Category Archives: Upper Deck Insight

Fun With Early Season WAR

It’s hard to believe, but the 2018 regular season is close to 30% complete.  That means it’s time for an annual post here on 500 Level Fan where we take a few minutes to have fun with early season stats.

We are approaching June and the standings are starting to become established.  While things look as expected in some divisions – the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros are sailing right along – things look awry in others.  Cleveland, Minnesota, and the Dodgers are under .500, the Braves and Phillies are pacing the NL East, and the Pirates are near the top of the NL Central.

But the one thing we keep hearing, the one universal caution about assessing performance at this time of year is this: it’s still relatively early.

But it’s never too early to have some fun with stats. Let’s take a look at some early season WAR stats and assess which players may have staying power (both good and bad).

Player WAR

The above tables show the best players in baseball in terms of WAR, and for what seems like first time in the history of this column, there aren’t really any surprises.  Names like Trout, Betts, Ramirez, Lindor, Freeman, Martinez, and Machado are all established stars.  Simmons was great last year and Cain, Herrera, and Belt have always had expectations.  The biggest surprises for me are seeing Jed Lowrie and Ozzie Albies listed in the top-10 in oWAR, meaning they have been some of the best hitters thus far.  In addition, Kevin Pillar’s name pops out once for where it is and once for where it isn’t.  To see him leading the Jays in WAR is a surprise, but to see him not leading the Jays in dWAR is an even bigger one.  In fact, to date Pillar’s dWAR is a rather pedestrian 0.1.  It’s his bat that’s carrying him in 2018.

Most Likely to Stick in Top-10: Virtually everybody

Most Likely to Drop Out: Belt

Here’s where we see some jaw dropping names.  Dexter Fowler and Ian Desmond were signed to big contracts not long ago, Jason Kipnis is a former All-Star and Chris Davis is a former HR King.  Over on the dWAR side, while Bryce Harper has never been considered a savant with the glove, to see him listed as one of baseball’s 10 worst is stunning.  And then there is poor Kole Calhoun.  Us Jays fans have had to suffer through the offensive woes of Martin, Travis, Grichuk, and Morales, but to see Calhoun listed – no, buried – that far below is nuts.  So what does a -1.5 oWAR mean in contemporary stats?  How about a .160 average, .399 OPS, 1 HR, and 40 strikeouts to only 7 walks?  Yikes.

Most Likely to Stick in Bottom-10: Davis

Most Likely to Climb Out: Kipnis

Pitcher WAR

I honestly can’t point out any surprises in the top-10.  Sale, Verlander, Scherzer, Severino, Kluber, and deGrom are studs.  Nola, Cole, and Bauer have long been considered breakout candidates and Porcello and Cueto have past success.  Similarly there are few surprises on the worst list.  For fun, let’s add some context to just how bad Grimm has been in KC.  In terms of contemporary stats, a -1.6 WAR translates to: 0-2, 21.86 ERA, 3.00 WHIP, 9 walks and 6 strikeouts in only 7 innings.  And we thought Stroman was off to a bad start…..

Most Likely to Stick in Top-10 / Bottom-10: All in the top-10

Most Likely to Drop Out / Climb Out: None

As always, we’ll check back on these lists later in the season to see if things become “more normal”.

What Is Wrong With Marco Estrada?

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The Marco Estrada saga is one of a number of great Blue Jay success stories.

Over the years we’ve seen players like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Justin Smoak struggle in other organizations only to finally fulfill their potential in Toronto.  Estrada pitched decently well, though a bit inconsistent and erratic during his years in Washington and Milwaukee, but found his form after being acquired in advance of the 2015 season for Shaun Marcum.  He was one of the key players that helped end Toronto’s playoff drought, and was incredible in the playoffs in elimination games against Texas and Kansas City.

Sadly, something is happening to Estrada, a performance decline that threatens to derail both his and the Blue Jays’ season.  After seeing his numbers dip last season, Estrada has seemingly fallen off a cliff through five starts this year.  After another rough outing last night against Boston, Estrada’s numbers, both on an absolute and relative basis, are terrible.  There are 46 qualified pitchers in the American League thus far – here is where Estrada ranks in a number of key categories:

Those are not pretty.

So what happened?  Is this simply an early season slump, a rough patch that will end after a few adjustments?  Or is this the continuation of a career decline?

I took a look at several other numbers to see if anything jumps out in his early season performance.  Is he suddenly walking more batters?  Has his velocity significantly declined?  Is he surrendering a ton of hard contact?

The good news for Blue Jays fans is that the answers to the above questions appear to be “no”.

Through five starts Estrada’s strikeout rate is 7.67 K/9, down a touch from 2016 and 2017 but up from a 6.51 rate in 2015.  His walk rate is actually down thus far, sitting at 3.0 BB/9, down from 3.44 last season.  His fastball velocity sits at 89.4, down a touch from last season’s 90.1 but in-line with the previous two years.  And in terms of hard contact, his hard-hit rate is 30.6% vs. 28.6% over the past three years.

So with those numbers fairly consistent, what has changed?

First of all, his pitch selection is much different.  Estrada’s fastball usage has increased to 58% up almost 5% from last year.  He is throwing it at the expense of his cutter (down from 6.7% to 5.3%) and his curveball (down from 7.7% to 5.3%).  In years past Estrada was excellent at mixing his cutter and curveball in and around his killer changeup to keep hitters off-balance.  With those pitches fewer and far between, hitters might be sitting on his below-average velocity fastball and teeing off.

