006. Considering that Toronto also underperformed its run differential last season (the Jays should’ve finished only a game behind New York and only two games behind Boston), they were already poised for improvement. Now that GM J.P. Ricciardi has taken such bold steps, they’re very much to be taken seriously in the AL East.

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