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The Most Surprising Stats from an Underwhelming Blue Jays Season

As the calendar flips to September, the Blue Jays and their fans have accepted that there will be no pennant race at the Rogers Centre this season. While the team headed into 2017 with an eye on a third straight playoff appearance, injuries and subpar performance made this season a rather underwhelming one on the field.

But just because the season was a frustrating one doesn’t mean nothing interesting happened. To almost everyone’s surprise, Justin Smoak broke out, turning himself into an elite hitter in the middle of the Blue Jays’ lineup; Josh Donaldson played shortstop; and Aaron Sanchez, like many of his peers, couldn’t quite grip the new baseball without tearing open his fingers in the process.

Those were some of the biggest stories of 2017, but they weren’t the only ones. Here are some of the most surprising stats – some of them good, and some of them bad, from a Blue Jays season that got away.

Team Strikeouts Are Way Down And So is Their Run Scoring

In a year when strikeouts are more prominent than ever, the Blue Jays have managed to cut down on their strikeouts from a season ago. The Jays rank in the bottom third of the major leagues in strikeout rate, posting a team strikeout percentage of 20.9% – a surprise for a team that struck out so frequently in 2016.

When a team struggles to score runs, strikeouts are often said to be the root of the problem. Many were quick to suggest that the Blue Jays, who went into an offensive funk in September of last season, were striking out far too often to be a good offense. But preventing strikeouts is not always the way to increase a team’s offensive output and the 2017 Blue Jays are demonstrating why:

Year K% League Avg Rank Runs Scored Rank
2016 21.9% 21.1% 8th 759 9th
2017 20.9% 21.6% 19th 582 24th

In 2016, only 7 MLB teams struck out more than the Blue Jays but the team managed to score the 9th most runs in baseball. This season, the Jays have significantly cut their strikeout rate, yet their offensive production has cratered as well.

Strikeouts don’t matter. Even if they feel like they do.

Michael Saunders is a Speed Demon

…relative to the rest of his teammates. We all knew the 2017 Blue Jays were going to be slow, but this is still surprising. More surprising than Saunders, who signed with the Phillies last offseason being back with Toronto this September? Still, yes.

Saunders, who was once a stolen base threat, tore his meniscus in 2015 and hasn’t possessed the same foot speed since. But despite Saunders’ surgically repaired left knee, he is actually STILL one of the fastest members of the 2017 Blue Jays.

According to Statcast, with a sprint speed per second of 27.4 feet, only Kevin Pillar and Ezequiel Carrera are faster. Saunders’ sprint speed of 27.3 feet/second in 2016 suggests that his 2017 number isn’t an aberration, either. This quirky stat could change if Anthony Alford, Dwight Smith Jr. or Teoscar Hernandez see any significant time with the team in September.

Player Sprint Speed (ft./second)
Kevin Pillar 29.9
Ezekiel Carrera 27.7
Devon Travis 27.4
Michael Saunders 27.4
Darwin Barney 27.2
Josh Donaldson 27.0

Kendrys Morales: Not Very Valuable, Despite the Offence

As of September 5th, Kendrys Morales was sitting on a line of .247/.303/.456 with 26 home runs; an offensive performance fairly similar to his 2016 output (.263/.327/.468, 30 HR) with the Royals. But as we continue to see home runs being hit at record paces, a pure slugger’s contributions become less helpful than they once were.

Wins Above Replacement Player – the stat that measures a position player’s overall contribution to the team on defense, offense and the base paths, has not been kind to Morales this season. Even if you don’t believe in advanced stats, it’s pretty easy to make the case that Morales hasn’t been too valuable on the bases or in the field. Of the 43 players in the major leagues with at least 25 home runs this season, only one has been less valuable (per WARP) than Kendrys Morales: Texas’ Mike Napoli. Morales didn’t change, but its starting to look like the game has.

Gibby: Not Getting Ejected at his Usual Pace

In September of 2016, while the Blue Jays were embattled in a fight for the American League wild card spots, John Gibbons was chasing history. The Blue Jays manager, who had been kicked out of seven games at this time last year, was in line to possibly break the Blue Jays’ all-time record for managerial ejections (8) set by Bobby Cox.

But like a fine wine (or a team with little to play for and hence, to scream about), John Gibbons has mellowed with age; having only been thrown out of five games so far in 2017. The Blue Jays manager will need to belligerently ratchet up the kicking and screaming this September if he has any intention of breaking the franchise ejection record he came oh-so-close to last season.

The 2017 Team Might Not Really Be Unlucky

2017 has brought with it some frustrating losses. These hair-pullers, the ones where the team can’t hold a late lead or isn’t able to push that one extra run across the plate cause some to dream on what could have been. If the team was just a little bit luckier; if Roberto Osuna would have been able to save just a couple more games, or if Josh Donaldson could have hit just a couple more home runs, those blown saves and one run losses could have turned into wins and the season would look a lot different.

But the Jays, who currently sit at 64-74, might have been lucky to get to 64 wins according to several stats that attempt to remove luck and random distribution of run scoring. While the Jays have posted an ugly 5-12 record in extra inning play, the team is 21-21 in one-run games, suggesting that they haven’t been that unlucky (or lucky) in close games at all.

Based on the teams -90 run differential (they’ve allowed 90 runs more than they have scored), Baseball Prospectus’ expected winning percentage for the team sits at .428, or 59-78. Similarly, Baseball Reference has the Blue Jays’ Pythagorean win-loss record sitting at 59-78 as well.

