How do you solve a problem like the Blue Jays' lineup?
Probably just by making minor adjustments and waiting for results to get better, unfortunately!
It can’t just be all recaps and podcasts around here, right? So with today an day off for the Blue Jays, with the team already in Florida for a series at the dreaded Trop that could put them under .500 despite having rushed out to a 15-8 start to the season, it seems like it’s probably a good idea to take a look at just what the hell is going on here!!?!!
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Here they come. The inevitable demands for urgency. The same misplaced anger we see every year at anyone who dares to remind that “it’s early.” The folks who not only love to have their most negative impulses validated, but also lack the object permanence to remember literally every season a baseball team has ever played ever — but definitely won’t be forgetting the fact that the Blue Jays missed the playoffs by one game last season anytime soon!
Welcome to every single May!
I kid, of course. Sometimes this stuff happens in April. Sometimes it’s June. Sometimes even later than that. The exhausting psychology of a certain, often loud, subset of fans? Oh, I’m not kidding about that. This is the sixteenth full season of Toronto Blue Jays baseball I’m covering, and I’ve seen all of this stuff before. A lot.
I saw it in early 2021, when the Jays had a 90 wRC+ as a team in April before going on to win more games than the eventual World Series champion. I saw it at times in 2015 and 2016, while the Jays were on their way to back-to-back ALCS appearances. I saw it with the Yankees last May, when they produced an 86 wRC+ as a team. I’m seeing it now with the Red Sox, who are having an abysmal start (yet are still just as capable of being entirely fine as the Jays are).
To be fair, I’ve also seen it in a whole lot of seasons that didn’t end up being nearly as enjoyable, which I think is important to note here. Those inching toward the panic button at this stage of a season aren’t inherently wrong. Sometimes you can identify problems with a roster incredibly early that a team will inexplicably be unable to correct over the months and months of baseball to follow.
They’re also not alone. If Vlad’s getting frustrated, as he obviously showed he was this week in the Bronx, I’d say that means it’s OK for anyone else watching to be getting frustrated, too.
Enjoy dumping on them as I might, this particular chorus is also very much not the problem here, either. These Jays are undeniably mired in a funk that goes beyond bad luck at the moment. It’s not unfair to say it.
It’s just… turning that frustration into to shouts about urgency and Hockey Man takes isn’t usually the right path to these things. Demanding pressing, trying to do too much, trying to fix everything as quickly as possible? Angrily magnifying tiny mistakes — a poor swing decision here, a missed opportunity to advance there, a stumble into a base elsewhere — that we’d elide as mostly inconsequential if the stakes of every inning didn’t feel so high?
I really don’t think that’s the right approach to a game we hear over and over is best played when a player can slow things down in the moment and maintain an even keel over the long haul.
So, what is the right approach? I hate to say it, but it’s usually patience.
Take Bo Bichette’s season so far, for example. He’s now up to a 91 wRC+ on the year, which is pretty remarkable considering that for the month of April his wRC+ was 54.
He seems to have made it to where he needs to be at the plate, producing a 173 wRC+ since the start of May, more than doubling his walk rate over where it was in April, taking his strikeout rate down by four percentage points, cutting way down on infield flyballs, and reducing his groundball rate significantly.
We know that he didn't do this by simply waiting for his luck to even out, though that has certainly been an element of the change. He did it by actively making some rather necessary adjustments. And we know this because his father, former Jays hitting coach Dante Bichette, explained it all on the radio a couple weeks ago.
I don't think it's all bad luck. I think he was off. And what I notice, again, if you look into the underlying numbers, where was he off? Well, he wasn't hitting the fastball, but he wasn't late on the fastball. When you still-frame it (on video) at contact the barrel was on the fastball, but he was underneath it.
So, to me, that's a swing path thing. And he knew that.
I saw him in Houston — first time I saw him all year — and I just said, 'You're just under the ball. You're not late. Because everybody's saying you're not catching up to fastballs, you're late. You're under the fastball, you're not late.'
So how do we fix that? And for a couple days there he said, 'Dude, I'm trying so hard to get on top of the fastball, it's just I can't do it.'
And I think what we found was he was trying so hard to stay back and get on the ball that his back shoulder was dropping. And whenever your shoulder drops — I don't care what you do with your swing, if your shoulders aren't on plane with the ball, your bat's not going to be on plane with the ball. Because your barrel falls to your shoulders and then it takes off, so it's always in the same path as your two shoulders.
Now, by holding up Dante here I realize I run the risk of the continued Pete Walker-fication of him as the Jays’ supposedly magic, one-man hitting guru who is going to solve everything. I think he’s a smart guy with a lot of great insights, but my object here is definitely not to do that. He’s just more visible and accessible to the media, and more unrestrained with his words, than anyone else doing this much up-close work with the club’s hitters — facts I’m sure have much to do with his outsized reputation.
But this stuff is pretty instructive to what I was saying above, I think. Particularly the fact that Bo himself acknowledged that he was making things worse by pressing too hard, but — importantly — also the timeline of it all.
Bo didn't have a good spring training, slashing just .212/.333/.273 over 35 plate appearances in March. Those struggles carried into the season, obviously. Yet by the series in Houston, which started on April 22nd, he was still searching for answers. Even then, after taking Dante’s advice (which we’ll go ahead and assume was the thing that worked for him), it wasn't another week before the results seemingly started to turn around.
These things can take time. The same is true when you’re talking about pitchers, which is something we’ve also seen this year from pitchers Yusei Kikuchi and José Berríos, who seem to be rounding into form after rocky starts.
