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A deep dive into the batting woes of the 2023 Blue Jays, possible DH options in free agency, and more

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Photo credit:© Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC
Bob Ritchie
7 months ago
The Toronto Blue Jays offence was less formidable in 2023 than in 2022 and 2021. Collectively, the hitters were not below average, but they were not top-tier. A particular cause of frustration for fans and other observers was the slippage in runs scored from MLB’s fourth-best in 2022 to a tie for fourteenth-highest in 2023.
For MLB teams looking to improve, any offseason presents challenges, including player availability and acquisition cost, be it the free-agent or trade markets. In addition to these tests, the Blue Jays will need to balance the gains from decisions to bolster defence (such as the additions of Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier and Matt Chapman) and the need to improve the offence, which often comes at the price of reduced defence.
I will cheat, avoid the defence question, and focus on the free-agent market for designated hitters. Jim Scott previously covered the designated hitter topic in his off-season spending series. However, this article will incorporate a deeper dive into the numbers.
Before I begin, I think it best to do the following:
  • Review the disappointing 2023 offensive performance by a select incumbent group.
  • Given the possible loss of Chapman, Brandon Belt, Kiermaier and Whit Merrifield as free agents, summarize their 2023 batting contributions. Replacing these bats will factor into the number and quality of hitters that Toronto will want to add this offseason.

The Batting Woes of the 2023 Toronto Blue Jays

How disappointing were Blue Jay hitters in 2023? The answer, as usual, can be found in a table. Please take a look at Table 1.
Since 2021, there has been an annual decline in runs, SLG, ISO and wOBA. Given that 2021 was unusual because Toronto played home games in three cities (Dunedin, Buffalo and Toronto), let’s focus on 2023 and 2022.
Okay, what was the most significant source of the reduction of Toronto’s hitting in 2023 compared to 2022? The answer: the underperformance of the primary incumbents. These incumbents were Alejandro Kirk, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen, George Springer, Chapman, Santiago Espinal and Vlad Guererro Jr. I excluded Merrifield because he was not a Blue Jay for the entirety of the 2022 campaign.
How did I determine the impact of the incumbents’ batting decline from 2022? I substituted the 2022 wRC+ figures for the 2023 marks of the noted incumbents. The result? Toronto’s 2023 107 wRC+ (T7) elevates to 117, which would be MLB’s third-highest mark in 2023. Therefore, the 2023 batting performance of the incumbents, which accounted for 62% of Toronto’s 2023 plate appearances, was a significant reason for Toronto’s disappointing batting results.
Expecting a player to replicate their 2022 campaign in 2023 would be unrealistic. However, it is essential to acknowledge that the incumbents, as a group (especially Kirk, Springer and Guererro Jr.), underperformed in 2023. Therefore, if the Blue Jays want to be a top-tier hitting team in 2024, they will need a return or near return to form by the returning incumbents.

The Contributions of Belt, Chapman, Kiermaier and Merrifield

Suppose Toronto’s notable free agents listed above do not return next season. Given the need to improve the offence, the Blue Jays should, at a minimum, replace the latter group’s 2023 110 wRC+ (weighted by plate appearances).
If Belt, Chapman, Kiermaier and Merrifield do not return to the fold in 2024, Toronto needs replacements for the designated hitter position, third base, left field and second base. I have assumed that Varsho is Toronto’s everyday centerfielder for the next campaign. Furthermore, the Blue Jays may fill the void at third base with Addison Barger or Orelvis Martinez. Alternatively, Blue Jays’ Management may make Davis Schneider their full-time second baseman.
However, it would be prudent for Management to plan for an internal solution at third or second base, not both. Therefore, for the sake of argument, I assume that Toronto will acquire players to address the third base, left field and designated hitter vacancies.
Furthermore, the hitting prowess of the noted replacements at designated hitter, third base, and left field do not all have to be top-tier hitters. For example, let’s walk into Crazy Town, as suggested by Jim Scott over lunch. Suppose the Blue Jays acquired Juan Soto and his career 154 wRC+ to play left field. I would suggest that the need for a top-tier hitter at third base or designated hitter has lessened with a Soto acquisition.
Let’s talk about the high-profile free-agent designated hitters: J.D. Martinez, Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Soler.

