Midseason Position Player Rankings and 2nd Half Outlook

2nd half rankings Blue Jays

Every year the All Star break gives us a chance to look back and reflect on the season’s first half. It’s been a tough one for Toronto, as the team sits 6 games under .500 at the break. It’s not without its good stories – Roberto Osuna and Justin Smoak both had sensational first halves that saw them attend their first All Star Games – but the team will undoubtedly look to improve and put some performances in particular in the rearview mirror.

So where has it gone wrong? Well, a number of places. To best illustrate this, we’ve broken down the team by position players and ranked their production against the rest of the American League. To keep it clean and simple, we’re using the Offense and Defense metrics by Fangraphs, which are both a component of Wins Above Replacement. Click the links above to read more about those measurements and how they’re calculated if you want, but the main takeaway here is where the Blue Jays rank in relation to the rest of the American League teams, and Off and Def are sufficient “catch all” measurements to use. A run above zero should be interpreted as a run above average and run below zero as a run below average.

It’s important to note that Off, Def and WAR are not predictive metrics. Just because the team got 2 wins from its first baseman in the first half doesn’t mean Smoak will get another 2 by the end of the season. As such, I’ve included a 2nd half outlook for each position largely based on ZiPS projections and assuming the roster is as currently constructed.

Catcher

Russell Martin’s steady veteran presence behind the plate is something every team values. And while the batting average isn’t where he’d want it (just .235), he’s offset that with a 16.2% walk rate which would be a career high. The pool of excellent starting catchers is a small one in the American League this year but Russell Martin is once again part of that group. His 1.6 fWAR ranks 4th and his .378 OBP is 2nd (minimum 200 plate appearances).

So why does the team have such a bad overall rating at the catcher position? Two backups, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Luke Maile have been worth -0.6 and -0.8 wins above replacement respectively, eliminating the positive value produced by Martin.

There’s reason for optimism however, as the Jays picked up Miguel Montero shortly before the break after the Cubs parted ways with him. Montero has a career triple slash line of .259/.342/.415 which should be more than good enough to hold down the backup role.

Offense: -20.3 (15th)
Defense: 7.3 (6th)
WAR: 0.1 (15th)

2nd Half Outlook: Between Martin and Montero, the Jays project to accumulate 1.4 WAR by season’s end. It won’t make for a great final line from the position, but what happened in the 1st half doesn’t matter anymore. They should be better from here on out.

 

First Base

What can we say about Justin Smoak that hasn’t already been said? The dude’s an All Star and has exceeded every expectation imaginable. In an interview that aired on Sportsnet prior to the All Star Game, hitting coach Brook Jacoby said he thinks Smoak’s success is sustainable due to the work he’s put in both physically and mentally with a sports psychologist.

Do the numbers agree? More or less. His .304 average on balls is play is only marginally up from his .284 mark since coming to Toronto. And even if that does slightly regress, the power should remain. It’s not like he’s been getting lucky with wall scrapers. Smoak’s average exit velocity on balls hit in the air (line drives and fly balls) of 94.8 mph is better than fellow All Stars Carlos Correa (94.6), Mookie Betts, Salvador Perez, Jake Lamb (all three at 94.0), Joey Votto (93.9), Yonder Alonso (93.8) and Mike Moustakas (93.7).

The one thing to keep an eye on is if opposing pitchers decide to throw even fewer in-zone fastballs to him. So far in July pitchers have thrown him just 36.8% fastballs which would be a career low for a month. Conversely, he’s seen 42% breaking pitches in July. This would be the first month of his career that he’s been thrown more breaking pitches than fastballs.

It seems as though the competition has already caught on and made an adjustment. How he responds will be key.

Off: 16.3 (4th)
Def: -5.6 (3rd)
WAR: 2.2 (4th)

2nd Half Outlook: Provided Smoak doesn’t pull a 2016 Michael Saunders and forget how to hit, the Jays will be fine at the position. ZiPS pegs him at just 0.5 the rest of the way but that’s obviously not factoring in the improved plate discipline and power surge. If both of those are real, Smoak should outperform his projections.

 

Second Base

Since Devon Travis went down with a serious knee injury the Jays have not gotten anything resembling good production from Darwin Barney or Ryan Goins. Sure, Goins’ slash line with runners in scoring position is fantastic (.302/.354/.581) but that’s a sample of just 13 hits and he has historically been one of the worst hitters in baseball. His overall line this season (.203/.265/.325) suggests his RISP numbers are an anomaly and will come down. Unfortunately Darwin Barney hasn’t been any better, at .231/.277/.295.

