Some Positives, I Guess

Pillar, catching balls, as he does.

Pillar, catching balls, as he does. Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr.

The Toronto Blue Jays haven’t been very good in 2017. You know this. I know this. All of baseball knows this; hell, probably most of Canada knows this. If I wanted to be here all day, I would focus on all the terrible things the Blue Jays are doing right now.

Instead of looking at the negatives (which we spend enough time doing on the Bunt to the Gap Podcast), let’s instead focus on some of the positives we’ve seen (which also makes for a quicker read and shorter writing time, if I’m being honest.) Here are some bright spots for the Toronto Blue Jays:

Kevin Pillar

Holy god damn Kevin Pillar has been good this season. He’s been really good!

His slash line sits at .345/.368/.491, his OPS is currently 165 points above his career average, and his 139 OPS+ and 144 wRC+ means he’s actually been a well-above-average hitter this year. His highest wRC+ to date was 93 in 2015.

I’m personally skeptical at his ability to keep this up; Pillar himself indicated that he was going into this season with a different approach, and some people are buying into it. According to PITCHf/x data, he’s still swinging at 40% of pitches outside the zone (MLB average is 30%), he’s making more contact than he ever has (contact on 85% of his swings), seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance than last year and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is 7.00 (versus 3.75 last year).

So he’s actually swinging at more pitches outside of the zone. His 2016 swings plotted looks like the work of Seurat:

Well, shit.

His exit velocity this year is 87.8-mph; last year it was 87.5-mph. That’s not a significant enough uptick in exit velocity to explain his performance this year. Rather, his .383 BABIP (versus .306 last year) seems to indicate that Kevin Pillar is basically getting lucky at this point, and that he’s likely bound for some significant regression. But until then, enjoy the ride!

Jason Smoak

I’m not entirely convinced that Justin Smoak is who he says he is.

This year, against left-handed pitchers (i.e. hitting right-handed), Justin Smoak’s slash line is .445/.445/1.091. Yeah. That’s a 1.545 OPS. Downright Bondsian.

Let that sink in.

Ok, that’s in 15 plate appearances, so – you’re right – miniscule sample sizes are at play here. He’s already hit a triple from the right side this year; something he’s only done once in his entire career from either side of the plate.

A reminder:

And while Smoak has looked like a completely different hitter as a righty this year, he’s been downright awful as a lefty so far.

Which of the following slash lines is Ryan Goins’ career slash against lefties, and which is Justin Smoak’s from 2017?

  1. .172/.200/.310
  2. .201/.234/.284

If you guessed A is Smoak’s, you are correct. Fortunately for Smoak, he’s still only had 30 plate appearances against righties this year. That’s lots of room for improvement.

So are Justin Smoak’s dramatic splits the result of some newfangled approach Smoak is taking at the plate?

Nah. Occam’s razor, the theory that suggests the answer with the simplest explanation is likely truest. In this case, the most logical answer is that Justin Smoak, and his heretofore unrevealed twin, Jason Smoak, have been trading at-bats for the Blue Jays.

It’s not unheard of – there was a fan theory circulating Reddit a few moths ago that the Oakland Athletics, who used to have both Jose Canseco and Ozzie Canseco on their team in the early 90s, used to send Jose Canseco, wearing his brother’s jersey, to the plate in key situations when his brother’s spot in the lineup came up. According to ESPN, Ozzie’s subbed in for Jose a few times as well.

“Justin Smoak, and his heretofore unrevealed twin, Jason Smoak, have been trading at-bats for the Blue Jays.”So that’s probably what’s going on with Smoak; Jason bats from the right side, and Justin, the Smoak we’ve known all along, still takes the at-bats on the left side.

It’s the only logical answer; let’s hope Jason keeps this up the rest of the year.

Francisco Liriano

Liriano’s first start was really bad. Really bad. He left the game with a 135 (no decimals there) ERA. But since then, he’s been really good.

I don’t know how much of Liriano’s recent success I ascribe to Russell Martin, but it does seem that Liriano is most successful when he’s pitching to Russell Martin.