It can take a while to be certain that there’s really a problem. It can take a while to identify the adjustment that needs to be made. And it can also take a while to be able to consistently execute that adjustment.
Fortunately for the Jays, they can’t not be aware by now that something is wrong. Better still, I think they probably have a pretty good idea of what that is, too. Or at least they should.
Article continues below next section…
With the Jays off here on Thursday, let’s take a look at some other player prop bets to consider for tonight, using the data available from Props.cash — player prop bets made easy!
We see here the hitters scheduled for tonight who have hit the over on 0.5 hits 90% of the time in their last 10 games — and from there we can see that Josh Donaldson is the one who will pay out the best.
We can see why Donaldson might not be as good a choice as some of the others on the list — he went hitless in his most recent game, and had the day off Wednesday after getting hit by a(n unintentional) pitch on Tuesday night.
Plus, as we can see elsewhere on the site, he’ll be facing a tough right-hander in Dylan Cease of the White Sox, against whom he doesn’t have the strongest career numbers. Still, he’s been very consistent of late, and for as long as he stays healthy should look like a nice offseason pickup for the Yankees. (NYY @ CWS, Thursday, 8:10 PM ET).
…aaand we’re back.
Obviously the main issue that folks have pretty easily identified is the way that the Jays have struggled this year with runners in scoring position.
Overall, this is an above average hitting club right now, with a 103 wRC+ as a team. That's a mark that's not far off the 107 they produced in the first half of 2021, though because of the "dead ball" issue this season they're not hitting nearly as well according to the unadjusted numbers. And with runners in scoring position, it's even worse. The mark drops to a pathetic 61, which is the worst in baseball.
Now, some of that is certainly luck. The Jays' BABIP with RISP is .205, which is 24 points below second-worst Pittsburgh, and a whopping 144 points behind MLB leaders the L.A. Dodgers. Last year's worst RISP BABIP was .268, and most teams' RISP and overall wRC+ marks ended up reasonably in line with each other as well — as they usually do. Things will move in the positive direction, undoubtedly. But there's a lot of catching up the Jays are going to have to do to look remotely respectable in the RISP split, and some things that are going on that will genuinely need to be addressed.
In a very interesting Twitter thread here on Thursday, Sportsnet's Chris Black makes the case that the Jays are expanding the zone too much when there are runners in scoring position — and identifies Alejandro Kirk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Raimel Tapia, and (to a lesser extent) Matt Chapman as particularly bad culprits.
He’s certainly got a point there. The Jays, according to the search tool at Baseball Savant, have an MLB-worst .191 wOBA on pitches with RISP in the "chase" part of the zone. They've been better on pitches to that attack zone in all situations, producing a .229 wOBA, but unfortunately that's also the worst mark in baseball.
I also think Chris is right to bring up the counts in his tweet above. One reason Jays hitters might be chasing bad pitches is because they’re behind in the count. And one reason they might be behind in the count is because a strategy they used to excellent effect last season is no longer working for them.
Last year the Jays led MLB with a .464 wOBA in 0-0 counts. This year they’re a little bit off that mark, ranking eighth with a .394 wOBA at 0-0. But something very noticeable happens when you look specifically at 0-0 pitches with RISP. Last year? An MLB-leading .518 mark. And this year? An MLB-worst mark of just .181.
In other words, the Jays can still ambush a pitcher quite well if there’s nobody on, or merely someone at first. But teams have adjusted to how their pitchers approach the Jays’ lineup at 0-0 when there are runners at second or third, and the Blue Jays need to adjust back.
Now, as the MLB-worst wOBA in the “chase” zone in all situations attests, that’s not the only problem with this lineup. They’ve also whiffed on a higher percentage of pitches in the chase zone than any other team, both with RISP and without. And they’ve gone from last year having the second best overall strikeout rate (20.1%) and the best Called+Swinging strike rate (25.7%) in the majors, to ranking 16th and 23rd in those categories respectively this year. They need to tighten up their control of the zone more overall, in addition to whatever is going on at 0-0 with RISP.
Thing is, it’s not hard to see why any of those numbers might not look as good as you’d expect.
Part of the reason is that so far the Jays have largely faced opponents with excellent pitching staffs. Guys who throw harder and with more movement than most. Guys who can get you to chase. The Yankees have several of these monsters, as do the Astros, and the Red Sox and Guardians aren’t necessarily slouches either. (Those teams account for more than 80% of the opponents the Jays have faced so far this year).
We've also, it must be said, seen some especially godawful umpiring this year so far, which has forced Jays hitters to expand their zones at times. Enough to noticeably show up in the data? Maybe, maybe not. But we’re still working with small samples here, so I wouldn’t rule it out.
We’ve also seen a whole lot more of Raimel Tapia than you’d prefer in an offensive environment with a ball as dead as it has been. We’ve seen Matt Chapman struggle to find the right mix of power and contact as he continues trying to reinvent himself as a hitter post-hip surgery. We’ve seen a month-long slump from Bo Bichette, Alejandro Kirk bizarrely swinging at tons of bad pitches for most of April, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. going ice cold in May, too.
All those numbers — plus a hefty dose of poor batted ball luck — have gone into this data we’re looking at, even though Bichette and Kirk are already back looking like they should, and Tapia is hopefully about to see his playing time cut back.
In other words, there are already things pointing in the right direction here, even if it very much doesn’t feel like it. And while adjustments will need to be made, and that may yet take some time, they don’t seem like especially daunting ones — at least not for the six or seven best hitters in this lineup.
An unsatisfactory answer? Probably! Because there’s really nothing to rage about here. Just the typical drumbeat of a 162 game season of Major League Baseball.
Uh… one hopes.
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