Which brings us to dingers.  Estrada has always been a fly ball pitcher, but so far this season he has taken that to an extreme.

His ground ball % has dropped to 28.2% and his fly ball % has risen to a new high of 55.3%.  The result is a significant drop in his GB/FB rate from a high of 0.69 in 2016 to 0.51 thus far in 2018.

The obvious consequence of that is that more fly balls brings the potential for more home runs:

That is a steep incline.  Estrada has already allowed 7 HR in only 27 IP, and more often than not they have been the type of game-changing, soul-crushing bombs that can really hurt a team.  To wit:

  • March 31 vs. New York: Allowed two HR to Tyler Austin, both times wiping out Toronto leads
  • April 20 vs. New York: HR by Austin gave NY a 2-0 lead; HR by Stanton gave NY a 4-2 lead; solo HR by Andujar erased a 5-4 Toronto lead
  • April 26 vs. Boston: HR by J.D. Martinez turned a 3-2 lead into a 5-3 deficit

With players all over baseball trying to increase launch angles thanks to advanced analytics, Estrada will need to make some adjustments or else things might get worse.  Whether that is reducing his reliance on the fastball and throwing his curve more often remains to be seen.

But through five starts it’s obvious that Estrada is broken.  It’s up to him to fix things or else the postseason hopes of the Jays could be in jeopardy.

The Early Outfield Returns Are Good

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There’s an old saying in baseball that the games in April count just as much as those in September.  Another adage states that a team can’t win their division in April, but they can certainly lose it.

While the magnitude of a game in the final few weeks of the season with pennant race implications may be amplified, team’s must also show up ready to play in the first few weeks.  So although the Blue Jays still have 149 games left to play let’s not simply gloss over the the start with an “it’s early” shrug of the shoulders.  Last April the Jays essentially played themselves out of playoff contention with a 6-17 start they never recovered from.  Let’s give these guys a bit of credit.

Off to a quick 8-5 start, the Blue Jays look like decent value in the 2018 World Series futures, currently sitting at 30/1.  While 13 games is a small sample size, we’ve seen some important traits: Justin Smoak is showing that 2017 was not an anomaly; Aaron Sanchez is blister-free and throwing great’ Jaime Garcia is proving to be a solid back-of-the-rotation option; and the outfield defense is much improved with Curtis Granderson and Randal Grichuk.  It wouldn’t be a surprise to see their odds get shorter – maybe in the 25/1 or 20/1 range via MyTopSportsbooks – in the coming days.

Of those key traits, the one that isn’t always reflected on the scoreboards or the boxscores is outfield defense.  Last season, with mainly Ezequiel Carrera and Jose Bautista flanking Kevin Pillar, the Jays were not good defensively.  According to Baseball Reference’s Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average, Toronto had the 5th worst OF in the American League at -9.  BIS Defensive Runs Saved had the Jays even lower at -14, the 4th worst group in the AL.

So how much have Granderson and Grichuk helped?  The answer is obvious:

Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average: +4   4th in the AL

BIS Defensive Runs Saved: +1   3rd in the AL

Yes it’s still early.  Yes Grichuk is going to have to hit higher than .077 with a .319 OPS.  And yes, health is going to continue to be the key for the Jays chances.

But let’s take a moment to at least be happy with the way things have started.

Happiness is an Effective Bullpen

After almost six consecutive months without baseball, the first off-day of the season is always jarring.  We’ve just started getting back into the groove and suddenly the Jays have Thursday off?  Bummer.

But what yesterday’s off-day did do was allow us to reflect on the first week of the season.  To this writer, Toronto’s first seven games have to be qualified as a success.  First of all they are over .500, something that hasn’t happened since 2016.  Second of all the 4-3 record is much, much better than last year’s 1-6 mark through seven games.   Finally, they have picked up win #4 already, something that didn’t occur until April 21 last season.

Obviously the offense has been great.  After finishing dead last in the American League in runs scored last year, the Jays have plated 36 thus far, good enough for T-4th.  They also sit 5th with 10 HR and 5th with a .760 team OPS.

But this is not a long-ball hitting team.  Gone are the days when Donaldson, Encarnacion, and Bautista could mash opponents into submission.   The long balls will occasionally dry up, like we saw on Wednesday.

Instead, if the Blue Jays are going to keep this nice start up they will need to rely on pitching.  And while we all know that the rotation should be solid, it is the bullpen that thus far has been the most impressive.

Toronto’s bullpen was actually quite solid in 2017 but they simply pitched too much.  They averaged 3.68 innings per game, the third highest amount in all of baseball.  The fact that they finished with a 4.21 ERA (15th overall) and 1.26 WHIP (7th) is actually quite impressive.

So the key this year is to keep the number of innings down and subsequently, hopefully, the effectiveness up.  Through one week, it’s been job well done.

The starters haven’t been pitching super deep into games, but that is par for the course in the early stages of the season.  Overall the Jays bullpen has thrown 3.3 innings per game, down from last year and only the 20th highest total in the game.  As a result, their 2.31 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 3.71 K/BB ratio are all outstanding and much better than last season.

