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Toronto Blue Jays’ Hitting: There Are Reasons for Optimism

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Photo credit:Jon Blacker / Associated Press
Bob Ritchie
2 months ago
Thus far in the 2024 season, Toronto’s hitters (collectively) have been underwhelming. After the May 11 game against Minnesota, Toronto’s wRC+ was 99 (one percent below average, tied for MLB’s 17th-highest). However, there are reasons for optimism as the rest of the 2024 campaign unfolds. Let’s take a look.
I have organized the article into the following sections:
  • The primary underperformers
  • Pre-season projections for the underperformers
  • Toronto’s rest of season projections
  • Suggested changes

The Primary Underperformers

Before the 2024 season began, MLB observers typically identified three Blue Jays who needed to bounce back from disappointing 2023 campaigns: George Springer, Vlad Guerrero Jr., and Alejandro Kirk. Bo Bichette is another player who is essential to Toronto’s offence. For simplicity, let’s call these four players “Springer & Co.” Table 1 shows that all four have underperformed vis-à-vis 2023 boxscore numbers and 2024 pre-season estimates.
These hitters account for 40% of all 2024 Blue Jays’ plate appearances and have posted an 83 wRC+. The other Blue Jays’ batters have generated a 109 wRC+. For some perspective, if the two groups were MLB teams, 83 wRC+ and 109 wRC+ would rank 27th and T9, respectively. It is difficult for a team to be better than average if batters have made 40% of all plate appearances with the 4th-lowest wRC+.

Pre-season Projections for the Underperformers

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
– George E.P. Box, Statistician
MLB observers use many publicly available forecast services to project future player performance. One of the better-known is the Zymborski Projection System (“ZiPS”). For an explanation of the basics of ZiPS, please click on the link. ZiPS DC projections are ZiPS estimates pro-rated to Depth Charts playing time.
Regarding Springer & Co., the projected pre-season wRC+ numbers for its members, reflected in Table 1, were reasonable.
  • Springer’s estimated 2024 111 wRC+ was in-line with his 2023 xwRC+. Also, the 111 wRC+ is lower than his career 130 wRC+, which is unsurprising given Springer’s age (34).
  • Bichette’s 2024 121 wRC+ forecast is similar to his career mark (127), 2023 wRC+ (125) and xwRC+ (134) scores.
  • Guerrero Jr.’s 133 wRC+ is consistent with his career wRC+ (130) and his 2023 144 xwRC+.
  • Kirk was expected to generate a 2024 wRC+ of 110. This figure resembles his career scores (114) and 2023 xwRC+ (104).
The ZiPS DC 2024 estimated wRC+ figures for the Blue Jays were similar to other projection models, including Steamer. Hence, the ZiPS DC 2024 wRC+ forecast for Springer & Co. was reasonable.


Rest of Season Projections

Some MLB observers assume that what happens in the early part of a season will continue throughout the rest of the campaign. However, that assumption is not supported by data. Please consider Table 2.
I started compiling the article’s data after Toronto’s May 8 game. At that point, the Blue Jays played 37 games in the 2024 campaign. I decided to examine how the 2023 campaign unfolded for Blue Jay players after Game 37. The reader will note the following:
  • Brandon Belt, Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen, Springer, and Santiago Espinal produced wRC+ numbers between Game 38 and 162 that were at least 50 points higher than their WRC+ scores before Game 38.
  • Bichette, Matt Chapman and Guerrero Jr. generated wRC+ numbers at least 35 points lower between Game 38 and 162 than before Game 38.
The reader can see that a batter’s batting performance can significantly change after a season’s quarter-pole. Let’s look at the rest-of-season (“RoS”) 2024 numbers for most Blue Jays. The projections are reason for optimism. I should note that FanGraphs updates the ZiPS DC RoS projections daily.


Toronto’s Rest of Season Projections

The metric I selected from the ZiPS DC RoS projections was wOBA. For an explanation of wOBA and xwOBA, please click on the links. Behold Table 3. The highlights are as follows:
  • Bichette, Guerrero Jr., Kevin Kiermaier, Kirk, Springer and Daniel Vogelbach are projected to increase their respective wOBA numbers by at least 25 points.
  • The wOBA figures of Jansen and Davis Schneider are estimated to decline by at least 49 points.
I translated the RoS projected wOBA numbers at the team level into the corresponding wRC+ score. The result is a 115 wRC+ for the balance of the 2024 campaign. After the games of May 11, a 115 wRC+ would be tied for MLB’s fifth-highest mark. The 115 wRC+ forecast is a reason for optimism.
Is it outlandish to expect a team’s wRC+ to change significantly after Game 37 of a given season?
The 2023 Blue Jays produced the same after Game 37. Their wRC+ was 108 from Opening Day to Game 37 and 107 for the rest of the season. However, some notable changes occurred after Game 37 of the 2023 season.
  • Minnesota had a 90 wRC+ after 37 games and posted a 114 wRC+ in Games 38 to 162.
  • Tampa generated a 111 wRC+ after Game 37; it was 140 before.
  • Boston’s wRC+ slipped from 111 before Game 38 to 96 after Game 37.
  • Arizona had a 107 wRC+ before Game 38, and a 94 wRC+ after.
Therefore, quarter-pole results do not necessarily continue during the final three-quarters of the horse race.
Yes, all models are wrong. However, from a batting perspective, based on ZiPS DC’s track record, I am optimistic about the balance of Toronto’s 2024 campaign. However, there are some changes that Management should make to the lineup in the interim.


