The Blue Jays Rotation Sustainability Test

By: Dan Grant

Here we are, six weeks into baseball season. The weather is warming, slumps are getting busted and contenders are emerging. In the National League, we have a team on a historical pace in the Cubs, and a former upstart proving they’re for real in the Mets. In the American League it’s a battle of the Sox, as both Chicago and Boston are off to hot starts.

They say pitching and defense wins titles. So it might shock some of you readers to learn that the hottest starting rotation in baseball belongs not to any of these early season contenders, but to a .500 ball club, one that sits third in their respective division and has so far underwhelmed the colossal expectations of a suddenly rabid fan base.

Is it possible? Does the best rotation in baseball belongs to… the Toronto Blue Jays?

Well, it depends what you mean by best. If you mean ‘most talented’ then the answer is surely no. You can head to either Chicago team or the Mets to award that title. But if you’re talking about the most successful so far this season? That’s when the Bluebirds start to emerge.

Let’s take a closer look.

sanchezstroman

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2016 Season

So far in 2016, Blue Jays starting pitchers lead all major league rotations in innings pitched, at 233.0. This number is propped up by the fact that Toronto is tied for the major league lead in games played, at 36, but they’re 11.1 innings ahead of the second place Giants (who have also played 36 games), and are far enough ahead of the rest that this is a significant number. It grows in importance when you couple it with the fact that the rotation ranks 4th in MLB in ERA at 3.13, and 7th in WAR at 3.7.

What’s also significant is that their K/9 is only 6.91, which ranks them 26th out of the 30 teams, and their BB/9 is 2.97, which puts them right in the middle of the pack at 16th. So they’re not whiffing too many guys and they’re average at issuing free passes. So how are they limiting runs?

Well, they might be pitching a bit above their heads. Predictors FIP and xFIP have their numbers at 3.77 (11th) and 3.98 (12th) respectively, well above the 3.13 number they’ve actually posted. The defense behind them has earned 10 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) so far, which puts them 10th in MLB — good, but not elite.

So what’s suppressing the number? Could it be pure luck?

Well they do have the fourth lowest BABIP this season. Balls in play are falling in at just a .269 rate, something that will correct as the season continues. But there are ways to suppress BABIP, and Jays starters Marco Estrada and R.A. Dickey are both well-known BABIP beaters. One way to keep it down is a high groundball rate, and sure enough, the Jays starters are tied with the Yankees for MLB’s top GB% at 51.3%.

All of this sounds like the Jays starters have been effective, but the best in baseball? It certainly wasn’t the case in April, when they were just slightly above average. When the calendar turned to May however, the Jays rotation caught fire.

So far this month, Jays starters have posted a 1.75 ERA, tops in the big leagues by close to half a run. FIP has them at 3.33 (4th) and xFIP at 3.66 (11th) and that BABIP is down even further, to .244, 5th lowest on the month. They’ve made 11 starts thus far, tossing 77 innings, an average of just under 7 per start. That already dominant groundball percentage is up to 56.8% — by far the best in baseball. They’ve also stranded runners 84.0% (2nd) of the time, as compared to 73.4% (13th) in April.

They’ve taken on the Rays, Rangers, Dodgers and Giants so far, so it’s not like this is coming against weak opponents either.

Can they keep it up?

dickey

R.A. Dickey

Dickey is off to his now annual slow start, and if you eliminated him from the equation, some of the strong numbers mentioned above would be even more impressive. He’s thrown 40.0 innings over 7 starts so far, striking out just 6.30 batters per nine and walking 3.38. His 60.4% LOB rate is worst in the rotation as well. His FIP (4.43) and xFIP (4.41) actually suggest he’s been a bit unlucky, as he’s posted a 5.18 ERA. His .315 BABIP is well above the .257 mark he posted in 2015, which gives hope to the fact that he can right the ship and be passable moving forward.

