DINGERS FROM THE 6IX
by Quinn Sweetzir
As is the case with any struggling, mediocre baseball team, the list of issues surrounding this seasons Toronto Blue Jays is incredibly long and comprehensive. Writers, analysts, and fans alike will point fingers at various components of this poorly performing ballclub, from underachieving pitching to abysmal offensive output to I wrath of significant injuries which have hampered this club in various ways this season.
Often lost in the shuffle of areas where the Jays need to improve is the general lack of depth which has been exposed dramatically as a result of underperformance and injuries to everyday starters. When regulars have struggled or been unavailable, the backups and minor leaguers called in to replace them have simply been unable to pick up the slack to any considerable margin. This has been true from both an offensive and pitching standpoint, as the lack of depth has been exposed to the point of disaster on both these fronts.
It’s clear that depth is a legitimate weakness that needs to be addressed as the club hopes to improve, but what is the actual extent of the negative impact it’s had on the Jays this season? Is the difference negligible or is there serious gains in terms of wins which we can expect to make as a result of having decent depth. As it turns out, the answer is a lot more significant than might be expected on the surface.
Before I proceed in evaluating the quality of Toronto’s depth, I first have to define some parameters as to what that means. On every baseball reference 2017 team page, it lists each team's “regulars” at each defensive position, along with 5 (or sometimes 6) starting rotation members, along with 5 relievers. In the case of the Blue Jays, Baseball Reference essentially considered regulars to be a part of the opening day roster for the lineup and rotation, with only some variance in the bullpen. For my somewhat arbitrary definition of depth, I’ve decided that players who are not included as these regulars are now considered depth players, which now includes the clubs bench, non-regular rotation members, and 6/7th relievers which would rarely be used in high leverage situations.
Next, we have to evaluate just how bad the Blue Jays depth players have been this season. For this, we I’ve decided to use rWAR to evaluate the performances of various Blue Jays depth players, compared to that of other teams across the league.
“If we set the goal of improving to replacement level depth then the Toronto Blue Jays could conceivably win 6-7 more games over the course of a season.”
Offensively, the Jays depth players have performed extremely poorly, especially in the infield. Overall, Blue Jays depth position players have combined to be worth -2.5 rWAR. This may seem low on the surface, but if you consider that poorly performing backup infielders (such as Ryan Goins, Darwin Barney, and Chris Coghlan) have combined for -2.1 rWAR on their own, this number becomes far more feasible. Another area where depth has been poor is from various backup catchers (including Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Luke Maile, Mike Ohlman, Miguel Montero, and Raffy Lopez), which have combined to produce an atrocious -1.5 fWAR. Though the infield is saved somewhat by the surprisingly decent outfield (mostly Ezequiel Carrera’s 0.6 rWAR) and passable performances from brief callups (such as Darrell Ceciliani, Dwight Smith Jr, and others), the differences are only offset somewhat, and the overall total is still incredibly poor.
It’s clear that from an offensive standpoint that depth players have performed poorly, but what about the pitching? Injuries have resulted in 5 different depth players making starts for the club, each with varying success. In total, they’ve combined to be worth an unsurprisingly poor -1.0 rWAR to this point of the season. This continues into the bullpen, where relief depth has combined to produce a staggeringly bad -1.1 rWAR. The combined poor play of depth starters and relievers has resulted in pitching depth which has performed to a tune of -2.1 rWAR, a total which by any measure is remarkably poor.
Depth players have performed to an abysmal combined -4.6 tune of rWAR, but now we need to know how bad is this compared to other teams? Is expecting to improve an unrealistic dream, or a plausible reality? It turns out that the Blue Jays have the 3rd most poorly performing depth players in the MLB, with only the lowly San Francisco giants and Pittsburgh Pirates performing worse. If the Jays rank near the bottom in terms of the performance of depth players, then just how much improvement could be realistically expected?
If we set the goal of improving to replacement level depth then the Toronto Blue Jays could conceivably win 6-7 more games over the course of a season. Replacement level is defined as being the production you could expect to receive for a team of minimum salary players, including minor league free agents, and AAAA players. In theory, this should be fairly easy to achieve, however in practice it’s much rarer than you might expect.
Only 13 MLB teams managed to have depth players combine to perform above replacement level, which would mean that the Jays would have to improve from well below average to slightly above if they wanted to improve by this magnitude.
“an improvement to league average depth … would put [the Jays final win total] at about 82 wins, a rather significant improvement from their current pace of 76.”
If expecting replacement level depth isn’t possible for the majority of teams than perhaps the Jays should aim to improve to average depth from offensive and pitching standpoints separately. The average MLB team receives 0.9 rWAR every 162 games from depth position players, well above the -3.6 rWAR the Blue Jays would produce at their current rate over the course of the season. As a result, an improvement to league average performance from depth players would result in about 4.5 more wins for the Jays, a rather significant amount considering the closeness of wildcard races over the past few seasons.
The standards for average pitching depth are far lower however, where the average 162 game rWAR projects to be around -1.3. Though pitching depth is significantly worse than that of position players in terms of total value, the Jays could still make gains by improving in this regard. Toronto’s pitching depth currently projects to be worth -3.1 rWAR at the end of the season, so an improvement to league average could still improve the club by about 1.8 wins next season.
Overall, an improvement to league average depth would likely have resulted in a 6-7 win improvement for this seasons Toronto Blue Jays, which would put them at about 82 wins, a rather significant improvement from their current pace of 76.
It’s now clear that poor depth has cost the Jays around 4-5 victories to this point in the season, and improved depth would certainly have resulted in better performance to this point. We can spend the whole day thinking about how a few extra wins would’ve changed the whole fortunes of Toronto’s 2017 season, but it is clear that improving depth could be a rather easy way for a club with hopes of contending in 2018 could improve significantly without the excessive price tag of a remodeled pitching staff or a loss of prospect capital to improve on weak position players.
Better depth additions need to be given serious consideration as a method of improving this club in 2018, as they would go a long way towards improving the club next season. These improvements would almost certainly have a significant towards improving the club in 2018, while costing a fraction of the price of expensive free agents, or ambitious trade targets.