- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Jays Have a Plan and They’re Sticking to It

While many teams surprised us in 2010, few have done so like the Toronto Blue Jays. When discussing the team’s present talent in our Organizational Rankings series, it became clear that while the team had some talented players it was not yet in a position to make a run at the AL East or even the AL Wild Card. The players, especially on offense, just weren’t of the elite caliber necessary to compete with Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay. Yet the Blue Jays started strong, and unlike years past they didn’t experience a steep collapse. Even with a loss last night they’re five games over .500 with 23 games to go, beating almost all preseason projections.

Think back, if you will, to the start of the season. Try to forget what we learned about the Blue Jays players during the course of 2010. OK? Now take a look at the Opening Day starters:

C: John Buck
1B: Lyle Overbay
2B: Aaron Hill
3B: Edwin Encarnacion
SS: Alex Gonzalez
LF: Travis Snider
CF: Vernon Wells
RF: Jose Bautista
DH: Adam Lind

If Snider took a step forward, Wells bounced back, and Lind and Hill build on their 2009 seasons, this looked like a lineup that might score around 4.5 runs per game. That’s not terrible, but it’s still not enough ammo. Even with a quality pitching staff that features many young, promising arms, it’s almost impossible for a team to compete in the AL East without scoring around five runs per game.

Staying in pre-season mode, now imagine that Lind and Hill experience precipitous drop-offs from last season, and that while Wells recovers to a reasonable degree Snider continues to struggle and spends significant time on the DL. That would make the offense look considerably worse, to the point that they might even fall behind the Baltimore Orioles. But despite these shortcomings the Jays have managed a pleasantly surprising season.

As David G. noted all the way back in May, the Jays have absolutely crushed the ball this season. They were doing it then, and they continue it through today. This leaves them with the highest SLG and the highest ISO, by more than 20 points, in the AL. They also have the highest HR/FB ratio in the AL, by two full percentage points. This rate gets amplified because the team also has the highest flyball to groundball ratio. This renders their AL lead in homers, by 33, unsurprising. They are also second in the league in doubles.

This power tendency does have its drawbacks, not least of which is the team’s inability to put men on base. Their team .314 OBP ranks second to last in the AL, tied with Baltimore. This means that while they can mash, they don’t often have opportunities to do so with men on base. As David noted in his article, the Jays experienced some insane luck earlier in the season when batting with runners in scoring position, .268/.347/.537 against .232/.289/.422 with the bases empty as of May 25. After yesterday’s win they are now .249/.311/.446 with the bases empty and .247/.324/.463 with RISP.

The Jays also have the third lowest team batting average in the league, .250, and have the lowest BABIP in the league, .274. The low BABIP is at least partly due to the team’s tendency to hit fly balls, since the league BABIP on fly balls, .141, far lower than it is on ground balls, .233. A related point is that they seemingly refuse to not hit the ball hard. They might lead the league in homers and rank second in doubles, but they have hit the fewest singles in the majors — 84 fewer than the next lowest team.

For the most part this trade-off worked for the Jays hitters. Alex Gonzalez’s WAR batting component was 5.3 in just a half season, which is far and away better than any full season of his career. Vernon Wells recovered from a horrible season to produce his best on offense since 2006. John Buck’s WAR batting component, 5.5, is by far his best. Yunel Escobar has improved, especially with power, since the Blue Jays acquired him. Even John McDonald‘s WAR batting component is in the black. And then there’s Jose Bautista, who needs no description.

All of this seems to result from hitting coach Dwayne Murphy’s tutelage. He has instilled a mantra in his team: Get ready, get a pitch, and swing hard. During most plate appearances a player will get something at which he can take a mighty hack, and Murphy wants his guys to take advantage. Many times it results in outs, but as the Blue Jays showed it can also result in plenty of runs. That’s Murphy’s philosophy, as Yahoo’s Tim Brown related earlier in the season:

“I think on-base percentage is an overrated stat,” Murphy said flatly. “Those guys getting on base, most of them aren’t getting them in. Give me somebody who drives them in after that. I need guys who can drive the ball.”

He certainly does have a point that putting men on base and leaving them there will not produce runs, but there is also a glaring flaw in this philosophy. In order to have guys who can drive home runners there need to be runners on in the first place. The home runs help, but all the outs the Jays hitters make hurt. After all, just like every other team they have only 27 outs per game. They’re wasting more of them than all but one other team in the league. That’s a big reason why they lead the AL in homers and are second in doubles, but are seventh in runs scored.There just aren’t enough guys aboard for those extra base hits.

Still, the strategy has worked with many of the current Jays players. We can point to Lind and Hill as examples of players who haven’t taken to it, but that could just be coincidence. Players do have down years. What I wonder is whether this will work with future teams. The Jays have basically taken previously underperforming hitters and have realized production from them. Will the same strategy work for a group of more talented hitters? This is just one question that will make the 2011 Blue Jays one of the more interesting teams in the AL.