The Blue Jays Offensive Problem

After winning the off-season by acquiring stars like Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays came into the season with high hopes. The AL East was as open a race as it has been in years, and Toronto looked poised to make the leap into being a strong contender. However, with the first month of the season nearly in the books, the Blue Jays are in last place, and at 9-14, they’re already 6 1/2 games behind the division leading Red Sox.

Even with the struggles by R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson, the biggest letdown has been on offense. The Blue Jays rank 28th in the majors in wRC+, ahead of only the lowly Marlins and equally struggling White Sox. It might be tempting to look at the ridiculous number of strikeouts that Colby Rasmus (42.9% K%), J.P. Arencibia (38.6% K%), and Brett Lawrie (32.5% K%), especially because all three are posting an on base percentage below .290 — but a deeper dive into the numbers suggests that the whiffs are not the problem.

Overall, the Blue Jays are striking out in 21.2% of their plate appearances, the eighth highest total for an MLB team (with pitcher’s excluded so as not to bias the list towards NL clubs). However, before you go blaming those strikeouts for the team’s offensive problems, look at the combined offense totals for the league’s 10 highest strikeout clubs, and then the 10 lowest strikeout clubs.

10 Highest K% teams: .244 BA, .314 OBP, .411 SLG, .317 wOBA, 100 wRC+, 894 runs
10 Lowest K% teams: .259 BA, .324 OBP, .395 SLG, .316 wOBA, 99 wRC+, 880 runs

The teams that strike out less hit for a higher average and get on base more often because of those extra balls in play turning into hits, but the higher contact rates come at the cost of less power, so the teams making lots of contact are actually slightly less productive overall. While we tend to think of strikeouts as a sign of offensive ineptitude, the reality is the Blue Jays are striking out less than the Braves, and Atlanta currently has the #1 offense in baseball by wRC+. The Indians, Mets, Reds, and Red Sox are also in the top 10 for strikeout rate by their hitters, and they aren’t having any problems scoring runs.

In fact, despite the notion that more contact means more productive outs that advance runners, there isn’t even much evidence to suggest that the high strikeout teams have been less efficient at scoring runs than the lower strikeout teams. As I wrote about on FanGraphs on Thursday, we can use the difference between a team’s performance in a couple of different metrics to determine how well they’ve done at turning their hits into runs. I’ll spare you all the nerdy details — you can click the link if you want to see how this efficiency metric is created — but, as the table below shows, Toronto has been the second worst team at turning their baserunners into runs, which many could attribute to their hacktastic ways.

Team Missing Runs
Indians (7.2)
Padres (8.7)
Dodgers (10.1)
Blue Jays (11.5)
Angels (13.6)

However, the larger picture doesn’t support the notion that it’s the strikeouts causing the team to strand all those runners. Again, using the top 10 teams in K%, we find that the high strikeout offenses are producing almost exactly as many runs as expected based on their raw batting lines. While the Blue Jays have dramatically underachieved, the Reds and Mets are #2 and #3 overall — St. Louis is first, if you were curious — in extra runs added through offensive efficiency, and both Cincinnati and New York are in the top 10 in team strikeout rate.

So, if it’s not the strikeouts and the low batting average, why are the Blue Jays struggling to score? The simple answer — and I know it won’t be a very popular one for those looking to point the finger at someone or something — is that balls just aren’t falling in. The Blue Jays team batting average on balls in play of .253 is last in the majors, 41 points below the league average for position players. While the Blue Jays do employ guys like Jose Bautista who regularly post low BABIPs because of his extreme fly ball tendencies, the Jays rank just 14th in fly ball percentage overall.

After their off-season makeover, the Toronto now has a number of slap hitting speed guys who are the kinds of players who usually post higher than average BABIPs. Emilio Bonifacio has a career .334 BABIP, but right now, he’s at .244. Brett Lawrie has a .308 BABIP for his career, but is at .217 for 2013. Maicer Izturis is a .294 career BABIP guy, but has just a .148 mark this season. While it’s tough to see guys make outs for weeks on end and think things are likely to improve, these guys all have established track records as significantly better offensive performers than they’ve been to date, and the primary driver of their 2013 struggles have been a lack of balls falling in for hits when they do make contact.

A single month sample of a player’s BABIP has little predictive value, so there’s no real reason to think Toronto’s going to spend the rest of the year hitting balls right at people. They might not reach full offensive potential until Jose Reyes returns, but there’s reasons for optimism surrounding the Blue Jays offense. When the hits start falling in, the runs will follow.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.
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So, if you assume a BABIP closer to league average, (use an xBABIP calculator, maybe?) how many more runs would the Jays have scored over that same time? I’m just wondering what the magnitude of this effect might actually be, since it’s not immediately clear to me.