Francisco Liriano’s Career, by Catchers thrown to:
Split IP ERA SO/W BA OBP SLG OPS
Josh Thole 2 0.00 0.140 0.140 0.140 0.290
Michael McKenry 13 0.69 3.40 0.180 0.260 0.200 0.460
Russell Martin 260 2.87 2.69 0.220 0.290 0.320 0.620
Tony Sanchez 61.2 3.21 2.14 0.240 0.320 0.350 0.670
Mike Redmond 83.1 3.78 2.42 0.250 0.330 0.350 0.680
Chris Heintz 14 3.86 6.33 0.200 0.250 0.360 0.610
Rene Rivera 39.2 3.86 2.75 0.220 0.320 0.290 0.600
Francisco Cervelli 211.1 3.96 2.74 0.240 0.320 0.370 0.690
Drew Butera 171 4.26 1.84 0.220 0.330 0.350 0.680
Joe Mauer 424.1 4.31 2.74 0.250 0.320 0.400 0.710
Chris Stewart 102 4.32 1.61 0.230 0.350 0.370 0.710
Eric Fryer 17.2 4.58 3.57 0.230 0.320 0.390 0.700
Erik Kratz 14.1 5.02 0.89 0.230 0.350 0.390 0.750
Jose Morales 30.1 5.34 2.38 0.280 0.350 0.490 0.840
A.J. Pierzynski 42 5.36 1.59 0.250 0.370 0.410 0.780
Tyler Flowers 14.2 5.52 3.00 0.260 0.320 0.380 0.700
Wilson Ramos 13 5.54 3.00 0.330 0.380 0.410 0.790
Ryan Doumit 7.2 10.57 1.00 0.400 0.500 0.690 1.190
John Buck 3 21.00 2.00 0.440 0.500 0.750 1.250
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 0.1 135.00 0.25 0.750 0.880 1.750 2.630

Poor Jarrod Saltalamacchia. I don’t know what happened to Liriano when Salty was catching, but Liriano was not very good.

It’s like if a baby was very used to being around one person all the time, and then that person is replaced with someone else. And instead of crying, the baby just shits itself. I don’t have any children so I don’t know if this is a scenario that ever happens, but it’s like Liriano looked up, saw that Jarrod Saltalamacchia was not Russell Martin, and then figuratively shat. Shat everywhere.

John Gibbons made sure Russell Martin caught Liriano’s next two starts.

Darwin Barney

Darwin is hitting! That’s good news. I’d always considered him more of a platoon guy (he’s never been a great hitter at any point in his career, but OPS is about 100 points lower against righties), but this year he seems to be doing pretty well against right-handed pitchers.
Here are his splits on the year:

PA RBI BA OBP SLG OPS BABIP sOPS+
vs. RHP 10 2 0.400 0.400 0.400 0.800 0.400 127
vs. LHP 9 2 0.375 0.444 0.375 0.819 0.500 140

So that’s the good news.

The bad news: those BABIP numbers are ridiculously unsustainable. The even-worse news: Darwin Barney’s .810 OPS is third-best on the Blue Jays.

Ezequiel Carrera

He has 12 home runs over a 7 year career. One of those came on Tuesday night to pull the Blue Jays within one run of the Boston Red Sox. Yeah, the Jays lost that game, but Zeke hit a pretty clutch home run.

Devon Travis

Devon’s been pretty bad at the plate. He’s hitting .258 on the season – .258 is not his batting average, but rather is OPS ON THE SEASON. Ouch.

But on Tuesday night, against Brian Johnson, a left-handed pitcher, Devon Travis drew two walks. Which he hadn’t done in 633 days. So there’s that.

Marco Estrada

Marco Estrada, doing Marco Estrada things:

Keep it up, you beautiful bastard.

With that, I think the bottom of the barrel has been adequately scraped. Those are all the positive I can muster up.

It’s only April, and everything is awful.

Dave

Dave is the Managing Editor of BunttotheGap.com. He lives in Toronto, is staunchly #TeamDog, and has been to 18 of 30 MLB ballparks. You can contact him at dave@bunttothegap.com.