By: Dan Grant
In this monthly feature (an homage to the great Jonah Keri), intrepid Blue Jays fan Dan Grant takes a look at the current team roster and ranks what he finds within. An important distinction to make is that this set of rankings is not one designed to judge overall talent, current skill, potential upside or even strength of character. It is one simply designed to reflect how important the performance of the ranked players are to the success of the team, both in the recent past and near future. From top to bottom, who’s hot, and who’s not? And more importantly still, who needs to be?
As suspected, the month of April was a time for this Blue Jays team to learn and grow. We met and bid goodbye (temporarily in some cases) to a bevy of players around the teams fringes, and one core piece.
The Jays posted a disappointing 11-14 month, and their lack of success ensured that the biggest story around the team was the surprising PED suspension of first baseman Chris Colabello.
Stacey May Fowles wrote a fantastic piece about the suspension over at Blue Jays Nation and I suggest that you check it out. I’m not going to add too much more other than to say I have absolutely no idea if Colabello is telling the truth. I’m of the mind that professional athletes should know what they’re putting in their bodies but it’s also hard for me to believe that the guy in this video is straight-up lying. I also think the banned substance list is both arbitrary and superfluous, but that’s not a discussion for today, because I say its not.
The Jays struggled in a couple specific areas in April and that’s reflected in these rankings for May. Some notes:
- The key cogs in the bullpen have moved up, as Toronto needs them to find themselves to start stringing together some wins. Yes, I will gladly accept the nomination for understatement of the year, thank you.
- R.A. Dickey has slipped way down after his customary slow start, not because I’ve lost faith in him, but because J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez have been so good that his success isn’t quite as essential as it might have been, were those two not pitching so effectively.
- Many are concerned about the offense beyond the Jays big three bats, (and maybe including two of them!) but I’m not too worried. Michael Saunders hot start has had the same effect in the rankings on Kevin Pillar as Sanchez/Happ have had on Dickey.
- Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins are more important combined than a guy like Jesse Chavez, but they are not a two-headed second base monster, they are two separate players. Barney is moving up in importance, while Goins is moving down, for obvious reasons to anyone who watches the team play. Here’s hoping they’re both rendered relatively moot when Devon Travis returns.
Last month’s ranking in brackets. Stats as of May 2nd, provided (mostly) by Fangraphs. Support Fangraphs!
The Turner Ward Ward
25. Matt Dominguez (1B/3B) (NR)
25. Chad Girodo (RP) (NR)– Shortly before this was published, Dominguez was sent down and Girodo called up, as Toronto goes to eight relievers and a three man bench.
24. Ryan Tepera (RP) (22)
Tepera’s journey to the 25 man roster has been roundabout to say the least. After getting into 32 games with the team in 2015, he had a half decent camp, and aided by Bo Schultz’s off-season hip surgery, landed a roster spot. However, after lefty Aaron Loup went down, the eternal LOOGY search reared its ugly head and free agent Franklin Morales was signed towards the conclusion of Spring Training. Tepera, a righty with reverse splits, was then optioned to Buffalo, as Toronto wanted to see what it had in Joe Biagini and/or Arnold Leon and just couldn’t keep everyone around.
Stay with me here.
Leon was terrible and Biagini wasn’t. Leon is gone, Biagini isn’t. Morales landed on the disabled list after just two appearances. After a strong spring and some success in Buffalo, switch-pitcher Pat Venditte was given first crack at taking his spot. In entirely too small a sample to judge him properly, Venditte struggled (mightily) and has been switched out for Tepera, the man who originally made the 25 man roster before Morales was signed. Talk about musical friggin’ chairs!
How has Tepera responded? Well, he’s pitched just once since his promotion. He hit 98 mph on the gun, which was the absolute top end of his velocity last season, so that’s something? However, he gave up 2 hits and an earned run, and with Schultz working his way back, not to mention Venditte, Dustin Antolin and lefties Pat McCoy and Chad Girodo raring to go in Buffalo, Tepera is going to have to be pretty damn effective to remain with the team, particularly given the early season struggles of the bullpen. More on that later.