Obviously it is still very early but the signs are encouraging.  Ryan Tepera, John Axford, Seung-hwan Oh, and Danny Barnes have all looked good.  Roberto Osuna has looked absolutely incredible.  Hell, even Aaron Loup has been sharp.

Yes, the play of Donaldson, Martin, Smoak, and Travis will dictate how successful this team will be, but the longer the bullpen performs like this  the better they will be able to withstand the inevitable offensive dry patches that will come.

Through seven games I think we can safely say mission accomplished.

Toronto Blue Jays and the Hall of Fame

The Baseball Hall of Fame announced its 2018 class on Wednesday night, with a whopping four members elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America.  Vladimir Guerrero, Chipper Jones, Trevor Hoffman, and Jim Thome will join Alan Trammell and Jack Morris (previously elected by the Modern Baseball Era committee) in Cooperstown later this year.

With talk of the Hall of Fame taking over the internet the past month, it got me thinking about how the Blue Jays fit in to this process.  Normally at this time of year, the baseball world discusses, debates, considers, and ultimately celebrates great baseball players, who mostly had nothing to do with the Blue Jays during their careers.  Roberto Alomar is the only player enshrined in Cooperstown with a Blue Jays cap, and that is not likely to change anytime soon.

But what about the other players in Toronto’s past?  The Hall of Fame is – quite rightly – a difficult place to enter.  Only the best of the best get in.  But just being listed on the ballot is an impressive feat, even if you are one of the dozens each year that fall short.  So to give this time of year a bit more of a Blue Jay tint, I took a look back at HOF voting history to see how the Jays have fared, and what the future might hold.

To my surprise, there have been 69 different players on the Hall of Fame ballot to make an appearance for the Blue Jays.  Some are well known (Devon White, Jimmy Key, David Wells).  Some are not (Jeff Burroughs (86 games in 1985) or Bill Singer (12 starts in 1977)). Alomar is the only one to be elected and represent Toronto, but six other ex-Jays currently reside in Cooperstown:

  • Rickey Henderson – member of the Jays in 1993, elected to the Hall in 2009
  • Paul Molitor – member of the Jays from 1993 – 1995, elected to the Hall in 2004
  • Jack Morris – member of the Jays from 1993 – 1994, elected to the Hall this year
  • Phil Niekro – pitched 12 innings for the Jays in 1987, elected to the Hall in 1997
  • Frank Thomas – member of the Jays from 2007 – 2008, elected to the Hall in 2014
  • Dave Winfield – member of the Jays in 1992, elected to the Hall in 2001

Of the remaining 63, only six managed to remain on the ballot for more than one year: Ron Fairly (on the original 1977 team), Dave Parker (36 AB for Toronto in 1991), Dave Stewart, and Jeff Kent, Roger Clemens, and Fred McGriff, all still currently on the ballot.

Two other players with Blue Jay ties debuted on the ballot this year and survived the 5% cutoff: Scott Rolen (10.2%) and Omar Vizquel (37.5).

So that leaves a total of 54 one-and-done players, guys who didn’t received 5% of the ballot and thus dropped off.  Some of the names were pretty obvious: Woody Williams, Royce Clayton, Orlando Hudson, Matt Stairs, Mike Timlin, etc.  But there are some players who I thought were deserving of more love from the voters.  These guys don’t belong in the Hall of Fame necessarily, but should have at least received greater recognition.  I’m thinking specifically of:

  • Carlos Delgado – 473 career HR, 4 top-10 MVP finishes, 2-time All-Star, 3-time Silver Slugger winner, 44.3 career WAR.  Only 3.8% of the vote in 2015.
  • David Cone – 5-time All-Star, Cy Young winner, 5-time World Series champion, 61.7 career WAR.  Only 3.9% of the vote in 2009.
  • Dave Stieb – perhaps the best pitcher of the entire 1980’s, yet only received 1.4% of the vote in 2004.
  • John Olerud – batting title, .295 career average, 58.0 career WAR.  Only 0.7% of the vote (4 votes total) in 2011.
  • Tony Fernandez – 5-time All-Star, 4-time Gold Glove winner, only 0.7% of the vote (4 votes total) in 2007.

So what lies ahead for the Blue Jays?  Who might be the next player enshrined or seriously considered for Cooperstown?

My best guess is that as of right now (the end of the 2017 season), we might see eight Jays listed on the HOF ballot when eligible.

Roy Halladay will be on the ballot next year and should be a lock for the Hall.  Whether he gets in on the first ballot, and whether he goes in as a Jay or a Phillie is another story.

Mark Buehrle had a great MLB career – 214 wins, sub-4.00 ERA, 14 straight 200 IP seasons, World Series, perfect game – but falls short based on JAWS.  I would imagine him to have a strong enough candidacy to survive one ballot.

David Price and Troy Tulowitzki will forever be linked as mid-season acquisitions in the magical 2015 season.  Both looked like HOF locks in their early days, but both have tailed off significantly.  I don’t know if either garners enough support to make it past one ballot.

Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin have both had long and solid careers (they have combined for 7 All-Star teams and 6 top-20 MVP finishes) but will have a hard time exceeding 5%.

Josh Donaldson was a late bloomer – he didn’t become a major league regular until he was 27 – but the five full seasons he has played have been outstanding.  He has collected three All-Star nods, two Silver Sluggers, one MVP, and three additional top-5 MVP finishes.  His 37.3 WAR is two-thirds of the way to meeting the JAWS standard for third baseman, so if he can put together four or five more great seasons he might be pushing for HOF contention.

