Weekend Wrap: The Breaking Good Edition

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A deep dig into the numbers and performances from the past weekend of Toronto Blue Jays baseball, brought to you by Draft Kings — get your Daily Fantasy Sports on at Draft Kings!

The Sublime Josh Donaldson…

Josh Donaldson is hardly an unassuming superstar, but often I think his greatness flies somewhat under the radar when it comes to the daily conversation about the Toronto Blue Jays. He’s still a year or two away from his contract becoming a distraction, he doesn’t have  a personality that draws the ire of home fans when things aren’t going great, and — most importantly — he truly doesn’t have any flaws in his game for fans to nitpick.

Donaldson is in the midst of another outstanding season for the Blue Jays, and he’s almost doing it quietly.

Maybe that’s because he was a little banged up in May, “slumping” to slightly below league average on the month. By the end of that month his wRC+ stood at 130 — not quite where he was at in his MVP season of 2015, or his huge breakout in 2013, but a number exactly in line with his still-excellent 2014, which saw him finish the year with a WAR of 6.5. In other words, he was fine. More than fine, even. He was great.

Just maybe not quite as great as we’d gotten used to. But that’s all changed, of course.

Since the start of June, Donaldson has been absolutely fantastic. After picking up five more hits over four games with the Tigers (including a double and home run), along with four walks, his wRC+ over that span stands at 219. He’s hit an incredible .376/.506/.722 on this hot streak, raising his season wRC+ to 167 in the process — better, even, than what he produced in his MVP season last year. His batting average is currently five points higher than his 2015 rate, his on-base percentage is 47 points higher (as his walk rate has improved from 10.3% to 15.3%), and his slugging percentage is up 30 points as well.

Donaldson in 2016, as Dave Cameron of FanGraphs pointed out last week, has basically been the batting equivalent of Mike Trout — the generational talent carving out a Hall Of Fame career on the otherwise godawful Anaheim Angels. Cameron looks at how Donaldson has moved towards pulling and elevating the ball more, becoming more of a true slugger (his current SLG of .598 is nearly 100 points better than his best season in Oakland). And “by becoming a high-level slugger while maintaining his control of the strike zone, he’s begun to induce those fear-walks that he wasn’t getting earlier in his career,” he explains. “Pitchers have stopped throwing Donaldson strikes, and he’s been disciplined enough to lay off pitches out of the zone, leading to better hitter’s counts and more opportunities to swing for the fences without risking a strikeout. The end result? Donaldson is putting himself in the conversation for best hitter in baseball.”

And the result of that? Even without Jose Bautista, who is still out injured, the Blue Jays are absolutely terrifying.

Performance Notes…

Troy Tulowitzki perhaps didn’t have the greatest four games of his Blue Jays career against the Tigers, but he continued to hit the ball hard, to use all fields, and to make contact on pitches in the zone, continuing the trends that have separated his resurgence from his horrific slump from early in the season.

Though his hard contact rate has stayed fairly stable, when Tulo landed on the DL at the end of May, his line drive rate for the season was just 9.2%. Since then it has been 22.4%.

At the end of May he was still extremely pull-happy, with a pull rate of 53.5%, while his balls in play went to the opposite field just 16.7% of the time, and up the middle 30.0% of the time. Since returning from the DL he’s used the opposite field 25.4% of the time, and pulled the ball at a rate of just 38.8% (with hits up the middle jumping to 35.8% as well).

And his rate of contact on pitches in the zone, which was a dreadful problem in the early going (his Z-Contact% stood at just 73.5% on May 1st), has been a robust 88.0% since his DL return.

All of those numbers are much closer in line with the Tulo of old, which would obviously be  an incredibly good thing for the Blue Jays.