Suggested Changes

Although I believe Toronto will improve its hitting over the balance of the 2024 campaign, some short-term changes should be implemented to bolster the hitting. Before listing those changes, I will provide some context.
  • Currently, the MLB Average wOBA is 0.310. Kiermaier’s projected rest-of-season wOBA is 0.298. ZiPS DC projects a 0.332 over the same period for Daulton Varsho.
  • From 2023 to May 11, 2024, Varsho’s OAA/400 was 22, and Kiermaier’s was 20. Furthermore, Kiermaier’s DRS/1200 was 21, trailing Varsho’s 41. All figures pertain to the centerfielder’s role.
  • Therefore, Varsho is the superior defender in center field.
  • Kiermaier is projected to have 127 fewer plate appearances than Varsho, negatively affecting Kiermaier’s fWAR. However, despite the centerfield fWAR bump, Kiermaier’s projected fWAR is 1.8, lower than Varsho (2.9), Schneider, and Springer, both at 2.3.
  • Schneider’s projected wOBA is 0.346. His bat needs to be in the lineup for every game.
  • Vogelbach is a one-dimensional player who, partly because of limited playing time and sub-par performance, has not produced the necessary offence. His projected 0.329 wOBA does not compensate for his poor baserunning and defence.
  • Addison Barger, Nathan Lukes, or Spencer Horwitz would provide more roster flexibility and possibly more offence than Vogellbach.
  • Barger can play right field and third base. Lukes can capably man all three outfield positions. Horwitz is more limited positionally but would be a better backup to Guerrero Jr. at first base than Vogelbach or Justin Turner. I will examine their Buffalo metrics shortly.
  • Springer has underperformed in the lead-off role. His projected 0.323 wOBA trails the estimated wOBA numbers of Bichette, Guererro Jr., Schneider, and Varsho. Any of these players would be better suited for the lead-off slot.
  • Springer is in his age-34 season and may benefit from reduced playing time.
  • Bichette has struggled this season. His xwOBA is well below the MLB Average.
  • Turner’s dip in batting results could be due to playing too much. The 39-year-old has played in 36 of Toronto’s 40 games.

A Buffalo Call-Up

Yep, Table 4. Of the listed players, Horwitz is the best candidate to fill a potential Vogellbach opening.
  • As of May 12, 77% of Toronto’s plate appearances were against right-handed pitchers. Accordingly, the Buffalo call-up should excel versus righties.
  • Horwitz has more MLB plate appearances, albeit only 38, than the other candidates.


Proposals

I would make the following changes:
  • Designate Vogelbach for assignment and call up Horwitz
  • Give Horwitz meaningful plate appearances against right-handed pitchers. He would take plate appearances away from Turner and, to a lesser extent, Guerrero Jr.
  • Keep Schneider in the lineup as a left fielder or second baseman. That would reduce Kiermaier’s playing time. However, there may be an occasion when the outfield is Schneider (LF), Kiermaier (CF) and Varsho (RF). Varsho played right field for Arizona in 2021 and 2022 and posted a 16 DRS score in 620 innings (a 31 DRS/1200!). Concerning OAA, Varsho produced 11 OAA in 209 attempts (21 OAA/400!). Varsho excels in all three outfield positions.
  • Move Springer and Bichette down in the batting order.
  • In Tables 5 and 6, I show proposed batting orders against righties and lefties. The suggested batting orders are flexible. Players such as Kiermaier and Clement will continue to get plate appearances.


The Last Word

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Yogi Berra
Toronto Blue Jays hitters have been underwhelming thus far in the 2024 season. The primary reason for the lacklustre batting lies at the feet of Springer, Bichette, Guerrero Jr. and Kirk. Guerrero (132 wRC+) and Kirk (151 wRC+) have performed well over the past 30 days. However, Springer (53 wRC+) and Bichette (47 wRC+) have not.
Despite the disappointing overall results, there is reason for optimism in the future. First, Guerrero and Kirk’s recent performances. Second, the hitters other than Springer & Co. have performed well (109 wRC+). Third, the ZiPS DC rest-of-season model projects Toronto will produce a 115 wRC+. Although models are not infallible, ZiPS DC has a track record that should bolster the expectations of Blue Jay fans and Management.
However, management should make roster and batting order changes. Horwitz is a better left-handed option than Vogelbach. Also, there may be opportunities in the trade market to add a bat. Additionally, John Schneider should move Springer and Bichette down in the batting order until they demonstrate they will contribute more with the bat than they have to date. These changes and the ZiPS DC rest-of-season projections would be reasons for optimism.

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