With the Super Two cutoff come and gone, the fact that the Jays haven’t promoted Jason Leblebijian from Triple-A Buffalo is telling. The 26-year old infielder is hitting .276/.349/.428 and can play all over the diamond. Still, the Jays seem to trust a Barney-Goins combo over Leblebijian.

International signee Lourdes Gourriel Jr. was just promoted to AA New Hampshire and is a ways off making his major league debut.

The only avenue to improving at second base in the 2nd half appears to be through trade. The Jays have been recently tied to Dee Gordon, but his production since the start of 2016 isn’t encouraging – a slash line of .281/.324/.347 and 80 wRC+ is not good. His calling card is speed and it might add another dimension to the lineup. Because he’s under contract through 2020 (with a 2021 option) the team might be willing to part with prospects for a player who will be part of the future.

Off: -25.9 (15th)
Def: 1.5 (7th)
WAR: -0.4 (14th)

2nd Half Outlook: If the Jays don’t make a trade, second base will continue to be a dumpster fire. There’s no sugar coating it.

 

Third Base

Losing a former MVP winner to injury at an important position is tough for most teams to overcome and the Jays were no exception. Barney filled in well enough defensively at the hot corner for Josh Donaldson but was a total drain at the dish. Chris Coghlan got hurt, but it was unlikely he would’ve offered anything better.

The real question is whether Donaldson’s calf will flare up again. If he’s healthy, he’ll give the Jays elite production moving forward.

Off: -8.3 (12th)
Def: -1.9 (10th)
WAR: 0.5 (12th)

2nd Half Outlook: Josh Donaldson’s RoS (Rest of Season) ZiPS projections have him worth 2.3 WAR, the best mark in the American League. There’s no problem here if he can stay healthy.

 

Shortstop

Like Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki has spent time on the DL this season due to a leg injury. While Tulo’s overall 1st half line isn’t great – .250/.302/.398, 83 wRC+, 0.4 WAR – he was showing signs of life at the plate heading into the break.

tulowitzki-7-game-rolling-average

His most recent production appears to be BABIP-driven but at least the power returned, as 5 of his 7 home runs have come since June 24th. Tulo’s plate discipline is also aging well – his 7.5% swinging strike rate would be a three year low – but the power numbers have dried up since 2015. If he’s more of a line drive contact hitter with leadership skills and solid defense from here on forward, that’s not terrible. If, of course, he can stay on the field.

But anymore missed time at this position would probably have serious consequences, as it would force both Barney and Goins (the two worst hitters on the team) into regular, every day action. Not a middle infield befitting of a playoff team.

Off: -16.0 (13th)
Def: -1.6 (14th)
WAR: -0.3 (12th)

2nd Half Outlook: Tulo is likely to provide league average production if healthy. ZiPS has him contributing 0.9 WAR. However that’s in just 51 games and 188 at bats, indicating that he’s still a real risk to miss time due to injury.

 

Left Field

Ezequiel Carrera has been good! Many of his offensive stats would be career highs. It seems some of the improvements might stick around too, although ZiPS doesn’t quite agree yet. It’s hard to fake good plate discipline, and Carrera has cut down on his whiffs and shrunk the zone (O-Swing is swings at balls outside the strike zone):

ezequiel-carrera-o-swing-strike-rate

Steve Pearce hasn’t hit too poorly – .430 SLG and 97 wRC+ – but the same can’t be said for his defense. He’s been worth -7 DRS (defensive runs saved) in just 297 innings in left field. Those aren’t rates you want extrapolated across a full season. With Zeke’s improvements and base stealing ability, Pearce might have a hard time getting at bats in situations other than against left handed pitching.

The wild cards here are prospects Dalton Pompey, Anthony Alford and Dwight Smith. All three are young and have various levels of upside. Alford just started a rehab assignment on Wednesday, going 0-for-3 at High-A Dunedin. Pompey recently played four rehab games with Buffalo, a sign that he may be first in line at playing time should the Jays need a call-up.

It’s more than likely all three stay in the minors, at least until rosters expand in September or an injury hits.

Off: -0.5 (9th)
Def: -18.2 (15th)
WAR: -0.1 (15th)

2nd Half Outlook: Left field production will probably remain one of the worst in the league unless an internal candidate surprises or a trade is made.

 

Centre Field

Kevin Pillar teased us with early season plate discipline gains only to regress back to previous middling levels. Which would be fine if the metrics liked his defense as much as they have in the past. He’s still above average (7 DRS and 2.2 UZR/150) but not elite. As such, his 1 win above replacement thus far is not what the Jays were hoping for.

