What a wild ride it was on Wednesday afternoon. Marco Estrada took a perfect game into the eighth inning. Josh Donaldson made one of the greatest catches in the history of the franchise. The Blue Jays squandered prime scoring chances again and again, and then the Rays immediately followed by squandering prime scoring chances of their own.
The game was finally won in the 12th inning on a solo blast by Chris Colabello, the man who is quickly turning into both a myth and a legend in Toronto.
Colabello was picked up on waivers from Minnesota on December 8th with little to no fanfare. Part of that was because the move came three weeks after the Russell Martin signing, 10 days after the Donaldson trade, and 5 days after the Saunders trade, so it clearly underwhelmed in comparison. But the other part was that Colabello was thought to be simply a player to add depth, either to the bench or to AAA Buffalo.
Nobody envisioned this type of outbreak, especially when he began the season in the minor leagues. But on May 5th, Jonathan Diaz was sent back to the Bisons and Colabello was called up to join the Blue Jays. He made his season debut that night in LF, and went 2-for-4 at the plate, with a double, a run scored, an an RBI. The next day he went 4-for-4 with a double, 2 runs, and an RBI, and he simply hasn’t stopped hitting since. In fact, he has registered a hit in 37 of his 44 games, including a season high 18 game hitting streak.
After Wednesday’s game in Tampa, Colabello’s numbers are unreal. He sports a .343 / .383 / .512 / .894 slash line, with 6 HR, 27 RBI, 2 SB, and 11 2B. He also has an offensive WAR of 1.6, good enough for 30th in the American League, and he’s compiled that in a fraction of the games of the 29 guys ahead of him. In short, he has been outstanding.
But the biggest question on everybody’s mind is this: how long will it last? There are two very convincing arguments that the good times will be winding down fairly soon for our hero.
BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls In Play, measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit. It is an attempt to measure how lucky a player is by removing walks, strikeouts, and home runs from the equation. In general, the league average BABIP is right around .300, though for individual players it can be much higher depending on the type of player they are. Speedy players can likely beat out more groundballs, and players who hit hard line drives are more likely to find holes than weaker hitters. Currently Colabello’s BABIP is a whopping .445, the highest (by far) in the major leagues for players with at least 150 plate appearances, and miles above both the .298 league average and Colabello’s own career average of .285 (before 2015). This suggests that he has been the recipient of a lot batting luck: ground balls finding holes, bloopers landing in between infielders and outfielders, and fly balls finding gaps more often than the average player. Over the long haul, luck tends to even out.
Nobody is going to confuse Colabello with Josh Donaldson, Albert Pujols, or Adrian Gonzalez, the players closest to him in OPS this season. For his career prior to this season, Colabello put up an OPS of .649 and a batting average of .214. and has never appeared in 60 games in a single MLB season. There is no evidence in his career that suggests he can keep this pace up.
But before everybody gets all upset and down and yells at me for trying to ruin the good times, let’s all remember this: baseball is a funny game. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Colabello can keep this type of production going. Why do I say that? Here are a few reasons:
Baseball, more than any other game, is all about sample size. In a 162 game season, 44 games and 183 plate appearances are not exactly a huge sample size. But here’s the thing: they aren’t exactly a small sample size either. It’s basically a third of the schedule. Colabello has put up hot stretches in the past (in 2014 he had a .962 OPS through 20 games), but has never sustained a streak this long. The fact that he started out hot, and has remained hot for this long, has to at least suggest that he has maybe, potentially, figured something out. The fact that he is still hitting has to count for something.
We’ve already talked about Colabello’s BABIP, but a deeper look at some more advanced stats at least gives us hope that a potential regression might not be as bad as we think. According to Fangraphs batted ball statistics, Colabello is hitting line drives at a 28.8% rate, significantly above his career mark of 13.7% coming into the season. Line drive hitters are much more likely to be able to sustain a higher BABIP, which is a positive, as is the fact that his 28.8% rate would be good enough for 5th overall in baseball if he qualified. In terms of hit location, he has been spraying the ball all over the field (31.2% pull, 27.2% opposite, 41.6% centre), meaning he isn’t at risk to be shifted against by opposing fielders. Finally, Fangraphs classifies 30.4% of his balls in play as being hard hit (and 52.0% as medium hit). A hard hit line drive clearly as a better chance of landing for a hit, and while 30.4% doesn’t land him near the top of the leaderboard (where Giancarlo Stanton is perched at 50%), it does put him in line with guys like Adrian Beltre, Adam Jones, Jason Kipnis, and Hanley Ramirez – pretty good company.
The Blue Jay Effect
Maybe, just maybe, there is something about Toronto that brings out the best in hitters. Jose Bautista had a career .729 OPS before breaking out in 2010. Edwin Encarnacion had a career .789 OPS before breaking out in 2012. Maybe some of the Rogers Centre magic has rubbed off on Colabello, making him the latest reclamation project to wear a Blue Jay uniform.
There’s no telling what the future may bring.
But one thing should be clear: even if a slump is coming, Colabello has proven that he belongs.