2007 Sabermetric Year in Review: Toronto Blue Jays

Continuing?what will hopefully be a 30-part series looking at a recap of the 2007 seasons of each of the 30 Major League teams (in reverse alphabetical order, because the lower regions of the alphabet never get any respect), our second team on the docket is the lone remaining Canadian entry into MLB, the Toronto Blue Jays.
Record: 83-79,?3rd in the AL East… again
Pythagorean Projection (Patriot formula):?86.65 wins (753 runs scored, 699 runs allowed)
Team Statistical Pages:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus
FanGraphs
MVN Blog:
Jays Nest
Other?Blue Jays?Resources:
Latest News
Contract Status
Trade Rumors
Overview: Ah, for a moment there, the Jays had some people fooled.  But, sweet normalcy has been restored to the AL East.  In 2006, the Blue Jays snuck into second place in the East and made people believe that they were on the rise.  Surely, a threat to the Yankee/Red Sox duopoly of power on the AL East was gathering.  It’s just that it never actually happened.  For the eighth time in 10 years, the Blue Jays finished below the Yankees and Red Sox, but above the Orioles and Devil Rays.  Being a Toronto baseball fan must be as interesting as listening to a broken record.
What went right: Roy Halladay is a really good pitcher.  He’s not Cy Young caliber like he was in 2003, but he’s still pretty good.  Any Blue Jays fans worried about the decline and fall of Halladay aren’t seeing the forrest for the trees (or perhaps the trees for the forrest).  From 2003 to 2007, Halladay’s K/9 fell from 6.90 to 5.55.  His BB/9 rose from 1.08 to 1.92.  (However, he’s now giving up fewer homeruns than he had.)  So, yes, in a relative sense, he is on the decline, but that K/BB ratio is good enough for 21st in MLB among qualifying starters.  And for what it’s worth, he ranked 5th in WPA for starting pitchers and 16th in VORP.  He’s not the best pitcher in the league, but I can think of worse options on who I’d like the ace of my staff to be.  Plus, Halladay can take comfort from the fact that scientists have finally found the purpose of the appendix, which after his bout with appendicitis last year, Halladay no longer has.
The Frank Thomas signing worked out.  At least the Blue Jays got pretty much what they expected.  Thomas came in, played the whole season, hit 26 HR and had an OPS of .857, although for the fifth straight year, he failed to steal a base.  Not bad for a $1 million base salary.  Thomas will play next year at $8 million and has a $10 million vesting option for 2009.  The more I study his numbers from 2005 in the context of the two years before and two years after, the more it looks like 2005 was a hiccup.  It looks like he’ll continue to be an effective “old DH” type for a few more years.
Maybe the nicest surprise that probably went under-the-radar around the rest of baseball fan-dom was the emergence of Aaron Hill.  Hill is 25, plays second base, and hit a respectable .291/.333/.459/.792.  Not bad for a second-sacker.  (Psst… fantasy buffs… need a late-round 2B?)  20.8% of the balls he hit were line drives, which puts him in the top 30 in baseball and he started hitting more fly balls in 2007 (and more of them started leaving the yard), which would explain how his HR total jumped from 6 to 17.  It’s hard to tell if that’s a fluke or if that represents some sort of skill development.  He did walk less and strike out more than he previously had, which is not a good sign for a young player, but could be the sign that either he or the Jays decided to open him up more.  His value as a better-than-average second baseman rests on that power streak, so Blue Jays fans had better hope that it’s for real.  Seeing that he’s 25, which is still under the usual “peak age” for hitters, it’s very possible that it is for real.
What went wrong: The injury to B. J. Ryan.  Not for what it did to the Blue Jays on the field, mind you.  The Blue Jays pen was, in some ways, better in 2007 than it was in 2006.  Teams had a lower OBP and SLG off Jays relievers in 2007, while Jays relievers struck out more and walked fewer of the hitters they faced.  It’s not ideal to lose someone like B. J. Ryan, who’s a good pitcher, but it illustrated exactly why the Blue Jays have had so much trouble and it made the front office look like fools twice!  Ryan came in 2006 on a 57 million dollar contract to save games and in 2006, he came in and saved 38.  In 2007, when Ryan went down, Jeremy Accardo, who’s probably making 57 dollars, came in and saved 30 games.  This apparently surprised the Blue Jays, who now have 10 million dollars a year devoted to a guy whose stated job can be done by a pitcher making a lot less.  (Come to think of it, Ryan’s replacement in Baltimore was holding his own pretty well too!)  To make things worse, when Jays GM J. P. Ricciardi spoke to the media about Ryan’s injury, he lied at first to say that it wasn’t that bad.  Then he had to come out and say that Ryan’s injury really was bad and, in fact, season-ending.  Take comfort J. P.  You’re not the first guy who’s lied about… nevermind.
But then most of the Blue Jays season can be summed up by the word “injury.”  In fact, the injuries got so bad that the Blue Jays turned to Tomo Okha(!) and gave him 10(!) starts.
Yeah, that about sums it up: There are always going to be players who inexplicably get playing time, despite the fact that they function below replacement level.? For some of them, it’s because they’re 22-year-old rookies and the team wants to give them a taste of the big leagues.? For some, it’s because they have embarassing pictures of the manager.  For some, it’s because they bring some good defense to the table.? That unto itself is fine, assuming the defense is that good.? Where’s the proper place to bat someone who’s all field and no hit on an AL team?? If you said the nine-hole, you win a prize.? If you said consistently in the leadoff or two hole, you’re Blue Jays manager John Gibbons and you’re thinking about Reed Johnson.