23. Josh Thole (C) (24)
22. Joe Biagini (RP) (25)
21. Gavin Floyd (RP) (20)
20. Darwin Barney (INF) (23)
19. Ezequiel Carrera (OF) (21)
18. Ryan Goins (2B/INF) (16)
17. Jesse Chavez (RP) (18)
16. R.A. Dickey (SP) (7)
15. Michael Saunders (OF) (17)
14. Justin Smoak (1B) (19)
My working theory is that Justin Smoak casually stalks me, broke into the Same Page lair, read the underlying paragraphs and got himself fired up for last nights win over the Rangers. Three hits, two dingers and a walk off. Just lovely. I never doubted you.
The following was written (just) before all that happened.
Smoak has leaped up the rankings for obvious reasons. With Colabello gone until mid-July (and ineligible for the playoffs) he’ll be a fixture at first base for Toronto over the next few months.
Smoak was a big prospect who was drafted 11th overall by the Texas Rangers in 2008. He raked across all levels in the minor leagues, and has a career .291/.402/.458 line outside of the majors. However, he’s never been able to completely harness his abilities at the highest level of competition. He has good power and takes a walk, but strikes out far too frequently. Since the beginning of 2015, his contact rate (72.8%) ranks 231st out of 269 players with more than 350 plate appearances. He’s shown good patience so far this year, walking 11 times in 52 plate appearances, but he’s also whiffed 18 times and has just one extra base hit, after managing 18 home runs and 16 doubles (and his first career triple) in 328 plate appearances a year ago.
A little math here: 52 PA’s – 11 BB’s = 41 AB’s. With 9 total hits and 18 K’s.
Let’s call that the Less Than Ideal Plate Approach Theorem. Copyright pending.
Smoak isn’t necessarily hurting the team at the plate, as he’s getting on base, and he’s likely to start providing some power soon. With that said, he’s been far superior from the left side of the plate and Toronto might give Matt Dominguez or Jesus Montero a look as a platoon partner, particularly since Smoak has already registered a -3 in Defensive Runs Saved, after posting a +4 a year ago. There’s time yet for him to make that up, of course, but a big part of his role last season was as the sure-handed replacement for the more –ahem– ‘unconventional’ Colabello. If you take that part of the equation away, two and half months of straight Smoak becomes a lot harder to stomach. Here’s hoping he gets his glove in order and starts to drive the ball more consistently, otherwise Toronto might have an unexpected hole that needs addressing at first base.
One good game does not a season make, but way to shove it back in my face Smoaky! I mean that.
The Fernandez Fraternity
13. Kevin Pillar (CF) (8)
12. J.A. Happ (SP) (13)
11. Aaron Sanchez (SP) (15)
10. Marco Estrada (SP) (9)
9. Roberto Osuna (RP) (10)
8. Drew Storen (RP) (12)
7. Brett Cecil (RP) (11)
It’s been said in a variety of places, but Brett Cecil has evolved into a slow starter. You can also find a bunch of articles that will tell you just how bad the Jays bullpen has been to date, and it’s been a tire fire as whole, to be sure. But to me, the most important element is Cecil, a man who was so dominant just a year ago. Lest we forget, he was anointed the closer coming out of camp in 2015, and he was ineffective and then injured and had an ERA over 5.00 in the opening month. In 2014, he struggled hugely in April as well.
Both years he came around and was absolutely dominant, particularly in the second half of 2015, when he submitted one of the best stretches by a relief pitcher in major league history. So is there any additional cause for concern this year?
Well, maybe. His strikeout rate is down significantly, at only 8.38 K/9 versus 11.60 last year and 12.83 the year before. We can cry sample size (he’s only pitched 9.2 innings so far) but Cecil is only slotted to pitch between 50 and 60 innings total on the year, so we’re talking about close to 20% of his total performance. A promising sign is that his hard contact rate (32.4%) has remained virtually the same as the past couple seasons, while his soft contact rate (26.5%) is way up. So there have definitely been some sneaky balls getting through on poor old Brett. This means he’s getting BAPIP’d hard- balls are falling in at a .394 rate against him right now- but he actually gave up a .280 BABIP last year and a .344 rate in 2014, so while that should normalize a bit, it might not be the key problem.
