(All stats found via Fangraphs and MLB.com)
I don’t think you really need me to tell you that 2017 hasn’t gone the way the Jays hoped it would.
And while the season is far from over, and these hot/cold starts could easily be anomalies that are corrected as the season progresses, there have been some interesting stories already that are worthy of mention. I’ll try to keep this as uplifting as possible, seeing as I have the feeling I’m going to be writing visual depression in the form of a Raptors end-of-season article soon.
Surprise: Kevin Pillar (and his new approach)
Kevin’s always had the ability to hit. As a minor leaguer, he was touted as a very good bat, with very little mention of his glove, and his career .324 batting average throughout the minors validates that. Well, his career up to this point hasn’t exactly gone that route, on both ends. While not a bad hitter by any stretch of the imagination, Pillar’s knowledge of the strike zone was similar to Kim Kardashian’s knowledge of neuroscience, and that made it really tough for him. Sliders in the dirt, fastballs at eye level, you name it, he swung at it.
New Kevin is a whole new animal. Equipped with a new-found ability to properly gauge the strike zone, Kevin has dropped his outside swing % (percentage of balls chased) from 37.1% to 32.1%, a full 5% decrease, and upped his zone swing % (the opposite of the former) from 62.3% to 69.7%. Basically, he’s swinging more at better pitches and not chasing garbage. Analytics and common logic will both tell you that’s a great way to boost your numbers.
And that’s exactly what’s happened. In the early going, Kevin has posted a .314 BA with four home runs, nine RBIs and a .357 OBP. His current .504 slugging % would slaughter his career high of .399, which he posted in 2015. So not only is he hitting the ball more, he’s hitting it with authority, and has given the Jays a dependable bat at the top of the lineup. If he avoids falling back into old habits, there’s no reason why this isn’t sustainable.
Disappointment: Jose Bautista
After a ridiculous spring that saw Jose hit .414, it seemed like Jose was ready to come out of the gates firing.
Well, that didn’t exactly happen.
While his defence (arm especially) has seemed to make a comeback, and he’s still taking walks at a laughable rate, a .187 average simply won’t cut it. More importantly, a .294 slugging % won’t cut it. Jose isn’t making contact and, even when he does, he isn’t hitting with authority.
No better place to start than his 28.0% strikeout rate. Up from 19.9% last year, which was his highest since 2009, Jose is striking out a little more than once every four plate appearances. It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that it’s hard to get a hit when you don’t hit the ball. If Jose’s going to right the ship, he’s going to need to bring that percentage down.
An explanation could be the fact that Jose has been getting pounded with off-speed and it took some time for him to adjust. Pitchers have thrown Jose fastballs 44.9% of the time, down from 51.4% last year. So what are they throwing him instead? Mostly sliders. Jose’s slider % has gone up from 19.0% to 24.5%, and his cutter % has gone up from 4.8% to 8.5%. This coincides with teams staying away from him, abusing pitches that break towards the outside of the zone in order to avoid making a mistake on the inner half, the half Sam Dyson probably wishes he avoided in the 7th inning of the 2015 ALDS.
And Jose has struggled to adjust. Waving away consistently at breaking pitches and watching center-cut fastballs, Jose seems to be confused to matter what pitch is being thrown at him. Whether he’s been over-thinking his at bats or simply guessing wrong a lot, a lot of pitchers have made Bautista look like he doesn’t even belong in the major leagues. It’s been frustrating to watch, to say the least, as the strikeouts have undoubtedly gotten into his head at this point.
However, there is hope. Prior to yesterday’s game, Bautista was hitting .346 over the previous seven days, bringing his average up from .129 to .196 (it’s now at .187 after yesterday). His swings have looked a lot more confident recently, and that could be because he’s beginning to sit on off-speed. If he starts mashing those sliders, pitchers will be forced to throw him more fastballs again.
Just what Jose wants.
Surprise: Justin Smoak
Before the season, if I were to tell you that, on May 6th, Justin Smoak would be hitting .280 with five HRs, fifteen RBIs and would be hitting in the middle of the Blue Jays order, you would’ve asked me for a hit of whatever drug I was on.
Yet, here we are. And the impossible has happened. Smoak has won over the hearts of the Jays faithful.
Whether or not this is sustainable remains to be seen. I have my doubts but, then again, I’ve been wrong before (hard to believe, right?). Smoak’s approach to hitting this year has been to just swing. His walk rate has plummeted to 4.3%, a rate that makes 2016 Kevin Pillar look like Jose, but at the same time his strikeout % has tanked from 32.8% to 21.3%. Simply put, he’s putting the ball in play more and it’s working out.
