Photo Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

MLB’s Statcast Podcast Talks Oh, Donaldson, Grichuk, and the Underrated Blue Jays

Statcast likes the Blue Jays! Or, at least, it likes some of the Blue Jays. And the guys who podcast about Statcast, Mike Petriello and Matt Meyers of MLB.com’s Statcast Podcast, seem to like them, too! Or, at least, they seem to like them a little bit more now than they did before they started to have a good think about  what the Jays’ 2018 roster will actually look like.

This, if you’ve read my thoughts on the Jays and Statcast in this space before, is perhaps not surprising. In fact, it may not be so much that the league’s all-encompassing data tracking system likes the Jays, but that the Jays have pushed especially hard for hitters that grade out well by things like exit velocity, expected weighted on base (xwOBA), or barrels per plate appearance (Brls/PA). Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernández, who get shout-outs from Matt and Mike, certainly fit that bill. And though he’s not mentioned, Kendrys Morales does as well. (Big year upcoming for the player with the second biggest gap between his xwOBA and his actual wOBA! Er… maybe? Though, actually, if you look at the top of the xwOBA-wOBA leaderboard, you see a lot of guys who might’ve turned many a double into a singles, so let’s not get our hopes too high. Not that yours were!)

Anywho… however the Jays are doing it, apparently Meyers and Petriello are… not hating it as much as they could! There are a number of reasons for that, but one really, really big one. Here’s how their conversation, which began with a look at the Jays-friendly Steamer projections at Fangraphs, went:

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MATT MEYERS: What is it about that projections are — or at least this projection — are so psyched about?

MIKE PETRIELLO: Josh Donaldson?

MM: I guess he’s still pretty good!

MP: I had him as my number one overall third baseman, and that was a little controversial. But he is an MVP calibre player when he’s healthy.

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MM: And in the second half of last year, he was as good as his MVP year.

MP: Russell Martin could still have a bounce back. Justin Smoak had a fantastic year last year. They’ve actually really improved their outfield, right? Randal Grichuk still is really interesting. I know Granderson was terrible when he got traded to the Dodgers, but he was really good with the Mets before that. Their outfield is so much better than it was over the previous year. And the bullpen, I think, is interesting. Roberto Osuna is one of the best closers in baseball who absolutely nobody talks about. He’s like a top five closer for me. And they actually just added Seung Hwan Oh, who you might remember in 2016 was really, really good for the Cardinals.

MM: The Final Boss!

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MP: The Final Boss. And then in 2017 he was not so good with the Cardinals, and then reportedly had a deal with the Texas Rangers a couple weeks ago that fell through — and that usually doesn’t give you a lot of confidence about especially an older player. But he’s with the Blue Jays right now on a one-year deal — there’s no risk to this.

MM: I kinda love him as a bounce back candidate. I’m going purely based on velo and expected weighted on base. I will admit I wasn’t scouting him to see where his location was, and obviously something went wrong with the Rangers for the deal to fall apart — maybe something with the medicals — who knows, it’s pure speculation. But his velo was identical on his fastball and slider last year, from the previous year — between 92 and 93 on the fastball, 85-86 for the slider. Nothing crazy there. The ERA went from 1.92 to 4.1, and the FIP — fielding independent pitching, you know, based on strikeouts, home runs, and walks, on the ERA scale — went from 2.13 to 4.44. That’s bad! But! Expected weighted on base last year was .292, weighted on base was .338. So clearly there’s a disconnect there. Expected weighted on base brings in quality of contact, strikeouts and walks. That leads me to believe that, even if he’s not going to be as dominant as he was in 2016, that there’s still an effective relief pitcher in there.

MP: You’re right. Because he was really, really good that first year, and I was kind of surprised to see everybody putting so much emphasis on last year — unless there’s something with his health. Which, as you said, the velocity was there, so it doesn’t seem that there is. I do think a big part of the Blue Jays’ outlook is their starting rotation. They need Aaron Sanchez to be the 2016 version, not the injured 2017 version. They need Marco Estrada to look more like he did the previous year — which I think he will, because the outfield defence is going to be so much better. The problem is that Marcus Stroman is already dealing with some shoulder problems. Gregor Chisholm, our MLB.com beat reporter, reported earlier that he has shoulder inflammation, there’s no timetable yet for his spring debut, and that Stroman would not commit to being ready for opening day — which is problematic, I guess.