The power has ticked up a bit though – he’s just 2 home runs shy of his career high of 12 – and with an increase in BABIP it’s not hard to see league average production at the plate to go along with good, if not great, outfield defense. Defensive metrics are not always reliable in small sample sizes so I’m willing to go with the eye test and say that he’s not a significantly worse fielder this season than he was last. I think most teams would take superman manning their CF, even if he’s an 80% version of his peak self.

Off: -3.5 (10th)
Def: 2.3 (6th)
WAR: 1.2 (11th)

2nd Half Outlook: ZiPS projects 1.0 WAR rest of season, and it’s possible Pillar could contribute more if the defensive metrics start liking him more. There’s upside for the Jays here.

 

Right Field

I’m really not sure what to expect of Jose Bautista moving forward. Decline due to age happens to even the best players eventually and it’s not always gradual. Bautista’s .234/.349/.400 line and 102 wRC+ is akin to his production prior to his breakout in Toronto. In other words, very un-Bautista like. The 0.3 WAR also reflects his waning abilities in the field. Sure, he still has a gun of a right arm but that’s not enough to make up for the bad range and suspect reads he occasionally makes.

None of that will matter much if his power stroke and plate discipline return. But will they? He’s making far less contact on pitches in the strike zone and that could be due to how pitchers have attacked him. For the first time since 2010, he’s seeing fewer than 50% fastballs (47.9% to be exact).

Or could bat speed be the root cause? He’s making far less hard contact (32.1%) compared to last year (41%).

I’m not expecting peak level Bautista ever again. But ZiPS seems to think there’s something left in the tank, as it has him contributing 1.0 WAR, 12 home runs, a 120 wRC+ and a .464 SLG the rest of the way. Joey Bats has been one of the best hitters in the world for years so I wouldn’t bet against him.

Of course, he also remains a trade candidate if the Jays decide to sell, which could totally change the complexion of the lineup, as well as production from this position.

Off: -6.6 (12th)
Def: -4.9 (9th)
WAR: 0.2 (13th)

2nd Half Outlook: Better than the first half? Your guess is as good as mine. But there might still be a good, middle-of-the-order hitter in there somewhere. The Jays will have to decide soon if that’s worth more to them in the lineup or in a trade for prospects.

 

Designated Hitter

Much was made about the Kendrys Morales contract in the offseason and so far the results have been so-so. He’s on pace for 28 homers (2 shy of last year’s total) and the .252 batting average isn’t totally out of line with the .271 career rate either. But his walks are down and his K’s are up, leading to a pretty awful .300 OBP.

ZiPS thinks he’ll be better in the 2nd half, posting a 105 wRC+ compared to his first half 96 mark. But just like Bautista, Morales has been thrown more offspeed/breaking pitches and his rate of contact in the zone has gone down. There’s probably an adjustment by him to be made here. But even if he figures something out the ceiling is only so high. The Jays could have a league average hitter for the rest of the season, or a slightly above-or-below average hitter. None of these potential scenarios will move the needle much in terms of playoff hopes.

Off: -7.0 (11th)
Def: -8.7 (8th)
WAR: -0.4 (11th)

2nd Half Outlook: Meh. Whether it’s a slightly below- or a slightly above-average version of Morales we see, the swing isn’t great enough to worry about. He’s not going anywhere in a trade either.

Conclusion:

While there haven’t been too many truly bad performances from Blue Jays players, the rankings paint a stark picture as to how they compare to the rest of the league, and it’s not good.

It’s not Pillar’s fault that there are other really, really good centre fielders in baseball. It’s not Bautista’s fault that he’s 36 and not 32 anymore. All teams suffer injuries and it stinks when an MVP third baseman and your two middle infielders miss a bunch of time. There’s only so much blame we can dole out here.

The reality for the Blue Jays’ position players is that they’re old and not as good as they once were. The glass half full outlook says they’re still in the Wild Card hunt but they’ll need to make a push starting tonight against a seemingly rebuilding Tigers team. The glass half empty outlook reminds us that while they’re “only 5 games back” of a Wild Card spot, that’s actually 1.5 games further behind than where they were two weeks ago. So they’ve been losing ground.

In some cases, ZiPS sees better fortune ahead for a few players. But will it be enough for this group to make one last push towards the playoffs, or is a tear down inevitable? That ugly 19-1 loss to the Astros on Sunday is still a fresh memory. Whatever they decide, the next couple weeks could be pretty interesting.