It should go without saying at this point, but just in case you weren’t paying attention for the last six months or so, not a lot went right for the Blue Jays this season. It could also be said that way more than expected did go right for the team in 2015 and 2016, but there’s no denying that 2017 saw a number of declines and poor fortunes that we either didn’t expect to see or willfully ignored.
Rather than go over the current state of baseball, which would involve either talking about random Twitter beefs or giving even marginal praise to the recently-eliminated Yankees, I decided to wade through the muck of last season to catch up on a few Jays who were letdowns and look at whether a bounce back could be in order.
This one is essentially a free space, as Sanchez was limited to just 36 innings due to persistent blister issues. He had poor numbers across his eight starts, no doubt helped along by his finger troubles. Sanchez surrendered career-highs with 10.5 H/9 and 5.0 BB/9 and watched his strikeout rate sink to boot. For a guy with a deadly sinker, Sanchez also achieved just a 48 percent ground ball rate, this after topping 55 percent in each of his first three seasons.
Even though things weren’t going great in general, he still had room for some rotten luck. His HR/FB ratio jumped from 10.7 to 17.1% and he was stuck with a BABIP of .310 despite no substantial change in the amount of hard contact he gave up. Somehow, Sanchez’s 5.71 ERA actually outperformed his Deserved Run Average (DRA), which sat at a ghastly 6.96 mark.
In fact, Sanchez actually had the worst season of any Blue Jays pitcher by WARP, accumulating a -0.56 mark in his abbreviated campaign. J.P. Howell was at 0.14. Even Jason Grilli was at 0.17. If Sanchez can get his fingers back to full strength, there’s plenty of reason to believe that he’s going to return to form in 2018. If nothing else, he almost has to get better results than these.
Morales hit a few timely early-season homers when the rest of the batters were struggling – and the fact that we can point to his season achievement as “being the best of a bad bunch for a couple minutes” will tell you most of what you need to know. With a line of .258/.308/.445, it was a major letdown from Toronto’s supposed stalwart at DH. Do not be fooled by the 28 homers and 85 RBI – this was a dreadful season by just about any measure that goes past the surface level.
Among 206 hitters with 400 or more plate appearances, Morales’ WARP of -.50 put him 193rdoverall. His TAv of .254 puts him at a much more palatable 166th on the same list, but we’re not going over a very high bar here.
Are there signs of hope? Maybe, sort of. Morales has rebounded from ugly seasons before. In 2014 he posted -0.6 WARP in 39 games with Minnesota and tacked on another -0.2 in 59 games with the Mariners. He followed that up with years of 2.3 and 1.2 WARP in Kansas City. Additionally, Morales continued to hit the ball incredibly hard. Among players with at least 150 batted ball events, Morales was ninth in the league with an average exit velocity of 91.1 miles per hour.
Now for the bad part. Morales hit far more grounders than he did in Kansas City, meaning his hard hit balls had much lower chances of turning into hits than they did in the past two years. He continued to have a hard time with breaking pitches and saw curveballs on 16 percent of pitches this season, well up from the 11.8 percent he saw in 2016. How much of a hard time, you ask? Morales posted a career-worst season in terms of contact rate (the percentage of pitches swung on where contact is made; 71 percent against a career average of 75.8 percent), zone contact rate (81 percent in 2017 with a career average of 86 percent) while also shattering his career high in terms of swinging strike rate (29 percent easily surpassed his previous career-worst of 25.7 percent from 2012).
At age 34, hoping for a complete turnaround in so many areas is asking for a lot.
Morales’s presence on the roster has suddenly become an unavoidable obstacle following Justin Smoak’s breakout. With Smoak now deserving full-time at bats at first, Steve Pearce loses playing time at one spot he was signed to shore up. That forces the injury-prone Pearce into the outfield, which is bad news for everyone involved. Given the need to keep players like Pearce and Josh Donaldson healthy, the team would be wise to open up DH at bats for both. Suddenly the Jays have $23 million on the books for a part-time DH, lest they choose to play him regularly for the rest of his decline.