Correlations with Runs and Various Metrics

Okay, a little diversion. As I have noted, scoring runs was challenging for the 2023 Blue Jays. Hence, what batting metrics are closely aligned with run scoring? The answer is as follows:
  • SLG (0.84)
  • wOBA (0.83)
  • ISO (0.70)
  • OBP (0.69)
  • HR (0.59)
  • BA (0.35)
The figures in brackets are the correlations (R Squared) between runs scored and the noted metric. I determined the correlations from the ten most recent 162-game seasons (2013-2019 and 2021-2023).
A strong, positive correlation exists between the first four metrics and runs scored. Therefore, to predict a player’s future contribution to run scoring, I will incorporate the first four metrics in the analysis to follow.
Let’s come back to the 2023 underperformance of the noted incumbents. If these players had performed as they did in 2022, Toronto’s SLG would have risen from 0.417 (MLB’s 13th best) to 0.434 (#7). Furthermore, the Blue Jays’ wOBA would have ranked 5th (0.332), higher than the actual 0.323 (#10). Hence, given the correlation between run-scoring and SLG and run-scoring and wOBA, the underperformance of the named incumbents negatively affected Toronto’s 2023 run output.
Lastly, in 1,985 plate appearances, the Belt-Chapman-Kiermaier-Merrifield ensemble produced SLG and wOBA marks of 0.424 and 0.328, respectively. Therefore, a designated hitter who could generate SLG and wOBA scores that exceeded 0.424 and 0.328 would benefit Toronto’s 2024 offence.
Before digging into the data, below are essential details concerning each designated hitter candidate.

J.D. Martinez

  • 2024 will be his age-36 season, and he is strictly a designated hitter.
  • His 2023 SLG was 0.572, and his wOBA was 0.369.
  • He is a career 132 wRC+ hitter. Against LHPs, his wRC+ is 151, 125 versus RHPs.
  • Martinez was below average on the basepaths in 2023 (-2.9 UBR), and his Sprint Speed was in the 19th percentile.
  • His K% jumped from 2022’s 24.3% to 31.1%, which could be a sign of the impact of age.
  • However, there is a factor to counter the age concern.
  • Martinez’s xSLG on pitches with a minimum velocity of 95 mph was at the 82nd percentile during the 2021-2023 seasons. Belt’s xSLG was 19th. Hence, despite his age, Martinez continues to make hard contact on high-velocity pitches.
  • Making hard contact on high-velocity pitches is a valuable trait in a hitter. First, because more and more pitchers throw high-velocity pitches. Second, a batter who can hit high velocity will likely have more success later in the game when the flame-throwing relievers enter the game than a batter who struggles with speed.

Rhys Hoskins

  • Hoskins missed the 2023 season due to a torn ACL. Accordingly, there is a risk that he may not immediately regain his pre-2023 form.
  • He may be willing to accept a pillow deal to re-establish himself as a very good hitter (career 126 wRC+).
  • Teams may recruit him as a first baseman, but he may accept a role as a team’s primary designated hitter.
  • Hoskins’s 2022 SLG was 0.462, his wOBA was 0.345.
  • His career wRC+ splits are 146 versus LHPs and 118 when facing RHPs.
  • 2023 will be his age-31 season.
  • He is a terrible defender, with a career minus 7 DRS and 11 OAA at first base.
  • Hoskins is a poor baserunner (career minus 5.5 UBR) with 19th percentile Sprint Speed.
  • During the 2021-2023 period, his xSLG was 70th percentile on pitches with a minimum velocity of 95 mph.