Stats like expected winning percentage and Pythagorean win-loss are far from perfect, and they don’t account for the role that bullpens play in close games, but combined with the Jays’ poor run differential and .500 record in one-run games, the team might not be as unlucky as we’d hoped they were.

Here’s to an interesting end to the 2017 season (how great would a 5 stolen base month from Kendrys Morales be?) and a better 2018.

Lead Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

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5 comments on “The Most Surprising Stats from an Underwhelming Blue Jays Season”

Kenii

“Strikeouts don’t matter” is a deliberately egregious statement. If it were true, Fangraphs wouldn’t show the best teams in the league (Red Sox, Indians, Astros) having the lowest strikeout percentages. Strikeouts matter; it’s just not the sole contributing factor to a team’s poor performance.

Also, the data presented here doesn’t suggest that the Jays’ team strikeouts are “way” down, nor do they suggest that they “significantly” (statistically or practically) cut their strikeout rate. From 2016 to 2017, their strikeout percentage only went down 1%! That’s insignificant given that the league average fluctuated by 0.5% since last year, meaning that 1% is well within annual statistical variations (noise + error). If anything, their strikeout percentage is practically the same as last year.

A quick look at Fangraphs also suggests that a rank of 19th is a bit generous given that the Jays are sort of tied with the Mets and Nationals at 20.9%. Except that the Jays have more plate appearances than the Mets and fewer than the Nationals, meaning that they actually rank 18th. A jump in rank by 10 spots might sound impressive, but it doesn’t account for the possibility that other teams are just striking out more. For instance, if the Jays had a 21.9% (last year’s K%) this year, they would only rank 14th, which is only a jump of 4 spots rather than 10!

Run totals seem lower, but again, it’s hard to tell how much of their lower rank is just due to other teams scoring more runs. Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference actually have the Jays at 592 runs (the 582 in the article as of this writing may be a typo). 592 does seem like a lot less than 759 from last year, until you realize that there’s still about one month’s worth of MLB left, and the Jays could very well score another 100 to 150 runs in the next month because those are typical monthly figures for runs scored. If they do score another 150, then they’re still on pace to practically tie their run total from last year. It’s a stretch, but even if they only score 100 more runs (perfectly doable), their offense will not have “cratered” since last year. It’s a decline that could be attributed to a number of factors (of which strikeouts could be one), but not a crater. Another interpretation of the combination of runs scored by the Jays and their league ranking could be that perhaps they just haven’t kept up or improved their offensive production the way most of the rest of the league has since last year.

Nick Dika

Hey Keni! Thanks for reading, you’ve made a bunch of interesting points here. I’ve got a couple questions for ya.

-How come you aren’t considering the Dodgers and Yankees (the 2nd and 3rd best offences in baseball by wRC+) when you talk about the best offences posting low strikeout totals? They both have high K?% totals. As do the Rangers, Rockies, Cubs and D-Backs who rank 4-7 in MLB runs scored. It feels like citing the Stros, Sox (who aren’t a great offensive team) and Cleveland is a bit cherry picked?

-I don’t understand what you mean when you say the Jays strikeout percentage is the same as last year? The league average K% is going up, yet the Jays’ K% is going down? Adjusting for variance would mean that their K% change is actually larger relative to the MLB average (given everyone is striking out more and the Jays are striking out less), and not practically the same?

-I agree it’s a bit challenging comparing run scored totals when we still have a month to go. That’s why I included the Jays MLB rank and not just the total runs scored.

Cheers!

Kenii

Regarding your first question, I didn’t say that the Red Sox, Astros, and Indians have “the best offenses,” just that they’re a few of the “best teams in the league” (i.e. overall; especially with respect to the standings). After all, the Padres, Rays, and Athletics also have some of the highest K%s and they’re all doing poorly overall, so if I’m cherry-picking, then so are you. My main point is that while there are obviously exceptions (as there always will be), strikeouts can impact team performance; to say that “strikeouts don’t matter” is more than a stretch.

Regarding your second question: just because the league average K% increased, doesn’t mean that the Jays have done much (if anything) to decrease its K%. I still contend that a 1% reduction in K% is of little practical significance, and that the reason why they *appear* to have improved (especially with respect to their ranking) has much more to do with other teams striking out more than the Blue Jays striking out less. That’s why I pointed out that if the Jays had the exact same K% as last year, they would rank 14th this year; much lower (or higher, depending on your perspective) than the ranking of 8th last year, and much closer to their ranking of 18th this year. That other teams are striking out more gives the illusion that the Jays are striking out much less than they actually are. After all a 20.9% strikeout rate is still the second highest K% for the team in the last 10 years. So, if there’s a slight decline from last year, it could also be because last year’s K% is more of a statistical anomaly (i.e. a much higher than average increase) rather than a normal increase relative to the increase in the league average. Not only that, but given that the season still isn’t over, this figure is also subject to changes.

Basically, my stance is that strikeouts don’t tell the whole story, but they’re still an important consideration. I’m not sold on the idea, nor does the data convince me, that the Jays’ strikeouts have declined as much as you make it sound.

I’ll still wait until after the season’s over to decide for myself how badly their run scoring has declined, but at this point, I’m not willing to describe it as “cratering.”

Thanks for replying!

monkeyman

on the other hand, jays are last in MLB inBABIP and 25th in Clusterluck so pretty sure they’ve been bad and unlucky.

Nick Dika

I noticed this too. I was thinking of including their low BABIP in the piece but when I looked at their batted ball data, it seemed like the low BABIP was the result of the Jays hitting a lot of infield fly balls and making soft contact – the likely cause of the low BABIP.

Thanks for readin!

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