The Season Where it All Comes Together

1
Photo via o.canada.com

Photo via o.canada.com

3 Years, 5 Months, 30 Days. That’s how long it’s been since Alex Anthopoulos was named Blue Jays General Manager back in October 2009.

This was Baseball America’s Projected 2013 Lineup that was published shortly after Anthopoulos’ inauguration as Jays GM as part of their 2010 Blue Jays Top 10 Prospect List.

Catcher: J.P. Arencibia
First Base: David Cooper
Second Base: Aaron Hill
Third Base: Kevin Ahrens
Shortstop: Justin Jackson
Left Field: Travis Snider
Centre Field: Vernon Wells
Right Field: Jake Marisnick
Designated Hitter: Adam Lind
No. 1 Starter: Roy Halladay
No. 2 Starter: Zach Stewart
No. 3 Starter: Chad Jenkins
No. 4 Starter: Henderson Alvarez
No. 5 Starter: Ricky Romero
Closer: Josh Roenicke

Just two of those players were on the Blue Jays Opening Day roster (Arencibia, Lind) and just six are still in the Blue Jays organization (Arencibia, Ahrens, Jackson, Lind, Jenkins, Romero). Of those who are on the projected roster, but no longer in the Blue Jays organization, seven were traded. While that is a significant percentage of the overall projected roster it also represents a larger concept within Anthopoulos’ organizational philosophy…trades.

Since Alex Anthopoulos took over the Blue Jays GM job in October 2009 the Blue Jays have made 44 trades. In that same timeframe there has been an approximate total of 392 trades across the MLB. Meaning the Blue Jays have made roughly 11% of all MLB trades since Anthopoulos began his reign as Blue Jays General Manager.

Anthopoulos said he and his staff considered keeping the prospects and trying to fill the club’s needs through free agency. But “the bird in the hand” rather than gambling on an uncertain market was ultimately more attractive. – ”

Blue Jays trade: Paul Beeston to Alex Anthopoulos: ‘Go after it’” The Star

 

This offseason we saw that trade-based philosophy come to fruition. Both the Marlins trade and the R.A. Dickey trade, could be described as unexpected, perhaps even to Alex Anthopoulos himself. Back in October when I previewed the Free-Agent Market for the Jays, I listed a few pitching targets, but none of them as high-profile as Josh Johnson or R.A. Dickey. A few weeks after that post, the Blue Jays signed Maicer Izturis to a 3 year contract, for the most part we seemed to be in agreeance that he was a solid pickup for a team lacking a 2B. We were pleasantly surprised with Maicer Izturis. Our expectations were lower coming into this offseason last, we had been spurned by the rumour mill in the offseason prior, hoping on such players as Yu Darvish and Prince Fielder.

To get anyone of consequence would have been a joy and a surprise, but getting four players of consequence has been shocking, but delightful. Even today, as we approach the second game of the Blue Jays regular season you’ll see tweets along the lines of, “Jose Reyes is a Blue Jays,” it’s still almost unfathomable.

Getting beyond the wonderment of the 2012/2013 Offseason, with great potential once again comes great expectations. Shortly after the R.A. Dickey trade the Blue Jays’ World Series odds were as high as 8-1 and currently stand at 10-1 per Vegas Insider. A similar sentiment seems to be felt within the Toronto Blue Jays fan base. A World Series berth is not necessarily expected, but a playoff berth is almost required.

A few weeks ago, prior to the Granderson and Teixeira injuries, if you’d asked me whether the Blue Jays would even make the playoffs I don’t think I’d have been able to give you a definitive answer. Even today, with the fallen Yankees, it’s not inconceivable to see the Blue Jays on the periphery of playoff contention come late September.

Despite their potential prowess in run production and starting pitching there’s a lack of certainty in the bullpen and poor defense that doesn’t look like it will get much better.

In the bullpen, Steve Delabar strikes out more than his fair share of batters, but is he going to be able to keep his home run rate down? Is Sergio Santos going to be able to stay off the DL? How is Casey Janssen going to perform coming off of shoulder surgery? Can Aaron Loup sustain the success he found at the end of last season? Can Jeremy Jeffress find the strikezone? The list goes on and on. Staying true to theme of the rest of the Blue Jays roster, there is the possibility for greatness, but the questionability to envision the bullpen going horribly wrong.