I’d say the biggest issue is that fact that his ground ball rate is way, way down. In his career as a reliever, opponents have hit into ground balls 50.2% of the time against Cecil, and that number has been slightly higher the past three seasons. This year, the number has cratered to 36.4%, while his line drive rate (19% in 2015) is up to 27.3% and his fly ball rate (29.4% in 2015) is up to 36.4%. The biggest culprit has been his curveball, which coincidentally, is the pitch he throws most often. Opponents are putting it on the ground just 36.4% of the time so far, after doing so an unreal 67.5% of the time in 2015. They’re getting it up in the air an identical 36.4% of the time, after managing that just 5.0% of the time last season. Case closed.
All this is to say, Brett Cecil has a lot of goddamned improving to do, and it starts with Uncle Charlie. Recent history says he’ll figure it out and the Jays need him to do it sooner rather than later.
6. Edwin Encarnacion (DH) (6)
5. Josh Donaldson (3B) (2)
4. Jose Bautista (RF) (3)
3. Russell Martin (C) (5)
2. Troy Tulowitzki (SS) (4)
Speaking of guys that the Jays need to step up, here’s the hundred million dollar man himself, Troy Tulowitzki.
Don’t get me wrong, I have love for Tulo and I’m happy he’s a Jay. I even wrote about it last season, when he struggled at the plate after coming over from Colorado. He’s one of the best defensive shortstops in the history of the game by any metric, and he’s been wonderful in that respect for Toronto. He’s already a +3 in DRS and is on pace to post his highest UZR rating since the 2011 season, when he won his second of back-to-back gold gloves for the Rockies. He’s moving well and making difficult plays. He’ll provide a steadying element in the middle of the infield, regardless of who’s manning second base.
Where he’s really struggling however, is hitting the ball. He’s a power bat at the position where generally you don’t have one, which is nice, and his five home runs have him on pace for a 30 bomb season, which would be great. His HR/FB rate (15.2%) is right in line with his career number, which is a good thing and means the power should be sustainable. He’s taken 14 walks already on the season and his OBP is .115 points above his batting average. These are all good things.
But the rest isn’t pretty.
Tulo is hitting just .165 through May 2nd, which is downright crazy considering he’s a career .294 hitter. You can say ‘Coors Field’ all you want, but he’s hit .272 with a .344 on base for his career on the road. Coors Field can pump up your numbers, but it doesn’t make you a hitter. The biggest problem seems to be just that- hitting the damn ball. Everyone has a bad month here or there, but after Tulo struggled down the stretch for Toronto last season, it feels like more than that.
A guy with a career contact rate of 83.5% is suddenly down to 72.5%. That’s a massive decline. In particular, his contact rate on pitches in the actual strike zone has plummeted to 73.6%. To give you a point of reference, during his peak years with Colorado (06-14), he ranged between 87% and 91.8% each season. He’s struck out on nearly 30% of his plate appearances so far this year, by far a career high. So why the hell is this happening?
He’s swinging the bat at a career low rate (40.1%), which suggests to me that he’s having trouble figuring out what’s coming next. It seems simplistic, but you can’t hit the ball if you don’t swing the bat. It’s not like he’s chasing an extraordinary amount of bad pitches. He’s swinging at 25.8% of pitches thrown outside the zone, right in line with his career rate. He’s offering at just 57.6% of pitches inside the zone however, down from his career mark (61.7%) and pitchers are throwing a strike to him on the first pitch 63.6% of the time, the highest mark since his rookie season. He’s also got a swinging strike rate of 11.1%, well above his career mark of 7.0%. Pitchers are attacking him early to exploit his tentativeness at the plate. His line drive rate is a paltry 6.6% versus his career mark of 19.4% and his fly ball rate is at 52.5% against his career rate of 38.5%. When you couple that with the fact that he has just one extra base hit outside of his five home runs, and you start to see a clear picture of what’s happening. Pitchers are pounding the zone, getting ahead, and even when Tulowitzki makes contact, he’s lifting the ball far too much and flying out weakly, which is one of the least productive things you can do at the plate.
Marcus Stroman is still holding the poll position for this team, because without him to anchor the starting rotation, things could spiral quickly. But the Jays need Troy Tulowitzki to figure things out. He needs to be more aggressive at the plate and earlier in counts. If pitchers are throwing that first pitch strike, he needs to adjust and be ripping at it. I still think he’s going to get it going- there’s no way a guy with his skill set is going to hit below .250 for a full season- but for a Toronto offense that’s gone from record-setting to frustrating, they could use the boost like, yesterday.
1. Marcus Stroman (SP) (1)