Finally, we get to the Blue Jay most near and dear to our hearts.  Jose Bautista will be a member of the Level of Excellence.  He will likely be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.  If there was a Hall of Fame for best individual moments, or most important home runs, or best late career surge, he would lead the way.  Unfortunately his peak was too short and his fall to steep to be considered for the Hall.  But hopefully he did enough during those years for at least 5% of the BBWAA to recognize him.

A Dream Offseason Plan

When Corey Seager grounded out to Jose Altuve on November 1st, the 2017 MLB season officially ended.  The final out brought delirium to Houston fans, but also brought happiness to fans of 28 other teams (sorry Dodger fans), because suddenly baseball’s offseason was upon us.  Every franchise was now tied for first again.

Normally the offseason is loaded with speculation and predictions, often-times outlandish.  The past few weeks have proven to be no exception.  Rumours are flying left, right, and centre involving what seems to be over half the players in the league.  The Blue Jays are in for an interesting few months as they try to do the impossible – stay in contention with an aging core, while at the same time bridge the gap to the next wave of elite prospects .

So how can they do that?  It’s easy to say things like “trade for Stanton” and “sign Jake Arrieta“, but those things are clearly easier said than done.

However, with Toronto continuing to pack in the fans and operating in a massive market, nothing should be deemed impossible.  With that said, may I present 500 Level Fan’s “completely unlikely yet not fully ridiculous” Dream Offseason plan for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Move 1 – Sign Chris Iannetta

Backup catcher has been a black hole in Toronto for a few years now.  It wasn’t as much of a concern the last few seasons when Russell Martin was catching 130+ games a year, but injuries limited Martin to just 91 games last year, only 83 of which were behind the plate.  The backup brigade of Montero, Saltalamacchia, Lopez, Maile, and Ohlman were worse than bad and prospect Dan Jansen is still a year or two away.

The answer?  Why not Chris Iannetta?  He has been linked to the Jays for a number of years now, and proved last year that he still has some pop in his bat (17 HR, .865 OPS) and some prowess defensively (+2 defensive runs saved, 24% caught stealing).  Plus he’ll be 35 this year so no longer should demand a ton of playing time, he can slot in an DH if need be, and at $1.5 million last year he is relatively cheap.

Likelihood of happening:  I thought this was happening in each of the last four winters.  It never has.  So….40%.

Move 2 – Sign Tony Watson

Below are the ERA’s for each of Toronto’s LH relievers in 2017:

Aaron Loup – 3.75

Matt Dermody – 4.43

Tim Mayza – 6.88

Jeff Beliveau – 7.47

J.P. Howell – 7.36

Loup was the best of the bunch and he is the rare lefty who can’t retire left-handed batters.  That is….not good.

After several incredible years in a row, Tony Watson took a step back last season, but still finished the year with a 3.38 ERA split between Pittsburgh and LA.  Better yet, LHB posted a .691 OPS against him, better than Loup’s .721.  He would be a nice fit.

Likelihood of Happening:  The market for relievers is always inflated so while he would be a great fit I can’t see the Jays getting into a bidding war for his services.  35%.

Move 3 – Sign Shohei Otani

This is easy to fit in the “keep dreaming” category, and I know there are issues with MLBPA trying to hold up his posting, but just hear me out.

Every single MLB team would love to have Otani in its lineup.  He can hit.  He can pitch.  He is a legitimate dual threat.  But a lot of MLB teams are…how to put this….cowardly.  The thought of allowing a pitcher to slot in at DH on his off days would be a non-starter.

But Toronto, with their “high-performance” team and supposed devotion to recovery and health, could be a different story.  He would be a legitimate number two starter behind Stroman, and could suit up as DH at least two of the four days he doesn’t pitch (not to mention a nice bat off the bench late in games).

NL teams can’t offer the duality as well as AL teams. Toronto is a diverse city that will give him a piece of home he craves.  Why not?

Likelihood of Happening:  Makes too much sense to happen.  Good things like this rarely happen to Jays fans….  2%

Move 4 – Trade Kendrys Morales

It goes without saying that one of the big flaws in the plan to sign Otani and DH him several times a week is that the Jays already have a DH.  Unless, that is, they trade him.

Look, I get it.  Trading Morales won’t be easy.  He’s old.  He’s slow.  He can’t play defense.  But that’s focusing on what he can’t do.  Let’s talk about what he can do.  He can still hit, despite everybody labeling him a free agent bust.  Morales popped 28 HR with a .753 OPS last year – not elite, but definitely not bad.

A quick glance around the American League shows three teams – three would be contenders mind you – that had awful DH production last year: the Angels (24 HR, ..677 OPS), Twins (17 HR, .711 OPS), and Rangers (15 HR, .686 OPS).  With Pujols on board adding Morales doesn’t make a lot of sense for LA, and I’m not sure he really fits with Minnesota.  But what’s wrong with Texas?  They made the postseason in 2015 and 2016 and were in the Wild Card race for a spell last year.  More DH production would suit them.

