The Blue Jays would never say it, but one of the reasons they brought in Steve Pearce last winter was surely because they thought he was going to take away at-bats from Justin Smoak. Prior to 2017, Smoak, despite being a switch hitter, and naturally a right-handed hitter, had never been anywhere close to a league average bat against left-handed pitching (save for a minuscule sample of 40 PA in 2015). And though obviously the club had some faith in him, and it turned out that they obviously had other uses for Pearce, surely they were cognizant of the fact that Smoak might end up unplayable, especially against lefties, so having a genuine lefty masher like Pearce around made some sense.
Why do I bring this up? Because I can’t help but wonder if something similar is happening under our noses as the Jays put together their roster for 2018. (Or at least something more to do with righty-lefty splits than we’re often considering).
As much as Monday’s Curtis Granderson signing was considered in the context of the outfield, and as much as Yangervis Solarte is looked at (rightly) as cover for the infield and potentially a piece that could be used in the outfield, there are other ways that their skills could be applied to this roster that I don’t think are getting enough attention.
What if, for example, we saw one of them a lot at DH?
Sure, the Jays already have a DH in the form of Kendrys Morales, but like Smoak was a year ago, Morales is a switch hitter who may have a serious platoon issue.
Let’s consider some numbers…
Believe it or not, against left-handed pitching over the last two seasons, Morales has been ridiculously good, producing wRC+ marks of 148 and 165.
Those are the two highest marks of his career in that particular split, with the next highest being a 121 wRC+ back in 2013 when he was with Seattle. That being the case, I’m not sure we can outright say that he’s merely a lefty masher himself just yet, but over his last 330 PA against LHP he’s definitely trended that way. His strikeout rate has gone up from 14.5% in 2015 to 19.5% and 21.2% in 2016 and 17, while his slugging percentage has grown from .412 to .560 to .598 over that span. Seems he’s selling out for power a bit more, and it’s working.
Like… really working.
Among 149 hitters over the last two seasons with at least 200 plate appearances from the right side against left-handed pitching, Morales’s 155 wRC+ ranks 13th, just behind Mike Trout.
In 2017 alone his 165 wRC+ ranked 16th in baseball among right handed hitters with at least 100 PA against LHP, just ahead of George Springer and José Altuve, and just behind Josh Donaldson.
Even add in his less-than-stellar 2015, where he produced a 109 wRC+ in the split, and he gets just edged out of the top 30, right behind Carlos Correa, Miguel Sano, and Nolan Arenado, and just ahead of Edwin Encarnacion.
I am not even joking!
But… uh… what this all means, of course, is that, given his weak numbers overall, Kendrys’ work from the other side — from the left side against right-handed pitching — has been somewhat terrible. Or at least it was in 2017, where he sunk to just a 77 wRC+ vs RHP in 471 plate appearances.
Interestingly, over the course of his career, this has generally been the better split for him. Just not so much in the last four seasons, where his 145 wRC+ in 2015 is by far the high point, with a mark of 64 in 2014, and a 94 mark in 2016, going along with last year’s 77.
So what do we make of all this? Well, a few things. For starters, the fact that Morales can still be elite from the right side hopefully bodes well for his ability to get it back together from the left. There is certainly a whole lot more to like about him than a whole hell of a lot of Blue Jays fans believe. And, as I’ve noted before, if you look at his exit velocities, they are also elite: according to Statcast there were 284 players with at least 200 “batted ball events” in 2017, and by average exit velocity Morales ranked 9th — directly ahead of Miguel Cabrera, Manny Machado, Marcell Ozuna, J.D. Martinez, and Josh Donaldson, behind only Ryan Zimmerman, Paul Goldschmidt, Giancarlo Stanton, Khris Davis, Miguel Sano, Joey Gallo, Nelson Cruz, and Aaron Judge.
That said, those are his overall exit velocities, and it seems likely that for Kendrys they’re being padded somewhat by his success against left-handers. We have a better idea of what kind of hitter Statcast shows us he is from either side if we look at xSTATS, which does break down his numbers into splits. xSTATS uses data from Statcast to tell us what a player’s season “should” have looked like by taking the way he struck the ball (his exit velocity and launch angle) in each of his batted ball events and assigning it a value based on what the data tells us about the typical outcomes of balls hit in such a way. And according to it there is a clear weakness in Morales’s 2017 splits against right-handed pitching. From the left side against righties he would have been expected to produce just a .265/.326/.484 line last season, which is significantly better than his pitiful real life .216/.280/.400, but still isn’t great.
In other words, though reason for optimism is real, it’s far from a sure bet that he’s not lost the plot as a left-handed hitter. And that, friends, is an important and overlooked aspect of the moves for Granderson and Solarte. Like Pearce they’ll have utility regardless, but also like Pearce, one of them could certainly be here with a view to Kendrys losing some of his at-bats against right-handers.
Solarte vs. RHP over the last three years: 115 wRC+, 122 wRC+, 108 wRC+.
Granderson vs. RHP over the last three years: 150 wRC+, 121 wRC+, 114 wRC+.
But let’s move away from so strictly looking at this through the DH prism. Even if Morales is good — which he might be! — and he’s not the one these guys end up taking at-bats from, they’re still really useful pieces. They’ll play a whole bunch — as they should.
We talk a lot about the way that the Blue Jays, through their small moves so far, have made nice gains in terms of both infield and outfield depth. Usually, though, we talk about this in terms of having having big league calibre bodies around to raise the floor and to play in case of injury. But this is a roster that in 2017 finished 23rd in team wRC+ against right-handed pitching, producing just a 90 wRC+ as a group. Last year the club gave 525 PA against right-handers to José Bautista who produced an 83 wRC+ in the split, another 471 to Morales and his 77 mark, 381 to Ryan Goins who produced a 70 wRC+, 477 to Kevin Pillar who was at 64 wRC+ in the split, 223 to Darwin Barney whose mark was 52, plus another 367 combined to Chris Coghlan, Luke Maile, Miguel Montero, Rob Refsnyder, Michael Saunders, and Richard Urena, who ranged from 58 to -11.
Solarte and Granderson can’t cover all those at-bats, but they can cover a whole lot of them, and in doing so will represent a much more serious upgrade than I think most realize. In 2017 batters stepped into the box 185,295 times, and in 137,558 of them they were facing a right-handed pitcher. That’s 74% of the time. Getting better in that split is vital if the Jays are to have any hope of contention in 2018, and somewhat quietly I think they’ve taken a couple big steps toward that. They may not look like big splashy, sexy additions, but this is genuine, tangible improvement in an area that matters significantly. THAT’LL FUCKIN’ DO.