The opposite may be true with the Blue Jays’ current defence, it’s pretty putrid and we know for fact. Neither PECOTA nor ZiPS projects a Blue Jays regular not named Brett Lawrie to put up above average defensive numbers. There is no one Blue Jays fielder that is particularly awful, but there’s also not many with the potential for anything higher than below defence. One might make the case that the Blue Jays as they are constructed have modelled themselves such that they can combat some potential defensive woes, similar to the 2012 Tigers. They have set themselves up with a rather awful defensive force, but they also have a strikeout intensive pitching staff. By 2012 numbers, the Blue Jays have four starters with above average strikeout rates (Dickey, Morrow, Johnson, Happ). If they can keep fewer balls on the ground or in the air and more in the catcher’s glove, that should at least somewhat aid defensive run prevention.

With that said this Blue Jays roster definitely shouldn’t be met entirely with pessimism. By fWAR the Blue Jays’ Opening Day roster contained nine players who have had at least one 4.0 fWAR season in their respective careers (Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Colby Rasmus, Mark DeRosa). As well the current top 4 in the Blue Jays lineup (Reyes, Melky, Bautista, Encarnacion) could rival any in baseball, all four of them were among the top 5 in wRC+ at their respective positions.

The same can be said for the top of the rotation. R.A. Dickey was arguably the best pitcher in the National League last year and was awarded the NL Cy Young for his efforts. Brandon Morrow was near the top of the leader boards in both ERA and FIP prior to his season ending injury. Josh Johnson was a 3.4 fWAR pitcher in a season in which he was forced to tinker with his repertoire. Despite that, the questions once again surface. Is R.A. Dickey’s 2012 season sustainable, can either Brandon Morrow or Josh Johnson stay healthy? Who’s to say.

All of this results into a scenario where despite the many acquisitions and newfound depth, the Blue Jays have a large variance in their potential outcomes. PECOTA for example projects on the lower end of that variance at 84-78, while ZiPS projects on the higher end of that variance at 94-68.

As for me? I fall somewhere in between. I have worries about some of the offensive performances continuing from players such as Melky Cabrera and I’m also of the mindset that the Josh Johnson we have now is not at all the Josh Johnson of yesteryear. However I’m not as worried about injuries as some, they will happen, they can’t be predicted, but there is enough depth to combat them. If I was to put a number on it, I’d say the Jays finish 90-72 with the Rays right ahead at 91-71.

Is that a satisfying outcome? Does that count as “The Season Where it All Comes Together”? It’d be the first Blue Jays playoff berth in 20 years, but the expectations might be higher.

In the end, after all the predictions, the worries, the questions, the ambitions, the Blue Jays will undoubtedly be a fun, exciting, and very successful baseball team in 2013.

Jose Reyes is a Blue Jay.

The Root of Edwin Encarnacion’s Improvement in 2012 and its Effect Going Forward

11
Courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr

Courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr

2012 marked a magical year for Edwin Encarnacion. In a season that saw a majority of the Blue Jays starting lineup and starting rotation go on the disabled list, EE was a lone bright spot. In fact Edwin was the only Blue Jays position player to substantially outperform preseason expectations, even among such high-potential players as Brett Lawrie and Jose Bautista. At the end of the year he finished with the 7th best offensive season in the MLB by both wOBA and the park adjusted wRC+. In the history of the Blue Jays only a handful of players have finished that high, names like Bautista, Barfield, Delgado, McGriff, and Olerud grace that coveted list.

In total, Edwin Encarnacion hit 16 more home runs than he had in any other season, he had a walk rate almost 3% higher than his previous high and that culminated into a season with more than twice the value that he had produced in any season prior per fWAR.

Despite the massive uptick in performance there seemed to be a slight lack of recognition. Perhaps this was a result of the chaos that was occurring around him? Or perhaps it was a sense of expectation? To some extent the Toronto fan base expected a surge from Edwin Encarnacion. We had always been told he had potential, particularly in the power department.

In 2012 that potential came to fruition, but through what means exactly? On the outside Edwin didn’t seem like a particularly different player, he wasn’t ‘jacked up’ and his play on the field was as clumsy as ever. The main difference we saw was this presumed power that had finally been unlocked. Edwin always had raw power, but changes in 2012 allowed him to utilize it and turn it into game power.