In return, Toronto should have the balls to ask for Jurickson Profar.  Despite being anointed the next big thing since 2011 Profar is still only 24, is very versatile, and his value has never been lower.  Toronto could use him in LF, RF, or even as insurance for Tulo and Travis in the middle infield.  They would have to offer more than just Morales (bullpen depth?) and maybe eat some salary, but it would be a sweet deal.

Likelihood of Happening: You never know, but I think we’re stuck with him.  4%

Move 5 – Trade Kevin Pillar

I lobbied for this in a previous post.  I know it would be a very unpopular move, but Pillar’s value will never be higher.  He is featured on highlight shows seemingly nightly and is becoming known across the league – not only Toronto – as Superman.

Toronto should reach out to the Marlins and offer up Pillar.  Sure Stanton would be nice, but I think Christian Yelich would be a much better fit.  He’ll only be 26 next season, he offers passable defense, and is a solid bat (.807 OPS).  Plus he’s under team control through 2021 with about $42-million owing on his deal.  He would give the Jays a nice looking outfield with himself, Teoscar Hernandez, Anthony Alford, Zeke, and possibly Profar.

Pillar would offer the Marlins huge money savings (arbitration eligible, coming off a $550,000 salary in 2017, and not FA eligible until 2021).  Plus, on a fully rebuilding team, he would still give the fans a reason to come to the park.  You never know when the next Superman catch will happen.

Likelihood of Happening: A man can dream.  1%

Final Verdict: Each of the above moves makes at least a little bit of sense, both on and off the field.  Make all of them and the Jays would be set up for contention in 2018 and possibly beyond, regardless of what happens with Donaldson.  Make one or two of them, 2018 is still in play.

What do you think?

The Delicate Case of Kevin Pillar

With the Blue Jays not participating, my viewing experience of the 2017 MLB playoffs has been rather muted in comparison to the past few years. No matter how much one hates the Yankees or Red Sox, nothing can replicate the feeling of watching your team play in October.

But one added benefit of not living and dying with every pitch is that my judgment is not impacted.  I am watching through a very neutral and decidedly objective lens, which has really opened my eyes to the CF position.

Look around at the teams participating in the playoffs and you see some incredible centrefielders.   A.J. Pollock, Charlie Blackmon, Chris Taylor, George Springer, and Byron Buxton have all been featured heavily not only in October alone, but throughout the season as well.  Watching these guys play made me inevitably think of Kevin Pillar, and about how it just might be time for the Jays to cut ties with him.

Don’t get me wrong – I like Pillar.  Watching him make incredible catch after incredible catch has been nothing short of astonishing over the years.  He is a huge fan favourite and by all accounts is well liked by his teammates.  He seems to love the city and has a huge passion for the game.

But, and here we have be honest with ourselves – he just can’t hit.

Pillar now has three full major league seasons under his belt and nothing about his results suggest that he is (a) figuring things out or that (b) a trend in the upward direction is coming.

Simply compare Pillar’s offensive production to other CF’s across baseball and a very bleak picture emerges.  Out of all qualifying CF across baseball in the past three years (there were 23 in 2015, 16 in 2016 and 18 in 2017), here is where Pillar ranks among more traditional stats:

As you can see….not great.  In terms of OBP, one of baseball’s most important stats – especially for Pillar considering he spent 58 games in 2017 and 20 games in 2016 at the leadoff spot – he was dead last in 2016 and second last in 2017 among all CF.  Same story for OPS.

But things look downright ugly when we take a deeper dive into some more advanced metrics:

Yikes.  Yikes.  Yikes.

The first two numbers basically confirm what we already knew: Pillar never walks (worst or second worst walk-rate among CF for three straight years), and despite the fact that he seemingly always chases awful pitches, he doesn’t strike out a whole lot.

But that’s not what’s so alarming.

wOBA (weighted on base average) combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighing each of them in proportion to their actual run value.  wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) essentially takes wOBA and adjusts it for park and league.  An average wOBA is somewhere around .320 and an average wRC+ is 100.  Pillar is decidedly below average.  In fact, he was ranked the second worst CF in all of baseball in 2017, and the worst in 2016.  For context the leader in both categories this past season was Mike Trout at .437 and 181.  Right around average?  The underwhelming Denard Span at .325 and 102.  To interpret Pillar’s stats, you can say that he is approximately 15% worse than the average CF, and 17% worse than Span.  Not good.  In fact, his 85 wRC+ ranked him 128th out of all 144 qualified hitters across the majors.

The final three numbers on the chart measure offensive runs above average, defensive runs above average, and wins above replacement (the Fangraphs version).  Once again Pillar ranks right near the bottom in the offensive category, and more alarming is that his defensive production has also been slipping.

Which brings us to the final piece of Pillar’s puzzle: his fielding.  He has earned the nickname Superman for his outstanding diving catches, and to the naked eye appears to be one baseball’s defenders.  But the naked eye has long had issues in accurately judging defensive value, leading to the creation of several advanced stats.  Fangraphs “Def” stat ranks Pillar as the 4th best CF, UZR pegs him 6th, and Baseball Reference’s dWAR has him 3rd.