With few attractive ways to offload this contract, there’s going to be some more days off in Morales’ future. Getting less playing time might be better for the on field product, but it’s far from ideal for a team with oft-discussed payroll limitations.
Remember when Kevin Pillar talked the talk about changing his approach? And then when he did it for a little bit? Well things didn’t go so great the rest of the way.
He posted OBPs of .339 and .328 in April/March and May, drawing 15 walks in his first 51 games. Pillar would then go on to walk 18 times over his last 103 games of the year, posting an OBP of .282 in that time – well down from his career .302 mark. That list of hitters with 400 plate appearances? The one where Morales ranked 193rd? Pillar was 187th with a WARP of -.05. This all happened despite Pillar setting a career high in zone swing rate and posting a sterling 93.3 percent zone contact rate.
Pillar’s reality isn’t exactly an untenable situation, but the sudden decline of so many other spots in the lineup around him only highlighted the problem. When this team is at full health, Pillar really won’t need to be occupying a high-profile spot in the lineup. Of course, counting on this particular roster (as currently constructed, at least) to stay at full health for long might be a big ask.
Still, Teoscar Hernandez’s presence should at least give the Jays a viable alternative if they insist on going with a traditional leadoff man. Lord knows they need it after Pillar logged 270 of his 632 plate appearances atop the order. For reference, Pillar made just 184 plate appearances from the bottom third of the order. We often wring our hands far too much about lineup construction, but this is pretty blatant.
Unfortunately, that first chunk of the season looks like a mirage; a window that let us look at a better world for about 50 games of bliss (if you focus on his production only and not, you know, everything else). You hope Pillar will bounce back in the sense that his last two thirds of the year were well under his career numbers, but it’d be silly to count on a return to the .330-plus OBP levels unless there’s a noticeable, sustained change in approach. Here’s hoping that it sticks next time around.
Osuna presents the most curious case of the bunch, though there is a pretty quick and convenient explanation for his second half struggles.
The first half of that story, however, is that Osuna actually had a very strong season by several advanced measures. He posted a career-best 2.1 WARP in a career-low 64 innings. He also posted career-bests in BB/9 (1.3), K/9 (11.7), ground ball rate (47 percent) and HR/9 (a minuscule 0.4). Digging deeper, he also posted his personal bests in out-of-zone swing rate, swinging strike rate and contact rate.
Things begin to diverge with his zone rate – simply the percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone. After two years above 50 percent, Osuna slipped down to just 43.9 percent this season. On pitches he did land in the zone, contact was made on over 80 percent of them – up from 78 percent a year ago and just 73 percent as a rookie.
Piecing that all together, it seems like Osuna got lots of swings and misses on his pitches, but primarily on those that were out of the zone. Hitters were able to make contact with anything in the zone better than ever before, which brings us to the elephant in the room.
Osuna famously lost some fastball velocity in July and August, leading to a handful of painful blown saves and close losses where the team’s previously-dependable closer wilted at the worst possible time. Those rough outings followed stretches where Osuna was called on multiple times with limited rest, as he averaged just 1.2 days off between appearances while working in 21 games from the All Star break to the end of August.
His fastball velocity actually increased in September and October when he averaged 3.4 days between outings. Though he certainly would’ve traded the days off for a spot in the hunt, nobody benefited more than Osuna from the team’s quick exit from the playoff picture. Hopefully a long winter (with no World Baseball Classic this time) keeps him a bit fresher.
The anatomy of a losing season is deep and complex and the front office should be cooking up all sorts of fixes for the offseason. While newcomers, either promotions from the lower levels or new faces from other organizations, are always a welcome sight after a disappointing campaign, there’s a few reasons to believe that some of Toronto’s disappointments in 2017 will come back looking a little more like their usual selves. This team is going to need some new blood, no doubt – but for a team with visions of retooling on the fly, every little bit helps.
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