Cavan Biggio settling into his reserve role with Blue Jays
Photo credit:David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
By Thomas Hall1 month ago
Finding your identity at the major-league level can be incredibly difficult, especially when you’re not playing every day. While that’s been a struggle in the past for Cavan Biggio, he appears far more comfortable coming off the bench these days in his fifth big-league season.
There was a time, of course, when the 28-year-old expected more out of his role. But that was when he first arrived to the Toronto Blue Jays as a rookie in 2019. He blasted 16 home runs, slashed .234/.364/.429 with a 115 wRC+ and displayed impeccable knowledge of the strike zone, walking to a 16.5 per cent clip. That made him worth 2.7 fWAR over 100 games.
It was a terrific introduction to the major leagues – one the organization hoped he could replicate and build off as the club’s everyday second baseman. And he did, at least during the following year, hitting .250/.375/.432 with eight homers and a 122 wRC+ in 59 contests during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.
The two seasons that followed in 2021 and 2022 were a completely different story, though.
Biggio’s offensive production (.213/.320/.353, 90 wRC+) declined considerably while his strikeout rate (27.3 per cent) trended in the opposite direction, reducing his value to 1.2 fWAR. That has seen him transition from a full-time role to a part-time one over the last three campaigns, including 2023.
Unlike the previous two, however, things have played out a little differently this season. Despite not even being above replacement level, as evidenced by his zero fWAR rating in 70 games, the left-hander has looked dramatically more confident in his utility role off the bench, particularly over the last few months.
Take Monday night’s series opener, for example. The Blue Jays were held to just two hits by the Cleveland Guardians’ pitching staff through the first seven innings. Then in the eighth inning, after starter Gavin Williams – who struck out 12 – departed, Biggio showed his matureness in what proved to be a pivotal matchup against reliever Enyel De Los Santos.
After seeing two straight changeups, Biggio sat back on the third and crushed it 415 feet over the outfield wall in right-centre, delivering a massive two-run shot that ultimately earned his team a 3-1 victory at Progressive Field.
With it, the 6-foot-2 lefty registered his eighth round-tripper of the season, two ahead of Alejandro Kirk for ninth-most among Blue Jays hitters. Who could’ve predicted that outcome heading into the year? If you raised your hand, you’re probably lying.
Not only did Biggio come through at the plate, but he also pulled off an inning-ending double-play by himself in the bottom half of the eighth. And he likely saved the game by doing so.
After one run had already been scored, trimming Toronto’s lead to 2-1, Steven Kwan stepped to the plate with runners on the corners and only one out. But thanks to Tim Mayza, a soft grounder was hit to Biggio, who tagged out Bo Naylor and stepped on first to end the inning – a 32.1 per cent win probability swing in favour of the Blue Jays.
Performances like this have suddenly become a regular occurrence for Biggio. Regardless if he’s starting in the infield, outfield or coming off the bench as a pinch hitter, he has made positive impacts dating back to his game-winning three-run blast against the Minnesota Twins on June 11.
Since then, the fifth-round selection from 2016 has taken off with his bat, slashing .268/.350/.493 with four home runs and 14 RBIs over his last 30 games. As difficult as it might be to believe, his 134 wRC+ is tied with Danny Jansen for the team lead during this encouraging span.
That level of progression seemed nearly impossible based on the horrific sample size Biggio produced during his first 40 contests, which included a .172/.252/.323 slash line and a 60 wRC+. But among the adjustments that have sparked this current stretch, none have been more meaningful than the one made to his plate approach.
Biggio is widely known for his exceptional batter’s eye, which has often been more accurate than most home-plate umpires’ strike zones. While there can be advantages to that, there can also be disadvantages, like becoming too passive in the batter’s box – something the former top prospect can relate to.
As such, there have been several occasions where he’s been stuck between a rock and a hard place, debating whether he should let it fly or lay off borderline pitches around the edges. More often than not, though, that has resulted in the dilemma of being too patient or overly aggressive.
Locating the appropriate balance of that scale has been the most challenging hurdle. Or, at least, it was until something clicked two months ago in that matchup against the Twins.
Thanks to that breakthrough, Biggio is hunting damage earlier in counts rather than letting hittable pitches fly past, and that’s boosted his run production while lowering his strikeout totals. It also has him walking a bit more versus the first two months of the schedule (7.8% to 8.8%).
Now that Biggio has found that ideal mix of passive and aggressive, he hasn’t been swinging and missing nearly as much, dramatically increasing the number of balls in play. Thus, skyrocketing his contact metrics into previously unchartered territory.
The versatile lefty has overcome the prolonged woes that plagued him across the first two months of 2023, excelling to an 80.6 per cent contact rate and a 93.9 per cent in-zone contact rate – second on the Blue Jays behind Kirk (94.4%) – since Jun. 11.
If not for those figures sitting roughly 10 per cent lower prior to that point, this surge would’ve likely been significant enough to result in career highs on the season for both categories rather than just his Z-contact percentage (88.4%).
But it’s not just about how much contact Biggio is making. It’s also important to note how his batted balls are put in play. As a historical fly-ball hitter, little has changed in that regard. What has, however, is the number of ground balls he’s producing, which came in on the high side (43.6%) prior to Jun. 11.
By making a slight mechanical adjustment, increasing his average launch angle by a few tics to 17 degrees, he has reduced his ground-ball output by just over 10 per cent and upped his line-drive rate by a similar percentage since then.
Since Biggio’s quality-of-contact metrics have remained unaltered throughout this season, with his hard-hit rate hovering in the 35-37 per cent range, it is critical to keep balls off the ground as much as possible. And as of late, that is precisely what he has done.
These physical and mental adjustments have quietly transformed Biggio into a productive reserve performer, particularly versus four-seamers, as he’s gone from a -1.8 run value to a +3.6 in the last two months. That includes the 95.5 m.p.h. heater that he destroyed off Twins reliever Emilio Pagan in June for the longest (423 feet) and most impactful home run of his career, which kicked off this resurgence tour.
As productive as he’s been, though, there has never been more competition for playing time than right now, following Davis Schneider’s explosive MLB debut. With nine hits and two home runs in only four career games, the 24-year-old is already commanding an extended run in the majors amid Bo Bichette’s IL stint, especially since he also comes with defensive versatility.
Biggio still holds an important role, just as he showed Monday night in Cleveland. But he’ll need to maintain this current level to prevent others from eating into his playing time – or taking it entirely as a potential non-tender candidate this winter.
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