If you were a listener of the now defunct Up and In podcast, Jason Parks and Kevin Goldstein often talked about the concept of raw power versus game power in terms of prospects, but a similar concept applies to major league hitters. The theory states that there is players that have great raw power, but in order for that to translate to ‘in game home runs’ there needs to be an accompanying hit tool of a certain level. In 2011, Edwin’s hit tool was not at that level.

To attempt to fix that, as John Lott wrote late last April, Edwin Encarnacion made a couple changes to his swing prior to the 2012 season. These changes being a subtler leg kick as well as a two handed followthrough. Both of which can be seen in the following two GIFs.

EESwing2011Slowed

2011 (Click to Enlarge)

EESwing2012Slowed

2012 (Click to Enlarge)

The first GIF is of Edwin Encarnacion’s swing on a HR hit off Jered Weaver in 2011, the second GIF is of Edwin’s swing on a HR hit off Wei-Yin Chen in 2012.

In 2011 Edwin had a fairly large leg kick that started as soon as the pitcher begun his windup, but in 2012 he shortened the leg kick motion, started it later. As for the two handed followthrough, which can be seen in the second GIF, the result was a shorter, more controlled swing. Often the result of shortening one’s swing is an additional amount of time that the hitter can use to see and assess the pitch that’s coming out of the pitcher’s hand. In turn this can be seen in a hitter’s plate discipline statistics.

In 2012, Edwin Encarnacion posted the lowest overall swing rate of his career (41.6%), while still maintaining his career average contact rate (82.1%). He raised his pitches per plate appearance rate from 3.74 in 2011 to 4.19 in 2012. Of course P/PA isn’t the be all end all of plate disciplinary statistics, notably bad hitters like Jemile Weeks and Jamey Carroll also appeared in the top 20 in P/PA in 2012. However if we take a closer look at Edwin’s Pitch F/X Hitter Profile we find that quite a few of the pitches that EE was laying off of in 2012 were breaking balls low and outside.

2011-EE-Slider-Curve

2011 per Baseball Prospectus’ Pitch F/X Hitter Profiles (Click to Enlarge)

2012 (Click to Enlarge)

2012 per Baseball Prospectus’ Pitch F/X Hitter Profiles (Click to Enlarge)

Each of the above graphics includes Encarnacion’s swing rate against the slider (left) and curveball (right) in 2011 and 2012. As you can probably tell, there is quite a bit less red at the bottom of the 2012 graphic indicating that Edwin swung at a substantially lower number of breaking balls low and outside in 2012 as opposed to 2011. Thereby leading to more balls, more walks, and better overall contact…three things that were supposedly the objective in changing Edwin’s swing.

As well, as was previously mentioned, Edwin hit 16 more home runs than his previous career high, while maintaing the lowest PA/HR rate of his career. This runs somewhat contrary to the theoretical results of the changes that he made. Most often the compacting of one’s swing will lead to less power, not more. Instead Edwin Encarnacion’s HRs were on average 15.8ft further (413.2 ft in 2012, 397.4 ft in all years prior) than his career Average True Distance per Hit Tracker, lending itself to the theory of game power versus raw power.

With both of those points in mind there’s a case to be made that Edwin’s career highs in BB% and HR/FB% aren’t subject to as much regression as one might expect. ZiPS for example projects a 10.6 BB% (down 2.4%) and a 15.1% HR/FB (down 3.6%) assuming the same fly ball rate as 2012, resulting in a .369 wOBA (down 27 points).  Pitchers are bound to pitch to Edwin differently, but if he can make adjustments as he did in 2012 there’s reason to believe that he should be able to combat those changes and produce similar overall offensive numbers save for slight regression as the result of age.

Alex Anthopoulos often talks about investing in in the player, the player that puts in the work and makes the needed adjustments. Edwin showed that he could accomplish that last season. Alex Anthopoulos likely saw that when he signed Edwin Encarnacion to a 3-year $27 million dollar contract extension.

He’ll never be an elite (or even above average) fielder, but he has an elite, cost-controlled bat at a position that, league wide, is beginning to lose depth. There’s no reason to believe that his premier performance won’t continue going forward.

Special Thanks to Chris Sherwin and Steve McEwen for their input on this post

GIF: Two Over The Shoulder Catches in CF, 21 Years Apart

1

(more…)

Go to Top