After a rocky start in 2015, he was one of the best starters in the Majors following the All-Star Break. The BABIP should normalize — he hasn’t posted a mark above .278  since he began starting for the Mets in 2010. With Dickey, it’s a cruel waiting game; we’ll have to wait for him right the ship once again or hold off until he’s so bad that managements hand is forced.

[Ed. Note– the night after this was published, Dickey turned in a scoreless effort against Texas. He’s now allowed just 3 earned runs in his past three starts, over 21.1 IP. That’s a 1.28 ERA. It all happening]

 

marcoestrada

Marco Estrada

A popular pre-season candidate for regression, 2016 Estrada has picked up right where he left off in 2015. There was a forced narrative that his relationship with the since departed Dioner Navarro was the magic key to his success, as if Russell Martin did not have eyes, ears and access to videotape. Many pointed to his league leading .220 BABIP (one of the lowest marks of all-time) as evidence that his success was unsustainable, and I have to say, I thought this might have some merit. It’s come up a bit to .242, but it’s still best among Toronto starters. Estrada is doing the same things this season that he did last year to suppress the number — locating his fastball immaculately and using his change-up to induce swings-and-misses and weak contact.

There is evidence that Marco has been getting slightly luckier this year — his 6.7% HR/FB rate should be unsustainable, and his hard contact rate is up to 33.3% from 27.5% a season ago. However, he’s doing a better job getting hitters to put the ball on the ground. After inducing groundballs just 30.5% of the time last season (by far the lowest number among regular starters) he’s up to 42.6% this year, well above his career mark of 35.2%. He’s throwing his curve and change-up at about the same rate as last year, but there’s been a noticeable decline in his four-seam fastball (down to 44% from 52.5%) and an uptick in his cutter (up to 14.8% from 8.4%). This has resulted in batters making more (but less effective) contact inside the zone, and swinging and missing far more outside the zone, when he turns to his devastating change-up as an out-pitch. All in all, it’s a bit of a high wire act, but it’s easy to like what you see from Estrada. More than any other Jays pitcher, command is absolutely essential to his success, and he’s shown no signs of decline in that area.

Aaron Sanchez

Aaron Sanchez

I wrote a piece stumping for the inclusion of Sanchez in the rotation, though I didn’t think he’d win the job straight out of camp. Either way, thank you Aaron, for making me look like I have any idea what I’m talking about.

Sanchez has been fantastic for Toronto so far, racking up 45.1 innings pitched over 7 starts, well over 6 innings per outing. His 7.74 K/9 has been a nice surprise, as it’s above any number he’s posted in the big leagues. His 2.58 ERA has outperformed his FIP and xFIP, which are 3.41 and 3.58 respectively, but regardless, he’s pitched very, very well.

His 59.2% groundball rate is a big reason for his success, and ranks him 4th in the entire Major Leagues in that category. When you have a bowling ball of a sinker and throw it 73.4% of the time, with an average velocity of 94.5 mph, you might have some success. Who knew?

He struggled with lefties the past two seasons, and teams have stacked lefty lineups against him at times this year. They’ve certainly had more success than right-handed hitters, but a .219/.312/.365 slash line only looks impressive compared to the punishing .206/.256/.233 to which he’s held righties. He’s actually faced 109 left handed batters this season as opposed to just 78 righties, which I imagine must be one of the most extreme splits in baseball. No, I will not look it up. Lefties have hit eight of the ten extra base hits he’s allowed, including all three homers, and 12 of his 17 walks have come against them as well. So they’re a mild thorn in his side, but given that he allowed them to hit .279/.390/.488 a year ago, major progress has been made.

The big question with Sanchez isn’t whether he can keep it up, it’s how long he’ll be allowed to remain in the rotation this season. When he won the fifth starters job at the end of camp, management was transparent with their plans to have him there until a certain point and then move him back into the bullpen once he passed that threshold. Sanchez has never pitched more than 133.1 innings at any level, and that was back in 2014. We’re not privy to the exact number, but there is talk (read: baseless speculation) that his shut-down spot is anywhere from 140-160 innings, likely including bullpen work. At that pace, he’d be in the bullpen after the All-Star break. Even if that group could use him, say it ain’t so!

