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Photo Credit: STEVE NESIUS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Looking at what the Blue Jays lost in the off-season and what they gained

The Blue Jays lost three key players in free agency from last season’s 91-win team: Robbie Ray, Steven Matz, and Marcus Semien. They replaced those three players with Kevin Gausman, Yusei Kikuchi, and Matt Chapman.

The general consensus I have seen seems to be that overall the team is better as they will have full seasons from José Berríos, Alek Manoah, a healthy George Springer, and fewer question marks in the bullpen, but the three new players aren’t quite up to the same level of who they are replacing.

Which makes sense — it’s incredibly difficult to replace a Cy Young winner and someone who finished in the top three of MVP voting. Let’s dive into it and see what the numbers say.

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We’ll start with how these players performed last season…

2021 Season IP ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 WAR
Robbie Ray 193.1 2.84 3.69 11.54 2.42 3.9
Kevin Gausman 192.0 2.81 3.00 10.64 2.34 4.8
Steven Matz 150.2 3.82 3.79 8.60 2.57 2.8
Yusei Kikuchi 157.0 4.41 4.61 9.34 3.55 1.1

Ray is underrated by FanGraphs version of WAR. It’s a FIP based WAR so Ray doesn’t look as good as Gausman does, despite their stats being pretty similar. Per Baseball-Reference WAR, Ray has the edge 6.8 to 5.2. Given the ballparks Ray pitched in and the competition he had to face, it’s not a hot take to say Ray had the better season. That’s not to discredit what Gausman did. He had a tremendous season in his own right, and finished sixth in NL Cy Young.

With Matz and Kikuchi it’s a tale of two halves. Matz didn’t have a great first half of the year, likely due to pitching in minor league ballparks. His first-half ERA was 4.72, and threw July it was 4.58. Once the Blue Jays returned to Toronto Matz was incredible with an ERA of 2.69 in August and September. The poor first half masked some of his success in the second half, but overall he was very good and his production will be difficult to replace. Kikuchi was just the opposite. He had a strong first half pitching to a 3.48 ERA and was the Mariners representative at the All-Star Game. He then fell off a cliff in the second half of the season. He pitched just 58.2 innings and had a 5.98 ERA. Just like with Matz the bad second half masked the solid start he had to the season. All things considered, Matz definitely had the better season.

2021 Season Triple Slash HR wRC+ K% BB% WAR
Marcus Semien .265/.344/.538 45 131 20.2 9.1 6.6
Matt Chapman .210/.314/.403 27 101 32.5 12.9 3.4

Looking at the two hitters it’s no contest. Semien was spectacular last season. The power, the speed, the defence he did it all for the Blue Jays. Chapman had a fine season, the 27 home runs and the walk rate are nice, but he battled with a hip injury that clearly affected his ability to hit. The good news though is that his defence wasn’t affected, he play outstanding defence at third and was awarded his third Gold Glove Award.

Now let’s take look at these players’ ZiPS projections for 2022…

2022 Projections IP ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 WAR
Robbie Ray 167.0 3.46 3.65 11.77 2.75 3.3
Kevin Gausman 165.0 3.61 3.58 9.67 2.19 3.3
Steven Matz 145.0 4.11 4.25 8.09 2.86 1.7
Yusei Kikuchi 147.0 4.64 4.33 8.55 3.05 1.7

Well isn’t that interesting, they are projected for the exact same WAR. Gausman understandably takes a big step back moving from the friendly confines of Oracle Park to Rogers Centre. ZiPS sees Gausman maintaining a strong walk rate but sees a slight dip in strikeouts and an increase in home run rate. This again makes sense given the move to the tougher park and division. ZiPS expects Ray to keep the strides he made in his walk rate last season, while continuing to be an excellent strikeout artist. His ERA shoots up a bit but is still very good at 3.46. I think both starters are going to be very good for their new teams so this one’s a wash.

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Kikuchi, like Matz, is a groundball pitcher, and as left-handers, that means most of those ground balls are going to the left side, where the Blue Jays have a brand new and arguably the best defensive third basemen in baseball (though Nolan Arenado is no slouch in St. Louis either). That alone is going to be a big help for Kikuchi, turning a few more batted balls into outs will help limit guys on base and cut down on a few of those big innings. The ERA feels high for Kikuchi, I think he will end up a little closer to his FIP. Which isn’t amazing or anything, but the Blue Jays don’t need Kikuchi to be amazing.

They need him to be reliable and take the ball every fifth (or sixth) day. All Kikuchi needs to do is keep the team in the game and the offense will give them a chance to win. Matz is likely to have the better season of the two, ZiPS doesn’t see him having the same success as last season, but still sees him as a dependable fourth starter. Given the mechanical issues Kikuchi went through last season, it’s much more likely Matz exceeds these projections than Kikuchi does. Edge to Matz here.

2022 Projections Triple Slash HR wRC+ K% BB% WAR
Marcus Semien .269/.342/.491 32 127 18.7 9.8 5.5
Matt Chapman .239/.330/.485 32 117 28.6 11.1 4.6

Finally, we get to the hitters, and even with a bounce-back season expected from Chapman, this is an easy win for Semien. He projects to be almost a full win better than Chapman. Semien has proven in 2019 and 2021 that when he is healthy he is a perennial MVP candidate and he was paid accordingly.

Replacing what Semien brought last season was next to an impossible task but the Blue Jays came close. Chapman fills a big need for the Blue Jays at third base which allows them to slide Cavan Biggio back to second base where he is much more suited. Chapman looked healthy in Spring Training and I think he is in for a big season. However, a big season from Chapman probably isn’t in the MVP conversation, which is where Semien usually finds himself. This one goes to Semien.

The Blue Jays had some work to do this off-season, replacing the loss of three key players from last year. Gausman, Kikuchi, and Chapman all look like they could have really strong seasons in Toronto. However, on the whole, the production lost from Ray, Matz, and Semien was too much to replace. Even bringing all three of them back might not have resulted in the same production from 2021.

Still, with the other moves the Blue Jays have made and getting full seasons from key contributors, on paper this team looks much better than they did last season. Strap in, this season is going to be a fun one.

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