To Johnson’s credit, he did play above average defense (although mostly in left field… where defense isn’t exactly at a premium) to the tune of 6 fielding runs above average (woohoo!).? His VORP rating was -11.7, which made him the 7th most useless offensive player in MLB with more than 250?PA.? Most of the other poor saps above (below?) him?hit further down in the lineup or were bench players.? At least their teams showed signs of being ashamed of them.? The only thing that stopped John Gibbons from batting Johnson consistently in the leadoff spot was that Johnson got hurt midway through the year.  When he came back, Gibbons put him right back in the lineup, hitting first.  Gibbons would probably point to Johnson’s .319 AVG and .390 OBP in 2006 as evidence that he was “leadoff material.”? A closer look shows that in 2006, Johnson’s BABIP spiked well past his career trend line (a man who was generally in the .320s became a .367 BABIP hitter).? This past year, he dropped to .290 BABIP and .236 in actual AVG.? Maybe it was because he was hurt, but assuming that the 30 year old Johnson returns to career norms, he’s a .275/.325/.400 hitter.  To give you some idea, everyone’s favorite Sabermetric leadoff hitter punching bag Juan Pierre usually has an OBP of .330.  At least Pierre can run.
Johnson was a symptom of bigger problems.? The Jays gave over 200 PA each to five different players who were functioning below replacement level (Royce Clayton, Lyle Overbay, John MacDonald, Adam Lind, and Johnson).?  They do have some kids who tore up their respective minor leagues, but looking closely, many of the high OPS guys in the Jays farm system are 26-year-olds playing AAA ball and 25-year-olds playing AA ball.
Gibbons is another matter.  He shows very little understanding of his personnel and apparently, he’s not made much of an impression on at least one Blue Jay blogger.  I don’t know what he’s like in the clubhouse or with the media, but this Sabermetrician has to sit around and wonder why he does things that are so… silly.  Perhaps on the next bus trip down from Canada, the Blue Jays can drop him off at the next truck stop and drive away.
Some Jessie Litsch Kool-Aid?: Litsch started the year at AA but was with the big league club long enough to make 20 starts.  For a 22-year-old, he pitched respectably.  He doesn’t strike many out (4 per 9 innings) and while his walks are a bit on the high side (2.92 per 9), when pitching in the minors, he showed a much better K/BB ratio.  He was probably out of his depth this year, but he would have made a decent addition to more than a few major league rotations out there.  Not a bad thing to say for a 22-year-old pitcher.  Pass the Kool-Aid.
Take the Stairs?:  Will someone please explain Matt Stairs to me? He debuted in 1992.  He’s played for ten teams and 15 years, yet he’s never had more than 600 AB in a season.  The reason:  he can’t hit lefties, but my can he pound righties.  He hit 21 HR last year, all against right-handed pitchers.  Matt Stairs, here’s to you: the reason that LOOGY’s were invented. 
So what to do with him?  He can still (sorta) play in the field, but he’s really nothing more than the left-handed part of a platoon at a corner position.  He’s 39 and a free agent.  He’ll be a head-scratcher for some teams.  He did hit 21 HR last year, which will make his price tag go up (he made $850,000 this year).  Stairs has probably entered the last two years of his career and is now something of a baseball luxury item.  He has value, but having him on your roster isn’t very practical unless you have a right-handed complement to his bat and don’t mind paying $3-4 million over two years for a platoon player/pinch hitter in his 40s.  I don’t want to come off saying that the Stairs wasn’t a valuable member of the Blue Jays this past year, but he’s the sort of player where the Jays can’t really afford to devote that much money to a guy with that particular skill set.  It’ll be infuriating to Jays fans and the cries of “cheap!” will ring through the air and his replacement will be some AAA guy or some middling veteran free agent who isn’t as good.  Sometimes, life isn’t fair.
Outlook: All exchange rate jokes aside, there is something to be said about economic conditions and how they affect the Blue Jays’ chances of putting together a decent team.  For the longest time, it took about $1.20 Canadian to match $1.00 US in terms of buying power.  So when proposing salaries to agents, the Blue Jays (and Les Expos before them) had to say $6 million Canadian to get the same effect as saying $5 million U.S.  Now relieved of having to pay a premium based on the differences in the countries, you might see the Jays try to shock themselves into contention with a few one-year deals and a few front-loaded free-agent signings (who knows what will happen down the road).  It always seems that the Blue Jays are two or three good players and another year away from breaking through.  It’s just that those players don’t look like they’re directly on the horizon.  By the time some of them develop, the good players that are already there will be gone.  Toronto seems built for third place in the AL East.
The Blue Jays still do draw fairly well, even though the novelty of SkyDome or Rogers Center (or whatever they call it is now) long gone.  The problem is, of course, that even with favorable economic conditions, the Yankees and the Red Sox are willing and able to outspend everyone, Canadian or American, and there can only be one wild card.  To compete, the Jays will need a smart GM and a smart manager to squeeze production out of fewer resources (read between the lines whatever you will) than their adversaries.  Or to hope that the U.S. dollar completely collapses.

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