Three for Spring – Part Two

colabello

Note: This is the second in a three part series

In order for the Blue Jays to repeat as AL East champions in 2016 they need a lot of things to go right.  Key players need to avoid injury, supporting players need to perform, the team needs to avoid a letdown after the excitement of 2015, off-field distractions can’t get in the way of on-field performance, a 110-win juggernaut can’t suddenly appear from the other teams in the division, and on and on and on.

It’s obvious that the Jays will need big years from Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion, Tulo, Martin, Stroman, and Osuna.  But what about the other guys, the supporting cast who are key to winning?

I have identified three players that are key to Toronto’s success, and who will go a long way in determining if the Jays get back to October.

Today we take a look at the second of those players: Chris Colabello.

Chris Colabello

Age: 32

2015 Stats: 101 games, .321 AVG / .367 OBP / .520 SLG / .886 OPS, 15 HR, 54 RBI, 2 SB, 0.7 WAR (2.7 offensive WAR)

Career Stats: 215 games, .265 AVG / .323 OBP / .438 SLG / .762 OPS, 28 HR, 110 RBI, 2 SB, -0.5 WAR

To say that Colabello came out of nowhere last year would be an understatement.  He was selected off waivers from Minnesota in December with the thought that he would provide minor league depth or maybe even a decent major league bench option.  He turned into so much more.

He was called up from Buffalo and made his Jays debut on May 5 and immediately started hitting.  He went 2-for-4 that day, was hitting .538 after a week, and hit safely in 44 of his first 53 games.  Perhaps most surprising was the fact that he never slowed down.  The expectation around Toronto was that the bonus production he gave the lineup was great, but he would eventually tail off and regress back to a mid-to-low .200’s hitter.  But it never happened.  He hit right up until the end of the year, posting a .282 average and .830 OPS in the postseason.  At the end of the season his 2.7 offensive WAR was 6th on the team, just behind Kevin Pillar and Russell Martin (we won’t mention his dWAR after 46 highly regrettable games as an outfielder).

The obvious question heading into 2016 is can he do it again?  Talk to a seasoned baseball man or an analytics guy and they’ll say the same thing: no.  His 2015 success is unsustainable moving forward for a number of reasons.  First he has no track record.  In 114 games before last season he was a career .214 hitter, at an age (31) where making big improvements is almost unheard of.  Second, the bulk of his success was built around BABIP – batting average on balls in play.  BABIP measures how effectively defenses turn batted balls into outs, by removing HR and strikeouts from traditional batting average.  The industry thinking is that players will generally migrate to the league average – a player with a BABIP far under the average was unlucky (his ground balls or line drives were hit right at fielders); a player with a BABIP above the average was lucky (his batted balls found holes).  Last year the MLB average BABIP was .299.  Colabello’s was .411.

Player on the wrong side of 30, no track record, and the recipient of a high amount of luck?  That screams outlier, and suggests that Colabello will fall far from his 2015 levels.  But I wouldn’t be so sure.  First of all, there is nothing set in stone, no law or mandated fact that states a player must regress to the mean in terms of either career norms or BABIP.  Some players consistently exceed the league average, especially those who hit a lot of line drives.  Colabello’s line drive rate last year was 25.2%, good enough for 21st in all of baseball (minimum 350 plate appearances) ahead of Joey Votto and tied with Miguel Cabrera.

Second, the Blue Jays have a pretty good recent history of guys coming out of nowhere to post career years and then sustaining that success.  Bautista and Encarnacion come to mind.  Why can’t it happen to Colabello?

Regardless of if he falls off or not, the beauty of the Colabello situation is that the Jays don’t need him to be an all world hitter  With a stacked lineup, and with a potential platoon situation with he and Smoak at first, the team can afford some regression.

In terms of projections, Baseball Reference has Colabello finishing with a slash line of .266 / .322 / .438 / .759, 14 HR, 55 RBI, and 2 SB.  Fangraphs ZiPS projections peg him with a slash line of .254 / .308 / .440 / .748, 19 HR, 70 RBI, 1 SB.

I don’t expect Chris to match his lofty totals of a year ago, but if he can contribute anything close to those projected lines, the Jays will be very, very happy.

Tomorrow on 500 Level Fan, part three: R.A. Dickey.

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