DINGERS FROM THE 6IX
by Quinn Sweetzir
Even though the 19-26 record is probably not as strong as the Toronto Blue Jays or their fans had hoped for, the fact remains that there have been a handful of strong starts to the season from players on the team which we certainly had low expectations. Among those performing surprisingly well include previous regulars like Kevin Pillar, relievers such as Ryan Tepera and Aaron Loup, and bench players turned regulars like Ezequiel Carrera and Justin Smoak. Expectations for these five were quite low to start the season, however they have all managed to exceed expectations and become useful players in the early stages of the season.
At around this point in the season, players usually regress/progress back towards their expected norms. Just consider players like Devon Travis, who had an absolutely dreadful April, but has rebounded nicely and started to return to his career averages. Instead hasn’t necessarily happened for the aforementioned five, who’ve managed to overperform and become some of the clubs most useful players. This leads me to ask whether this group is just having an extended hot streak or has actually done something to improve their performance in 2017.
Leading all Blue Jays position players in WAR, Kevin Pillar has dramatically exceeded expectations to start 2017; improving his offence by a substantial margin and continuing to play exceptional defence. Pillar’s OPS has jumped from .679 in 2016 to .853 so far in 2017, and most would point to improved plate discipline as the biggest factor in creating this improvement. This is evidenced by a reduction in his O-Swing%, which has decreased by 4.6% from 2016 to 2017. However Pillar hasn’t done this by simply refusing to swing at pitches, and has also managed to become more selective with a Z-Swing% which increased by 8.4% over the same time. The result has been both a 3.2% increase in Pillar’s walk rate, and a 4.4% increase in Pillar’s hard contact rate, resulting in improved performance at the plate for Pillar. Assuming Pillar continues his impressive improvement in plate discipline, the sustainability of his success seems very plausible.
After joining the Blue Jays organization in 2009, Ryan Tepera spent years developing as a starting pitcher before converting to a reliever full time in 2014. Coming into this season, Tepera had managed a 3.16 ERA over 51.1 career innings at the big league level, however expectations remained somewhat low thanks to a career 5.03 FIP and a miniscule .215 BABIP. Tepera’s strong numbers may be slightly inflated to start this season as well, thanks to a continually low BABIP at .222 and an extremely low 3.6 HR/FB%. However his ERA of 3.04 lines up with his FIP of 2.93, and a 4.3% increase in strikeout rate suggest that his surprisingly strong performance is more sustainable than we might expect from Tepera. In addition, he allowed 7 of his 9 earned runs during two outings where new relievers allowed his inherited runners to score, suggesting that his performance might be even better than his numbers suggest. Although he might not be able to remain as successful over the course of the season as he is right now, I believe Tepera could manage around 70 innings of 3.50 ERA ball, and his recent improvements are probably more sustainable than you some people might think.
Over the last two seasons, Aaron Loup managed to record an ERA of 4.61, and expectations weren't much higher among most fans coming into this season. However, Loup has managed to record an ERA of 2.76 and has been very good as a lefty specialist, allowing lefties to record an OBP of .429. Unfortunately for Loup, his improved performance appears to be more a result of a lack of innings combined with luck rather than a more impressive performance to start this season. Most of all, Loup has managed to record a 4.96 BB/9, more than twice his career average. Loup’s fastball velocity is also still short of his previous levels - averaging just 91.9 MPH in 2017 compared to 93.2 MPH in 2015 - and the lack of an improved strikeout rate and an inflated LOB% of 79.7 suggest that Loup has been lucky rather than good. In addition, Loup has the highest HBP/IP of any reliever with at least 50 innings at a rate of 0.18 since 2015. This isn’t to suggest that there isn’t value to having Loup on the Jays as a lefty specialist, but his ERA of 2.76 should rise by around a run over the course of a full season. Unlike what might be suggested by glancing at basic stats, Loup’s performance has not improved to his pre-2015 form, but has instead managed to be successful largely through luck early in the season.
Spending significant time as the starting left fielder, Ezequiel Carrera has managed to be at least an average hitter, with a WRC+ of 100 and a .286 batting average. On the surface, these seem like solid numbers until you consider some of the more detailed aspects of his performance. If you remember last season, Carrera started on a hot streak which began to collapse in the beginning of June. Carrera managed a WRC+ of 151 in April and May last season, however opposing pitchers increased their fastball usage by 4.5% during June, July, and August, and his WRC+ dropped to 53 as a result. Opponents are using fastballs at around the same rate to that of his early season numbers last season, and I suspect they will soon change their approach when pitching to Carrera by throwing less fastballs and more offspeed and breaking pitches.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the sustainability of Justin Smoak's success, and found some rather surprising results. Most importantly, he’s managed to reduce his whiff rates on breaking balls have decreased by large margins. Whiff rates have decreased by 4.95% and 8.11% on sliders and curveballs respectively. These are rather impressive totals and assuming Smoak can maintain his successes, he should continue to be successful for the foreseeable future. As as result, Smoak’s strikeout rate is down 13.3% from his numbers last season, and the new 19.5% figure would be the best of his career. In addition, Smoak’s hard contact rate is up by 5.7% from his totals last season, obviously indicating that an improved approach against breaking balls is leading to a substantially higher batting average - which increased from a career average of .226 to a career high of .278. His OPS and WRC+ are also up from .710 to .881 and from 97 to 135 respectively from his career numbers to those of this season.