Tulo’s career path from here out is deeply central to everything that the Blue Jays will do in the future, and to the legacy of their recent past, too. He’s the only current player on the books for 2021 (when the club will, at minimum, pay him a $4-million buyout on a $15-million option), and also the only one they’ve committed to for 2020, as well (for $14-million). That’s a lot of money and term for a guy who, until about six weeks ago, looked a whole lot like a very expensive glove-first shortstop. If he can be the Tulo that everybody remembers, though, it changes how we’ll view the trade that brought him here in the coming years. There will be no pining for Jeff Hoffman or Miguel Castro, should they turn into big leaguers worth worrying about (a la Noah Syndergaard).

More importantly, I think he changes how ownership and the front office will — or at least ought to — look at this team and where they are on the win curve. A team poised to lose Jose Bautista, Edwin Enarnacion, and Michael Saunders, with Josh Donaldson as its only elite hitter remaining, is in a very different place than one where Tulo looks like he’s still a legit middle-of-the-order threat as well. It moves the needle that much closer towards, “Hey, we can really win right now,” and away from, “Let’s maybe think about how we’re going to get a bit younger.”

In other words, if Tulo’s going to be something more like the 155 wRC+ guy he’s been since his return, one could look at the roster after the season, and after those three guys have declared free agency, and still think the Jays are one bat away from legitimate contention. But if Tulo’s not going to be that guy, it’s a harder case to make, and harder to justify spending on any of them them, I think.

In other other words: go Tulo!

* * *

I’m possibly in the minority on this one, but I thought it was so great to see Josh Thole come up big with the bat on Sunday, going 2-for-3 with a walk and a pair of RBIs in a 6-1 win. And that’s because Josh Thole is fine. Utterly and indisputably fine. And just about the last thing anybody who follows this team needs to be upset about.

True, he can’t hold his own as a hitter at the big league level. But that’s true of the vast majority of backup catchers — and a hell of a lot of starters, as well. The fact that he can catch the knuckleball and do a good job of it (and no, an excess of passed balls don’t indicate that he’s bad at it — they indicate that it’s a damn hard pitch to catch), and be a guy R.A. Dickey is comfortable throwing to, offsets entirely the fact that Thole is certainly near the very bottom of backup catchers in terms of hitting prowess. But he’s not at the exact bottom, because backup catchers are bad!

Among catchers with at least 80 plate appearances this season (of which there are 57, so nearly two per team), Erik Kratz and Baltimore’s Caleb Joseph have been worse than Thole by wRC+. And by on-base percentage Thole now tops Kratz, Joseph, Yan Gomes, A.J. Pierzynski, Chris Gimenez, and Carlos Perez. By WAR he’s been better than Pierzynski, Kratz, Gomes, Gimenez, Joseph, Hank Conger, and Miguel Montero, too.

Is any of that anything to write home about? No. But what it means is that he’s not much worse than average for a backup catcher. Add in that Dickey likes throwing to him and he does a good job with the knuckleball and it’s clearly beyond fine that he’s on this roster. So relax.

* * *

Speaking of Dickey’s success, this is something interesting. The top American League pitchers by ERA over the past calendar year are: Marco Estrada, Danny Salazar, Jose Quintana, Masahiro Tanaka, Josh Tomlin, and R.A. Dickey. Two players — J.A. Happ and Johnny Cueto — who spent time in both leagues rank ahead of Dickey on this list, but still: that’s crazy. (Also: MarcoTheBest).

What Do You Meme?

Next Up…

It’s the All-Star Break! But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a whole bunch of Blue Jays action this week, as five All-Stars will represent the Blue Jays in San Diego. Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders are among the American League’s position players, while on the pitching side, the Jays send Marco Estrada (who is out injured and will not play), and Aaron Sanchez, who we learned today will pitch the fourth inning. Not bad!

Monday – Off Day

Tuesday – 87th MLB All-Star Game from San Diego – AL @ NL, 7:00 PM ET

Wednesday – Thursday – Off Day

Friday @ Oakland, 10:05 PM ET

Saturday – Sunday @ Oakland, 4:05 PM ET

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