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What can we learn from Blue Jays’ early-season RISP trends?

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Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Hall
3 months ago
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Toronto Blue Jays have been hot and cold in hitting with runners-in-scoring-position.
That was a key deficiency with last year’s offence, which finished tied for 12th in AVG (.260) and 14th in wRC+ (102) but 23rd in SLG (.390) across the majors. And it’s among the reasons why this year’s team is one game below .500 through 11 games rather than boasting a winning record.
Toronto’s lineup has proven more cold than hot early on, as they entered Monday’s home opener sitting 25th or worse in AVG (.193, T-28th) and SLG (.327, 26th). Those woes, of course, were spearheaded by poor RISP execution, with their .197 AVG and .273 SLG each ranking 28th in the sport across the first 10 games of 2024.
One positive trend that’s risen to the surface has been quality plate discipline from this offence, which earned 14 walks in those situations during their season-opening road trip, resulting in a 16.7 per cent walk rate, the third-highest in the majors. So, they are having productive approaches in the batter’s box.
At the same, though, their main issue has come down to batted-ball execution — or a lack thereof.
Generating sufficient contact hasn’t been the problem. Where things have gone wrong, however, is with the Blue Jays’ quality of contact, which, through 11 games, finds their 27 per cent hard-hit rate in RISP situations positioned 30th in baseball. It’s a significant step back from their 39.7 per cent clip that finished sixth-highest in those spots in 2023.
Enduring nearly a 13-per-cent decline, albeit over a tiny sample size, seems incredibly unlikely and unsustainable for a lineup that features Vladimir Guerrero Jr., one of baseball’s biggest generators of hard contact. But it’s worth pointing out that two of the club’s top four in hard-hit rate from a season ago are no longer on the roster — Matt Chapman, whose 56.4 per cent clip led all Blue Jays hitters, and Brandon Belt (40 per cent).
Despite those loud-sounding batted balls, Belt and Chapman were two of the club’s worst performers with RISP per wRC+, ranking seventh (93) and 10th (77) among 12 qualified hitters, respectively. The team also subtracted the 11th-worst qualifier from that group, Santiago Espinal, whose 73 wRC+ ranked ahead of only Alejandro Kirk’s 71.
On that basis alone, you’d think the Blue Jays would be well-positioned to overcome last season’s RISP woes, right? While it should play out that way over the 162-game schedule, especially with Justin Turner — the king of delivering with runners on base — now in the fold, the early returns haven’t been as consistent as many expected.
Kirk has been one of the reasons for those inconsistencies, considering he entered Monday’s affair versus the Seattle Mariners leading the Blue Jays in plate appearances (11) during RISP situations but had only accounted for a 92 wRC+. Another main culprit had been Guerrero, who sat tied for second in plate appearances with nine and struggled to a -60 wRC+.
If the Blue Jays’ offence is going to succeed in 2024, Kirk and Guerrero need to be driving runs in rather than stranding them. They’re both crucial elements of this lineup. When they’re both clicking simultaneously, it typically leads to positive outcomes, just as they proved in the home opener a night ago.
Toronto’s primary backstop delivered his team-leading seventh RBI with runners-in-scoring-position on Monday, lining a 96-m.p.h. heater into left field off a struggling Luis Castillo for a two-out single to score Turner, who doubled to lead off the bottom half of the second inning (because, of course, he did).
As part of a two-hit performance, just his second multi-hit game of 2024, Guerrero also cashed a run on a double off Castillo — also coming with two outs — that allowed Kevin Kiermaier to score from second base. With it, the 25-year-old slugger improved his wRC+ in RISP situations by 85 points, raising it to 25.
Toronto’s first game at the newly-renovated Rogers Centre provided yet another glimpse of this offence’s potential. They scored five runs on 11 hits, four of which came with runners-in-scoring-position. But as productive as they were in those spots, they still left some ducks on the pond, going 4-for-13 with RISP while stranding seven runners.
There is plenty of room for improvement following Monday’s 5-2 victory, especially considering Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Kiermaier went a combined 0-for-5 with four strikeouts in these situations against Seattle. Bichette probably deserves a pass, though, given that he leads the team in SLG (.625), wOBA (.491) and wRC+ (233) with RISP.
Davis Schneider is another player who’s been a shining light for this offence in run-scoring situations. He’s only earned six plate appearances with RISP thus far, tied with Ernie Clement for ninth-fewest on the team — a development that certainly requires addressing. Following Monday’s pivotal two-run single, he leads the club in AVG (.400) and trails only Bichette for top spot in SLG (.600), wOBA (.482) and wRC+ (226).
The fact that the Blue Jays are 5-6 and have struggled to score runs consistently is pretty remarkable. They’ve also dealt with issues on the pitching front that, prior to another brilliant outing from José Berríos on Monday, saw this staff ranked 28th in starter’s ERA (6.40) and 30th in FIP (6.19).
An easy way to ease some of that pressure is for the offence to provide its pitchers with a more substantial margin for error, which hasn’t transpired thus far, at least for the most part. Nor was that the case last season, either. At some point, though, that trend needs to switch.
It began to do so in the opener versus the Mariners, where Guerrero, Kirk and Schneider took advantage of a struggling ace during critical points of the contest — rare opportunities that typically don’t come around often. But others need to join the party soon, as well.
That includes George Springer, Daulton Varsho, Kiermaier and Clement — all four have logged at least five plate appearances with RISP but carry a wRC+ score below league average (100).
One key bat missing here is Danny Jansen, who led the Blue Jays in isolated power (.211) while placing third in SLG (.465) and fifth in wRC+ (114) during RISP situations in 2023. Though situational hitting results aren’t always predictive of future success, there’s no denying his middle-of-the-presence has been missed and could’ve made a difference if not for his season-opening IL stint.
This offence will likely have to carry on without Jansen’s bat for a bit longer, as he appears destined for a late-April return. They should be able to survive without him in the meantime, but only if the lineup looks more like it did in Monday’s encouraging performance against one of baseball’s most dominating starters.

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