25 Deep: The Blue Jays’ Abnormal August

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 of today, your 2016 Toronto Blue Jays are breathing rarefied air — at least for a 21st century Blue Jays club. One hundred and fifteen games into the regular season, they sit not only in first place in the American League East, 0.5 games ahead of the slugging Orioles, but also lead the American League in attendance. The atmosphere fostered with 2015’s wild stretch run has been cultivated in 2016 to the tune of over 40,000 fans per game, numbers not seen since the early 90’s. This is even more relevant, given that under the new front office, ticket prices in the cheap seats have gone way up, especially for marquee match-ups. This may seem like a gouge to the little guy, a way to exploit the teams current popularity, but it really shouldn’t.

With the price increases, the Blue Jays now average $31.01 US per ticket, or as it’s also known, one cent over the Major League average. Generating revenue in this way (one hopes) leads to moves like the Francisco Liriano trade, and will hopefully lead to having the money to retain one of Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista, or at least aid in the search for potential replacements. In other words, it should ideally allow this team to start acting like the larger market club it actually is. This kind of rabid fan support is a revenue stream that the Jays couldn’t count on as recently as two years ago, so it’s imperative that they make the most of it — get while the getting is good, as it were.

Of course, it helps that the team is very good right now.

Jaysfourdeep

These guys haven’t been half bad!

It hasn’t been all high fives and finger snaps. The team has struggled at times — with injuries and the bullpen mainly, but the offense has scuffled a bit too. Over a 9 game stretch in early August, they scored just 18 runs, and though they’re still an elite offensive club that ranks 6th in the MLB in runs scored (551), they haven’t been quite the world beaters that they were last season. Still, when your starting pitchers lead the majors in innings pitched (724.1) and rank 4th in ERA (3.64), these are minor regressions that you can bear. The Jays starters have actually out-produced their FIP (4.09) and xFIP (4.00) on the season which is mostly a product of their outstanding team defense. With 29 Defensive Runs Saved, Toronto is tied with Kansas City for 2nd in the American League, and 4th in the entire MLB. They also rank 2nd in MLB in UZR, meaning that their defense is not only making plays, but covering a lot of territory as well — this can cover up a lot of warts, even from a starting staff that has been nothing short of excellent.

The 25 man roster looks quite a bit different this month — the bevy of trade deadline activity, coupled with the usual roster tweaks and a cascade of trips to the DL has made this a bit of a patchwork exercise. It’ll be even more interesting next month, when rosters expand, and this team continues its push towards the post-season. Just 47 games to go! Just remember, that having a team in first place this late in the year, while baseball is reigning king over the city of Toronto is all a bit… abnormal.

This month, we’ll look at a new bullpen stalwart, an emerging star, a completely new face and a suddenly old standby that might be going a little bit underappreciated.

This is 25 Deep.

josebautista

Jose Bautista is down with a minor knee sprain, soon after losing over a month to turf toe

Previous ranking in brackets, NR/DL means a player wasn’t ranked the previous month because he was injured.

Disabled List (Unranked this month)

Jose Bautista (2)

Ezequiel Carrera (20)

Gavin Floyd (17)

Kevin Pillar (12)

With the way our mid-season report card worked out, we actually haven’t done these rankings properly since the beginning of June, something that’s evident when you see where Gavin Floyd last featured. The Jays recently moved Floyd to the 60 day disabled list, and his 2016 is likely over. Luckily for Toronto, Bautista, Carrera and Pillar are all just resting more minor ailments, and will likely be back with the team before long.

The Turner Ward Ward

25. Ryan Tepera (RP) (25)

24. Josh Thole (C) (23)

23. Darrell Ceciliani (OF) (NR)

22.  Junior Lake (OF) (NR)

21. Scott Feldman (RP) (NR)

20.  Joaquin Benoit (RP) (NR)

We’re cheating this month and skipping the Turner Ward Ward. As you can see from the names featured here, it’s a who’s who of ‘who’s that?’ for the casual fan. Ryan Tepera is currently winning the highlander battle with Bo Schultz (there can be only one!). Josh Thole continues to be a necessity, but not the good kind. Darrell Ceciliani and Junior Lake will battle for playing time until Jose Bautista and Ezequiel Carrera return. New acquisitions Scott Feldman and Joaquin Benoit were meant to settle a leaky bullpen, but Feldman has had a rough start as a Jay. Benoit has been more effective, but the walks that plagued him in Seattle haven’t disappeared, and he’ll need to get a handle on his control if he’s going to pitch meaningful innings down the stretch.