The Jays appear to have another gem in Aaron Sanchez, and along with Marcus Stroman, he should form a formidable 1-2 punch for the club for the forseeable future.

J.A. Happ

J.A. Happ

By now, the story is familiar — Happ was dynamite for the Pittsburgh Pirates down the stretch last year, after being middling to below average with Seattle and Toronto in the years immediately prior. He parlayed that run of success into a three year deal with Toronto and speculation began about which Happ the Blue Jays had purchased.

So far, so good.

I’m not a big wins and losses guy, but when a guy is 5-0 after 7 starts, things must be going fairly well. Happ has pitched to a team-leading 2.05 ERA over 48.1 innings, which is great, but it’s slightly concerning when you see that FIP and xFIP say he’s actually been more like 3.91 and 4.36. Not terrible, but he’s certainly outperforming his peripherals at this point. His strikeouts are way down from even a season ago, as he’s posting only 5.59 per nine innings. His career mark is 7.25 and he put up 7.90 last year, including 9.81 when he was with Pittsburgh. His walk rate is 2.42 per nine, a solid mark. He’s stranding 89.9% of all baserunners, which mimics the 85.5% number he had with the Pirates, but is currently the third highest number of all qualified Major League starting pitchers, and seems bound to regress.

Happ’s pitch selection and velocity seem unchanged from last season. The major difference between now and the Happster we saw in 2013 and 2014, is that this version throws his slider a fair bit more. Happ himself has talked about mechanical adjustments he’s made, and how he’s just pounding the zone, so maybe it’s as simple as that? You definitely want the strikeouts to come up, either way. I expect him to come back to earth a little bit, but nothing in Happ’s peripherals suggest this is complete smoke and mirrors. Just don’t expect the second coming of Jimmy Key.

Marcus Stroman

Blue Jays at Orioles 9/30/15

Marcus Stroman

I’m tempted just to write ‘Is really GD good’ and call it a day, but let’s take a quick look at the lodestone for this Blue Jays rotation.

In his first big league season that actually started right out of camp (really!) Stroman is off to an excellent start. He’s thrown a Major League leading 56.0 innings over 8 starts, an average of 7 per outing. He also leads the Majors with a 62.3% groundball rate. His usage of his slider and change-up are down significantly so far, while his cutter and two-seamer are up. He’s stopped selling out for strikeouts and started pitching more to contact, a successful formula when you have the movement and control that he does. His K/9 is just 6.59, but his 2.41 BB/9 are best on the team. His 3.54 ERA is right in line with his 3.40 FIP and 3.59 xFIP, but all three numbers have been inflated by his inability to strand base-runners (67.4%), and by the bullpens inability to mitigate damage when Stroman has exited the game. This should normalize, which means that Stroman’s numbers are actually likely to improve, should his other peripherals remain similar.

Unlike with Sanchez, there doesn’t appear to be any concern with allowing Stroman to pitch a heavy amount of innings this season, despite the fact that injuries and roster shuffling in previous years mean he’s not all that much more experienced. I’d say it’s a good bet that he maintains this level of production, though I wouldn’t expect him to lead the league in innings pitched over a full season.

The Verdict

The Jays rotation, while scorching hot right now, appears to be due for some mild regression. Even if and when this happens, a lot of pre-question marks for Toronto —  will Estrada regress, which Happ did we sign, is Stroman ready to lead the staff — appear to be coming up aces for the Blue Jays. A huge change of note is that Toronto has only used these five starters so far, plus Drew Hutchison for one spot start. A year ago, they were forced to use 13 different starters over the 162 game season. The rotation’s job is to give the offense a chance to win the game. These five have done that remarkably consistently so far, despite the early struggles of the offense and the bullpen. Consistency and health will be key for this rotation to continue giving the Jays chances to win. So far, so good.

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