Jorge Soler

  • The 2024 season will be Soler’s age-32 season.
  • He played 241 innings in right field and is a career minus 49 DRS. Some MLB observers believe Soler will soon become a full-time designated hitter.
  • His 2023 SLG was 0.512, and his wOBA was 0.361.
  • Soler is a career 112 wRC+ hitter, but posted a 126 wRC+ in 2023.
  • Concerning career splits, Soler has a 129 wRC+ versus LHPs and a 107 against RHPs.
  • On the basepaths, he posted a -0.7 UBR last season, and his Sprint Speed is in the 32nd percentile.
  • During the 2021-2023 seasons, Soler posted a 96th percentile xSLG on pitches with a minimum velocity of 95 mph.

The Data

Concerning the metrics with a strong, positive correlation with run-scoring, Table 2 shows the percentile rankings for the noted players.
Table 3 presents the OPS and xOPS of the hitters. The OPS-xOPS data can be informative. For example, a hitter with a significant OPS-xOPS difference may have benefited from unsustainable good fortune. Therefore, we may see a decline in OPS performance in the future.
Alternatively, a large xOPS-OPS delta may indicate that Bad Lady Luck has plagued the batter, and better OPS days may lie ahead. Here is an interesting note. In 2023, Belt’s OPS was 0.857. However, his xOPS was 0.769. If he returns next season, Belt may experience an OPS regression.
The highlights of Table 2 and Table 3 are as follows:
  • During the 2021-2023 period, Martinez consistently posted excellent SLG, wOBA and ISO numbers. His 2023 OBP slipped due to the elevated K%.
  • Hoskins, in his 2021 and 2022 campaigns, also produced good SLG, wOBA and ISO figures.
  • Soler has been inconsistent compared to Martinez and Hoskins. His excellent 2023 SLG, wOBA, and ISO marks boosted his three-year numbers.
  • All three batters have not generated OPS numbers fueled by good luck. In fact, Lady Luck has not been kind to Soler.
Leaving aside contract terms, my preferences are Martinez, Hoskins, and Soler, ranked first to third.
  • Concerning SLG, wOBA and ISO, Martinez has been more consistent than the others.
  • Also, he has the highest career wRC+ versus RHPs.
  • This is an essential consideration because, of the 108,131 plate appearances by RHBs last season, 67% were against RHPs.
  • When he played, Hoskins has been more consistent than Soler in the SLG, wOBA and ISO metrics.

Projecting the Contracts of Designated Hitter Options

I put together a simple model (Table 4) to assist my evaluation of suggested contracts for free agents. The model incorporates factors in other models, including $/fWAR, the non-linearity of $/fWAR, and the aging curve.
Table 5 summarizes what I would pay for the three designated hitters. The table also shows the estimates from MLBTR and FanGraphs. It should be noted that I used a 2024 2.0 fWAR for Martinez instead of Steamer’s 0.5. Why the change? Because Martinez produced a 2.2 fWAR in 113 games for the 2023 Dodgers. I think Martinez will have a 2024 fWAR closer to 2.2 than 0.5.
A reasonable contract for Martinez and the others may be higher or lower than I have indicated. For example, a one-year, USD 16 million deal with Martinez may be worthwhile for the Blue Jays. A two-year, USD 25 million Martinez contract may also be worth Toronto’s consideration. However, I feel that one-year deals for Hoskins and Soler are preferable to multi-year contracts. In the case of Hoskins, the concern is the injury-recovery risk. Regarding Soler, the worry relates to his relative inconsistency.

The Last Word

Toronto’s run-scoring was an issue last season. One source for the decline in run scoring was the underperformance of the incumbents in 2023. While I believe the returning incumbents will bounce back in 2024, Toronto’s Management should focus on adding bats to fill openings, including the primary designated hitter.
I examined the candidacies of Martinez, Hoskins and Soler to fill the designated hitter vacancy. All three players should produce above-average metrics that correlate with run scoring. However, Martinez would be my first choice, but as Jim Scott often (okay, incessantly) says, it all depends on the price.

ARTICLE PRESENTED BY BETANO

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