And this is actually not a bad strategy. Smoakie has always had an abundance of talent, that’s always been clear. The problem has been finding a way to use his God-given ability to hit baseballs hard to good use. By swinging at whatever tickles his fancy, Smoak has avoided falling behind in counts by simply not letting the count get deep in the first place. If he sees a pitch he likes, he swings with no thought of working the count to find a better one. And since he can naturally hit, those pitches have typically found themselves going for extra bases, which explains his robust .505 slugging percentage.
His .306 BABIP and the fact that pitchers will most likely start throwing him more off-speed in the dirt has me concerned, but hey. Smoak has taken nothing but slander since he’s come to Toronto. Let’s all sit back and enjoy what he’s doing right now, for as long as it lasts.
If it lasts forever, consider me a doubter that’s been silenced.
Disappointment: Devon Travis
This one brings me pain. Not only because Travis’ constant smiling and joy has been covered up by frustration and disgust, but also because I’ve been such a fan of watching Travis’ approach to hitting since Anthopolous stole him for Anthony Gose (lol). I’ve said on many different occasions that I think Devon Travis has the best approach of any Blue Jay, in terms of his ability to keep his hips from opening up, allowing him to make a living hitting to the opposite field.
But I have to do this because Devon has been the worst hitter on the team this season, and I don’t think there’s even an argument to be made.
But, as I look over the numbers, I can’t pinpoint a reason for these struggles. The eye test has told me that Devon hasn’t hit the ball hard, but his hard contact % has only gone down 0.6%, not even noteworthy. As well, his soft contact % is down 3.9%, meaning that he’s actually hitting the ball harder than he did last year, as a whole.
So is it his discipline? Well, once again, no. In fact, his outside swing % has fallen from 36.3% to 25.7%, very similar to Pillar. His swing % as a whole has gone down by 4.5%, so could the problem be that he simply isn’t swinging enough? His walk rate is up and his strikeout rate is down, so that wouldn’t really make sense, so what could it be?
Well, the only noteworthy difference I’ve found is in BABIP. So, essentially, this start has been a bad luck thing. Travis’ BABIP in his first two years was .347 and .358, ridiculously high, high enough to warrant a slight regression. But that BABIP has plummeted to .186 this season, which puts him fifth worst in the entire MLB. This tells us that Travis has been hitting the ball, and his drop in soft contact percentage means that he’s hitting it hard; he just isn’t finding any holes. Things like this always end up balancing themselves out over time, so there’s no need to panic over Devon’s start, he’ll be fine. For his sake, however, it better start happening soon, because Barney and Goins have both played well and Tulo/Donaldson are coming back soon.
There’s only so much room in the infield.
Surprise: Aaron Loup
If you though Smoak hitting .280 was crazy, how do we explain this? After two years of being one of the worst relievers in baseball, Aaron Loup has come back and dominated in 2017 to the tune of a 0.77 ERA. In 11.2 innings this season, Loup has given up one earned run. Yes, one.
The easiest way to explain this start has been his ability to miss bats and induce weak contact. So far, Loup’s K/9 is 10.03, a career high and a huge improvement over his 7.75 career K/9. As well, his BA against has fallen from .288 last year to .239 this year. This could be because of his higher ground ball rate, which has jumped from 40.0% to 57.6%. Loup is using his quality sinker to jam lefties and get them to hit the ball on the ground, and letting his elite defensive infielders make the plays behind him.
The concerning factor for me is the walks. Somehow, Loup has managed to only give up one earned run despite walking EIGHT hitters in his 11.2 innings. That 6.17 walk rate would put him second to last if he had enough innings to quality. So, in reality, one of these has to give. Either Loup will cut down on his walks and will remain a quality reliever, or eventually putting so many runners on will come back to bite him. But it’s nearly impossible to have a 1.63 WHIP and still put up a quality season.
Disappointment: Jason Grilli
Calling a 40 year old reliever with a 4.12 ERA in 2016 a disappointment seems kind of ridiculous, yet here I am.
After putting up quality innings and winning the hearts of Jays fans in 2016, Grilli has looked like his age in 2017. A 10.38 ERA doesn’t really even do justice to how bad it’s been for him, as it seems like he can’t buy an out when he comes in. In 8.2 innings this year, Grilli has given up four home runs already and has walked seven, giving him a higher walk rate than Loup. His 1.96 WHIP really tells the whole story. When he comes in, you might as well put two guys on base right away. It would help with the pace of play, so Manfred would probably be on board.
There’s really not much statistically you can say here. This comes down to whether or not Grilli’s veteran knowledge and composure can overcome his age. He’s still throwing hard and his breaking ball is still useable. Given rest and time to figure it out, he might be able to salvage this season.
And that would be huge. Not only because of the pen struggles so far, but because of the energy his brings to the team.