But new this year to the advanced stats craze is Outs Above Average, a product of MLB’s new Statcast revolution.  Known best for measuring things like exit velocity and launch angle, Statcast has tiptoed into the defensive side of the game in 2017.  Outs Above Average (OAA) sets out to measure just how good each MLB outfielder is at turning batted balls into outs.  Every fly ball is assigned a probability based on it’s placement and trajectory, and a fielder is credited with each successful play.  The more difficult the play, the more credit the player earns.  Conversely, failure to make plays will penalize fielders.  The leader in OAA in 2017 was Minnesota’s Byron Buxton at +25.  Pillar?  He ranked 112th at -2.

A similar new statistic – Catch Percentage Added – sets out to measure how good an outfielder is against the batted balls hit in his direction.  Using the probabilities described earlier, an expected catch percentage is calculated for each player based on all balls hit in his direction, along with the players’s actual catch percentage.  An 85% expected catch percentage means that an average fielder would be able to successfully turn 85% of balls hit in his direction into outs.  If that player actually turned 90% of balls hit his way into outs, he has earned a +5% Catch Percentage Added.  The leader in 2017 was once again Byron Buxton with +6%.  Pillar was dead average with 0% (86% expected and 86% actual).

Granted these stats are in their infancy and should be taken with a grain of salt.  There are many ways to interpret them and don’t necessarily mean that Pillar is a below average fielder.  But they definitely raise questions into whether he is the elite, game changing outfielder that many think he is.

And if he isn’t that elite fielder, it begs the question: is his glove good enough to carry his bat?

Watching other CF across baseball – Trout, Blackmon, McCutchen, Springer, Yelich, Pollock – I think the answer is a fairly heavy no.

Which begs one final question: with many of his catches still making the rounds on 2017 highlight reels, his value might never be higher.

And if his value might never be higher, does it make sense to trade Kevin Pillar now?

At the risk of angering his millions of fans, I think that answer is a definite yes.

Legend

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Baseball is a game of moments.  That is one of the main reasons I love it and have been addicted to it since childhood.

Unlike hockey or football or soccer or basketball – sports with more flow, traffic, and general chaos – baseball can be divided into short segments, each of which can be analyzed in a myriad of ways.  These smaller fragments allow for fans of the game to more easily compare players, teams, or, more importantly, moments.

The history of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise can be divided into four eras: the early years, the glory years, the dark years, and the resurgent years.  Each era indelibly has moments that stand out.  Think of George Bell sinking to his knees in 1985 in celebration of the first AL East title.  Think of the huge playoff home runs by Roberto Alomar, Ed Sprague, and Joe Carter.  Or consider huge individual games for Carlos Delgado, or award winning seasons by Pat Hentgen, Roger Clemens, or Roy Halladay.  All have a fond place in our memories.

But the history of a baseball team is linear: so much of how each moment is interpreted depends on what came before it.

Think: would Alomar’s iconic home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1992 ALCS have meant so much had the 1985 team finished what they started?  I don’t think so.  That group of players was supposed to kick off a baseball dynasty in Toronto, but kept faltering at the worst possible moments.  The Alomar homer needed the blown 3-1 lead to Kansas City in ’85, the slow starts that doomed the ’86 and ’88 teams, the late season collapses in ’87 and ’90, and the playoff failures of ’89 and ’91 in order to feel so special.  That darkness led to the greatness.

All of which leads me to Jose Bautista.

There is a lot being written about Joey Bats right now as he plays what is more than likely his final homestand as a Toronto Blue Jay.  I have seen tribute videos.  I have seen countdown lists.  I have read articles praising him for his decade of service north of the border.  But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say what I’m about to say here: Jose Bautista very well might be the most important player in franchise history.

Importance is a very subjective term that doesn’t lend itself to measurement.  Each and every person can interpret it differently, create their own criteria, and draw their own conclusions.

By all objective accounts, Bautista is not the greatest player the Jays have ever seen.  He will not be joining Alomar in the Hall of Fame.  In terms of WAR, he ranks third behind Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado.  His .881 OPS ( as of today) trails Delgado, Donaldson, and McGriff.  He ranks third in runs scored, sixth in hits, second in home runs, third in RBI, and second in walks.  He wasn’t here the longest (6th in games played), didn’t make the most All-Star teams (6 to Dave Stieb‘s 7), and never won an individual award (despite four top-10 MVP finishes).   So you can’t call him the best.

But it is the moments he created – more importantly, the meaning behind those moments – that make him the most important.

Bautista was responsible for many classic moments over the years.  There were his epic one-on-one battles with Ivan Nova and Darren O’Day, his 50th home run in 2010 off King Felix, his many huge outfield assists where he gunned runners down, or his legendary 9th inning home run in Seattle last year in front of thousands of traveling Canadian fans.

But the bat flip….the bat flip was something else entirely.

Let’s be honest: between May of 1994 (where it became pretty clear that there would be no three-peat) and July of 2015, Toronto was baseball’s no-man’s land.  It was a team – and to some extent, a city – without an identity.  The Jays sometimes made big splashes (Roger Clemens, A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, the Jose Reyes trade), and sometimes had some great individual accomplishments (Rookie of the Year and Cy Young seasons, All-Star campaigns), but more often than not appeared lost in the wilderness.  They were a team in a big market that operated with a small market mentality.  They had no swagger, no confidence.  They were always an afterthought.

Bautista’s emergence in 2010 started to change all of that, but it was the bat flip that once and for all demolished it.