Texas Rangers v Toronto Blue Jays

Joe Biagini, likely throwing strike one

Maldonado’s Misfits

19. Brett Cecil (RP) (NR/DL)

18. Darwin Barney (INF) (18)

17. Joe Biagini (RP) (19)

Joe Biagini is not an elite reliever, in terms of talent. He’s been a nice story for Toronto so far this season, but he’s become that by doing certain simple things consistently. Namely? He throws strikes. Over 42 appearances for the Jays, he’s thrown a first pitch strike to 68.8% of the hitters he’s faced, which ties him with teammate Roberto Osuna for 5th best in all of baseball, among 152 qualified relief pitchers. Biagini appears to be the next Ryan Goins among people around the team; an all-around good guy with people in his corner. Jays broadcasters have already been planting the seed that the former Giants farmhand could get a shot at starting next season — his 2.09 ERA ranks 21st among that same group of relievers, and his 3.50 K/BB rate is good, if not elite — and the Jays could certainly use the depth. I think this is overthinking things juat a tad.

Biagini is found money; a rule 5 pick who has actually panned out so far. While Toronto might want to consider stretching him out next Spring Training to see what they’ve got, the team (and more so the fans) shouldn’t undervalue Biagini’s contributions in his current role, or overvalue his potential. He averages about 94 mph on his fastball out of the bullpen, a solid number, but unspectacular in today’s game. That number likely drops down to around 91 or 92 (or lower) if he’s starting, and while he’s shown four pitches this season, he’s thrown the fastball 63.9% of the time. He generates swings and misses at an average rate (10.4%, 89 of 152) as a reliever, and it’s unlikely this would play up if he was asked to assume a larger role. To wit: Biagini has posted 7.99 K/9 for Toronto this year after managing just 5.80 as a starter in Double A for San Francisco last season.

A controllable, effective middle reliever is nothing to sneeze at, and the Jays may have found themselves a good one. Be happy with that.

16. Jason Grilli (RP) (24)

15. Justin Smoak (1B) (13)

14. Francisco Liriano (SP) (NR)

Toronto has done a good job this season at targeting struggling pitchers with a history of success, in the hopes that they’ll find themselves again. It’s worked out so far with Jason Grilli, it sort of worked out with Gavin Floyd (until he inevitably got hurt), and there’s cautious optimism with Joaquin Benoit. Francisco Liriano is the latest and biggest gamble by the Shapiro/Atkins regime and he could be their biggest coup. He’s ranked this highly because the Jays rotation, while superb this season, is dealing with a bevy of questions. From Aaron Sanchez’s workload limits to Marco Estrada’s barking back to Marcus Stroman and R.A. Dickey’s inconsistencies — all meant the Jays needed to acquire rotation help. Liriano is it.

Liriano was an excellent starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates over the past three seasons. After injuries marred his once promising future as the cornerstone of the Minnesota Twins rotation, he found second life as a Buc, throwing to current Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin. While that certainly wouldn’t have been the deciding factor in Toronto’s decision to acquire the left-hander, it definitely doesn’t hurt. If you examine Liriano’s peripheral statistics, they’re basically identical to the past three seasons — fastball velocity, groundball rate– with a couple notable exceptions.

The first is that Liriano, never one with pinpoint control, is walking batters at a completely unplayable 5.34/9 rate, and actually leads MLB with 71 free passes issued. The second is that his HR/FB rate, which is 11.4% for his career, and was 11.7 and 11.6 the past two seasons, has ballooned up to an ugly 19.4%. Essentially, one out of every five fly balls he’s giving up is leaving the yard, as opposed one out of every nine in previous years. You’d hope that would naturally regress, but the homer-friendly Rogers Centre isn’t exactly the natural home of HR/FB regression. As you’d expect with those types of statistics, his hard contact percentage is up, as is his fly ball rate. Essentially, he’s been getting rocked. But why?

I read a litany of Liriano pieces when the move was made, and I can’t find the specific one that made this point, so apologies to its original author. Essentially, Liriano is a guy who when successful, generates a ton of swing and misses outside the zone. His fastball sets up his wipe-out slider, mixed with a change-up and bob is indeed, your uncle. However, hitters have simply stopped swinging this year. His swinging strike rate is down almost a third, and his contact rates, both in and out of the zone, are up. Whether it’s because Liriano is falling behind in the count (his first pitch strike percentage has fallen, slightly) or because hitters are simply outguessing him, is hard to tell. Maybe he’s been tipping the slider? It’s hard to imagine such an otherworldly pitch simply losing its effectiveness without a drop in velocity.