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MM: Yeah, I mean, the good thing about that is, assuming it’s not serious, with all the off days early in the season, you can usually get — if you basically recalibrate your prep and take a few days off in spring training, you can basically get through missing one start. It’s like, ten days into the season, you’ve only really missed one start. Before we get too worried about it, I’d like to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Sticking with the Blue Jays: you mentioned Grichuk before. So, last year, we looked at barrels per plate appearance — long time listeners will know that a “barrel” is basically Statcast’s definition of a well-hit, perfectly struck batted ball; something with a high likelihood of being an extra base hit (Aaron Judge led the majors last year with 86 barrels). Last year barrels per plate appearance, minimum 50 batted balls, number eight? Randal Grichuk, 9.5 barrels per plate appearance. For those that have been following Statcast since the beginning in 2015, the first year, he was kind of a Statcast darling, because he was one of the first people that leaped out when you looked at the exit velocity numbers, like, “Wow, this guy hits the ball really hard, I’m going to reconsider what I think about this guy.” Well, tied with Grichuk on that leaderboard, or just a step above him by some decimal points, at 9.5 barrels per plate appearance, Teocar Hernández. Right now an extra outfielder for the Blue Jays, came over in the Liriano trade last year from the Astros. He’s an interesting guy. So when I think of how the Blue Jays might exceed expectations, you see someone with that kind of batted ball quality — granted, he strikes out a lot, he did a lot of his damage in September, and in many ways the perfect comp for him is Randal Grichuk. But he’s one to watch for.

MP: I’ve always found him interesting. And yeah, the Blue Jay outfield is deeper than it was. Outfield was an enormous problem for them last year. They still have Steve Pearce kicking around. They need Justin Smoak to kind of repeat what he had. I will say that I’m actually, just having had this conversation with you, more intrigued by the Blue Jays than I was an hour ago. Because I hadn’t really thought about them as being a serious contender, but now that I’m thinking about the American League, it’s like, yeah, Blue Jays, Twins, and Angels — that’s, like, my tier right there, for that second wild card.

MM: And I think that — you mentioned Donaldson before — people kind of forget how good he is.

MP: So good! So good!

MM: I’m sure many of you saw that video that was floating around the other day of Joey Votto at Reds camp talking about hitting, and he basically invoked Donaldson as his perfect swing and perfect mechanics, and just a good reminder of just like — he is fun to watch hit.

MP: He is so fun to watch hit.

Josh Donaldson is indeed extremely fun to watch hit.

So… all that’s pretty intriguing! I will grant that I had high hopes for Kendrys in 2017, largely because of this kind of stuff, and that obviously didn’t work out so well (though it’s worth noting that many forget that he dealt with a hamstring strain in May, which didn’t require a DL stint by maybe hindered him through the season nonetheless — especially when it comes to the turning doubles into singles thing that I mentioned above).

And then there’s Oh. Randal Grichuk mentioned on a Jays radio broadcast this week that he felt that his teammate with the 2017 Cardinals was just catching a bit more of the plate in 2017 than he did the year before. Over at Fangraphs today, Stephen Loftus has gone under the hood to really give us some good data that bears that out.

Oh seems to have inadvertantly changed his mechanics. In 2016, Oh got more extension (5.77 feet in 2016 vs. 5.55 feet in 2017) on his slider and released it at a slightly higher point (5.46 feet in 2016 vs. 5.32 feet in 2017). The same was true of his changeup, which featured more extension (5.87 feet in 2016 vs. 5.71 feet in 2017) and higher releases (5.62 feet in 2016 vs. 5.5 feet in 2017) in 2016.

So basically, it looks like Oh stopped getting on top of his pitches, leading to less drop. This left more pitches up in the zone leading to fewer whiffs and grounders. If Oh manages to find his 2016 delivery, he may see his 2016 results return. Even amongst his 2017 results, there was reason for Oh to be hopeful. He lowered his average exit velocity (85.1 mph in 2017 vs. 87.5 in 2016), while his walk rate remained fairly similar. The Blue Jays have every reason to believe that Oh could return with a slight change.