With one swing of the bat both the Toronto Blue Jays and the city of Toronto were back on the landscape.  The blast, the sneer, and the accompanying  emotional reaction announced to the world that this team and this market would no longer be pushed around or bullied.  Not by the Red Sox, not by the Yankees, not by anybody.  The home run let baseball know that the Blue Jays were confident and cocky, and showed just how loved and embraced they were by not only the city but the entire country.  It was the singular most important moment in decades and it was all because of one man.

People started following the Blue Jays again because of Bautista.  MLB.com began featuring stories on the Blue Jays again because of Bautista.  Blue Jay caps, shirts, and jerseys began popping up all over Canada again because of Bautista.  Pop culture and other sporting celebrities began flocking to the Rogers Centre because of Bautista.

It’s no secret that Jose is struggling this year, and if this is indeed his final few days as a Jay, going out with sub-par numbers on a last place team is far from how we’d like to see him go.

But even if this is the end, his legacy will endure.  His attitude, his preparation, the ferocity with which he played the game will live on within guys like Marcus Stroman, Roberto Osuna, Josh Donaldson, and Devon Travis, and from them to players like Guerrero, Bichette, and Alford.  In a few years from now his name will be enshrined on the Level of Excellence, and (hopefully) a statue of the bat flip will be erected outside the stadium.

But until then there are still four games left, four opportunities for fans to serenade him with all the love and pomp and adulation he deserves.

Though the concept of importance might indeed be subjective, and thought there still may be doubt in the minds of many where Jose fits in, consider one final argument.  The Blue Jays have eclipsed the 3-million mark in attendance for the second straight year.  Attendance has more than doubled since the year Bautista became a star.  There is no denying those numbers and there is no denying that most of those people came to see Jose Bautista.

And at least in my mind there is no denying Jose Bautista’s place as the most important player in Blue Jays history.

Godspeed Jose.  You will be missed.

Changes Are A-Comin’

 

2017 has been a lost season.  Things started badly for the Blue Jays, and despite a nice stretch that brought a little bit of hope to the fan base, nothing has really improved.

No doubt injuries have played a huge part of Toronto’s downfall.  The team has yet to field their intended 25-man roster this season, with somebody (or many bodies) always hurt.  Consider who the Jays have lost for extended stretches: Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, Russell Martin, Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, JA Happ, and many others.

But one glance at the standings makes it impossible to blame Toronto’s season solely on injuries.

The Washington Nationals have lost Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Jayson Werth, Joe Ross, Koda Glover, Adam Eaton, and Ryan Madson (among others) at various points this year yet still have a 79-51 record and a 13 game lead in the NL East.

The Houston Astros have been without Carlos Correa, George Springer, Brian McCann, Lance McCullers, Dallas Keuchel, Evan Gattis, and Colin McHugh at various points, yet have still managed to go 79-51 and hold a 13 game lead of their own.

More astonishingly, the Dodgers have put up an unbelievable 91-38 campaign, despite spending parts of 2017 without Cody Bellinger, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Clayton Kershaw, Brandon McCarthy, Alex Wood, Justin Turner, Andrew Toles, Julio Urias, Kenta Maeda, and Rich Hill.

No – injuries alone aren’t to blame.  The one thing those teams have that the Jays don’t is depth.  Major league quality depth, both on the bench and on the mound.  Contending teams can plug in solid players to replace injured starters.  The 2017 Jays have been forced to use Nick Tepesch, Cesar Valdez, and Raffy Lopez.

All of which suggests that changes are coming.  They have to be coming.  The front office can’t expect fans to pile back into the dome to watch this exact team in 2018.  While it’s easy to point fingers at what went wrong, there are a few glaring areas of need that Atkins must focus on.

Firstly, while he will go down as a franchise icon, earn a spot on the Level of Excellence, and a rightful place as one of the top-5 players in club history, Jose Bautista has seemingly reached the end of his useful baseball life.  I love the guy, and it pains me to see him performing this way, but the head needs to trump the heart in this case.  It’s not only the .209 average, sub-.400 SLG, sub-.700 OPS, and -1.3 WAR that says it’s time.  It’s images like this:

That is Bautista’s 5th inning at bat against Drew Pomeranz last night.  He stepped to the plate with runners on first and second, nobody out, and the Jays clinging to a 3-2 lead, and was promptly thrown two fastballs right down the middle.  2010 Bau would have launched the first pitch into the 5th deck.  Unfortunately, 2017 Bau watched the first pitch for strike one, then flew out.

Backup catcher is also a mandatory area of focus for the front office.  For four years fans went ballistic about the Jays carrying Josh Thole on the roster, calling him a waste of a roster spot and a useless player.  In those four seasons Thole hit .200 with a .522 OPS and a -2.4 WAR.  This season, Miguel Montero, Mike Ohlman, Luke Maile, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Raffy Lopez have hit .132 with a .408 OPS, and 70 strikeouts to 17 walks as a collective group, and posted a combined WAR of -1.5.  It makes us long for the days of Josh Thole.

Finally, the bullpen needs an overhaul, specifically Aaron Loup.  By all accounts Loup works hard.  He comes in when called upon and tries his best.  But his primary responsibility as a left-handed pitcher is to retire left-handed batters. Simple as that.  Thus far in 2017 LHB are hitting .296 against him, with an OPS of .762.  Overall, Loup’s 4.22 ERA and 1.59 WHIP are not good, especially considering he is Toronto’s primary LH reliever.