Liriano’s first start as a Jay was encouraging — 6 IP, 2ER, 5K’s and just 2BB’s. He did give up a home run, but perhaps more importantly, he threw 61 of his 93 pitches for strikes, and generated 11 swinging strikes. It was a solid, if unspectacular first effort, and Jays fans should hope for more of the same — Liriano is on the books for not just this season, but for 13 million next season as well.

devontravis

‘I see you, big man’

The Fernandez Fraternity

13. Melvin Upton Jr. (OF) (NR)

12. R.A. Dickey (SP) (11)

11. Michael Saunders (OF) (10)

10. Devon Travis (2B) (14)

It’s a fools game to stitch together small sample sizes, but it’s one that baseball fans play all the time. They look at a hot September call-up (remember Travis Snider?), or a veteran off to a career start (2016 Darwin Barney) or a spectacular second-half (2015 Ryan Goins) that was really just a month. These things can all masquerade as legitimacy in baseball and they can happen for a variety of reasons. September call-ups often thrive because they’re playing against other September call-ups and/or because opposing pitchers haven’t seen them before. Light-hitting journeymen sometimes get hot because pitchers go right after them with fastballs, and because, well, they’re professional baseball players. There are infinite reasons for why a flash sometimes occurs in the pan.

None of those reasons apply to Devon Travis.

John Lott of Blue Jays Nation wrote a fantastic piece about his success here, and you should really read it. But suffice to say, Travis has the mechanics and the approach to maintain his effectiveness at the plate. After a slow start following his return from the disabled list, he’s been white hot. And check out something weird:

2016

60 games 254 PA’s, .304/.343/.498, 38 R, 10 HR, 34 RBI, 3 SB, .358 wOBA, 124 WRC+, 2.4 WAR

2015

62 games, 238 PA’s, .304/.361/.498, 38 R, 8 HR, 35 RBI, 3 SB, .370 wOBA, 135 WRC+, 2.3 WAR

Spooky, isn’t it? Call small sample size all you want, but the sample is getting bigger and not a whole hell of a lot is changing. Not to mention his defense has improved– in roughly the same innings played at second this season, Travis has been worth 4 DRS as opposed to 1 last year, and his UZR is at 4.7 vs 2.2 a year ago.

The Jays may just have found themselves a diamond hidden in the rough. And for Anthony Gose, no less!

9. Marco Estrada (SP) (5)

8. Marcus Stroman (SP) (3)

7. Roberto Osuna (RP) (7)

jahapp

J.A. Happ is looking like the hidden gem of the 2015 free agent class right now

Stieb’s Stallions

6. J.A. Happ (SP) (9)

Speaking of hidden gems, there were many who questioned Toronto’s quick signing of J.A. Happ to a 3 year, 36 million dollar contract at the start of free agency last season. These were generally the same people who were infuriated by management’s decision to not do everything in their power to retain David Price, even though they did do that, it’s just that ‘that’ was nothing. Which was what they did. Follow?

Look, I’ve been one of the biggest bellowers of the ‘settle down’ mantra when it comes to Happ and his 16-3 record. He’s getting a ton of run support, ranking second in baseball with 6.39 per game. It’s weird: Marco Estrada and R.A Dickey rank 71st and 72nd on the same list, at 3.80 and 3.79 runs per game of support respectively. So yes, the 16-3 looks awesome, especially to the old school baseball fan, but surely a lot of that comes on the back of the Jays high-powered offense, right?

Well, yes and no.

Here’s the thing: Happ is definitely benefiting from the run support. How could he not? But he’s also pitching really, really well, and has been incredibly consistent for a team that’s needed that. While the Jays overall starting numbers look sterling, there have been question marks throughout the season, as noted above. Happ has never been one of them. He’s tied with five other starters at 16 quality starts, which ties him for eighth in the big leagues and fourth in the American League. He’s been durable, throwing 143.0 innings so far, and is on pace to eclipse 200 innings for the first time in his career. His 2.96 ERA is backed up by a 3.75 FIP that says he’s getting a bit lucky, but not egregiously so.

Again, Toronto’s excellent team defense will give a pitcher that kind of boost. Happ is leaving batters on base an excellent (and probably unsustainable) 81.5% of the time, but he has excelled in that area in his career, with a strong mark of 74.5%. All in all, yes he’s pitching a bit above his head, but there’s no significant outlier that indicates it’s at all unsustainable. Happ has always been talented, he’s just finally put it all together, and has the team to back him up.

With a decision on Aaron Sanchez looming (again), R.A. Dickey losing steam, Marcus Stroman battling inconsistency, Francisco Liriano a question mark and Marco Estrada fighting to stay healthy, the steady J.A. Happ has been a godsend for these Blue Jays and looks like another win in the Atkins/Shapiro scorebook.

They’re starting to pile up.

5. Russell Martin (C) (4)

4. Edwin Encarnacion (DH) (6)

3. Aaron Sanchez (SP) (8)

2. Troy Tulowitzki (SS) (NR/DL)

1. Josh Donaldson (3B) (1)

Dan Grant is an editor at the Same Page and a contributor to SB Nation’s Raptors HQ. He can be found on Twitter @SlamminDannyG.

 

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