September is only a few days away, meaning rosters are expanding.  The Jays need to eschew all belief that they are still in the race and start auditioning for 2018.  Bringing up a catcher that might have a shot at sticking  next year and at least two lefty relievers should be a no-brainer.

The next wave of great Jays prospects is still a few years away.  As-is, this team can’t contend next year without significant change.

Eight Reasons to Keep Watching

The calendar has turned to August, and sadly for Blue Jays fans it is August of 2017 and not 2015 or 2016.  In those years, of course, the Jays were captivating the city as they charged (2015) or scraped (2016) their way towards playoff spots and eventual births in the ALCS.  This year the team is limping to the finish line, dead last and left for dead.

Yes, you can look at the standings and find a glimmer of hope.  They’re only five games back of a Wild Card spot with 54 to play!  Even better, they are still only 8 games back in the AL East, and trail four flawed teams that can all self-destruct at any moment.  All this team needs is one hot streak and contention is possible!

But take off the dreamer’s glasses for a second and a much murkier picture emerges.  Toronto would need to leapfrog seven teams to capture a Wild Card birth and four to win the East.  Their middle infield will not consist of Travis and Tulo, but rather Barney, Goins, and Refsnyder moving forward.  The rotation has been weakened by the loss of Sanchez and the inconsistency of Estrada, with still nobody penciled in to replace the departed Francisco Liriano, and journeyman Cesar Valdez still tossing for Sanchez.  They just traded their second most dependable reliever.   Do you see a sustained hot streak coming?

In short – it’s done.  Even the most hardcore and optimistic fan has to admit that.

So the question now, especially for the casual fan, is why bother tuning in to the rest of the year?  Why spend dwindling summer evenings watching a losing team flail their way towards an empty October?  Well, here are 8 reasons why:

  1. The Bautista Farewell Tour

Nothing official has been said, and it is all speculation, but it certainly appears that the Jose Bautista era is coming to an end in Toronto.  Mired in a dismal season (.706 OPS, -1.1 WAR) there is virtually no chance that his option for 2018 is picked up by the club.  There is a slight chance that he would agree to be dealt to a contender before the August 31 deadline, but in all reality Jays fans have another two months to watch, recognize, and appreciate one of the franchises greatest players and biggest icons.  Get out and cheer for him before he’s gone.

  1. The End of Donaldson?

Toronto management has made it clear that they are all-in on 2018, suggesting that additions will be made to the core during the offseason rather than subtractions.  But, as has been made obvious in years past, you never know what will happen.  With another year of team control, Josh Donaldson remains Toronto’s most significant, appealing, and tradeable asset, and he has also finally gotten hot.  If he ends the season on a huge hot streak, and with his value at an all-time high, what’s to suggest that Atkins won’t move him for a prospect haul and fill the gap with a free agent signing (Moustakas anyone)?

  1. The Stro Show

Marcus Stroman is putting together an outstanding season and has become must-watch TV.  You simply never know what you’re going to get.  Two starts ago he was ejected; last start he was in the middle of a bench clearing altercation.  Through all his antics he continues to dominate.  He ranks 5th in the AL in wins, 5th in ERA, and 2nd in WAR, just a tick behind Chris Sale.

  1. The Future

There is no indication as to what is in the mindset of Toronto’s front office, but September is just around the corner, which means roster expansion, which in turn usually means an influx of young prospects to the big leagues – especially for teams out of contention.  Does this mean we will see the return of Pompey, Smith, and Alford?  Maybe the debut of Teoscar Hernandez?  Or maybe, just maybe, the ultimate treat: Bichette and Vladdy Jr.?

  1. Smoak Bombs

For all the talk of Aaron Judge taking the baseball world by storm it would be easy to assume that he had already locked up the HR crown.  Think again.  With 31, Justin Smoak is only three bombs behind Judge for the AL and MLB lead.  A Blue Jay has won the home run crown four times in club history (Barfield in 1986, McGriff in 1989, and Bautista in 2010 and 2011).  Smoak has a chance to make it five.

  1. Osuna the Save King

Similar to Smoak, Roberto Osuna also has a chance to make some history.  Only twice in franchise history has a member of the Jays finished with the most saves in the league: Tom Henke in 1987 and Duane Ward in 1993.  With 27 saves, Osuna trails Alex Colome by 5 and is closing in fast.

  1. Pressure Free Viewing

Let’s be honest: nothing can ever replicate the feeling of being in a pennant race.  But raise your hand if you experienced any of the following symptoms during the stretch run of 2015/2016: anxiety, stress, heartburn, fear, nausea, anger, depression, exhilaration, sweat pouring from every pore, jitters, and intense uncertainty.  Sometimes it’s fun to watch the games in peace…

  1. Because….baseball

Yes it’s been a bad year.  The Jays have run us all through the gamut, from the high hopes of Opening Day, to the crushing disappointment of a 6-17 start.  There have been losing streaks (too many), winning streaks (too few), injuries, errors, awful pitching, terrible hitting, and too many moments of anguish to count.  But think ahead to November. Think ahead to December, January and February.  Picture the freezing temperatures, the blowing snow, the howling wind, and the eternal darkness. Now realize how thankful you should be that you can flip on the ballgame each night.  Even though it’s been a rotten season, it’s still better than what’s coming.  Enjoy it.