Midseason Review: Hitting

Monday, July 02 2012 @ 10:25 PM EDT

Contributed by: Anders

We're pretty close to mid-season, and since I didn't feel like Advance Scouting the Royals, let's review the Jays offense over the first half of the season (all numbers prior to Monday's game, except where noted).

The Jays are third in baseball in runs scored, second in home runs and tied for sixth in wOBA. They've been a bit lucky in terms of converting baserunners into runs, but this is still a pretty decent offense, obviously. Their OBP is a point ahead of the AL average, at .320, and they obviously fare a lot better in slugging, .432 vs. a .410 average in the AL. These numbers subjectively seem bad, but hitting still hasn't really recovered back to the pre-2010 days. Hitting is up slightly over last year so far, and a notch behind 2010, when it fell off a cliff (average MLB OPS in 2009: .750. Average OPS this year: .723).

Random Tangent: the Jays have turned over their lineup almost completely, and yet somehow are still a slug-heavy, walk-little team. In their 2010 season where they hit the 4th most HRs ever the team OBP/SLG was .312/.454 (vs. again, .320/432 this year). Interestingly (or not), they were also 6th in wOBA that year, although this year they fare slightly worse relative to league. Back to our tangent: the only players back from that 2010 team are Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, half of Yunel Escobar (he's still whole, I mean he just played half that season as a Jay) and Adam Lind, who has only played half of this season. JPA had a couple dozen at bats that season too, but doesn't really count for the purposes of this exercise. So the team brought back the high OBP guys - Encarnacion and Bautista are 1-2 in OBP for the Jays this year - and yet the team's OBP is still relatively poor. And it's not like the Jays are purposefully replacing them with a bunch of hackers, Arencibia aside. The guys Toronto has brought in have generally posted strong historical OBP numbers, Yunel Escobar in particular, but Kelly Johnson, Brett Lawrie in the minors, and Colby Rasmus, sort of. And yet their OBP is still pretty bad. I guess ~550 plate appearances from JP Arencibia, Adam Lind and Eric Thames will do that.

Let's take a couple of minutes and look at what the position players are doing. I'm mostly interested in what this means going forward, both for the rest of the year, and for the 2013 and beyond Jays.

Catcher: .229/.273./.440 (.247/.315/.398)

The first number is the Jays catchers' numbers, the second the ML average for the position. JP Arencibia has gotten the bulk of the duty, posting a .224/.263/.414 line in 248 PA. Jeff Mathis is out Arencibiaing Arencibia, at .234/.290/.484 in 71 PA. Both players strikeout rates are atrocious, with JPA a tick under 30%. It's the 4th worst rate in the majors amongst qualified players, and the hitters he trails, Adam Dunn, Mike Napoli and Pedro Alvarez, all walk at least twice as much and hit for significantly more power.

Before Travis d'Arnaud was injured there was a lot of talk about what would happen to Arencibia if (when) he got overtaken. My best guess is: basically nothing. Not to be cruel, but JPA is, well, not very good. His bat isn't going to play at another position - in 771 major league PAs, Arencibia has a wOBA of .299 (.217/.271/.425). You can interpret that as generously as you want. Okay, you can't. It's bad. Interpretations of Arencibia's defense also vary, but few consider it a large asset. At this point Arencibia is probably a 1 win player, going into his age-27 season next year, so someone might want to take a flyer on him, but I think reality is starting to set in - he's a good backup or a bad starter, and I can't imagine the Jays are eager to take a .270 OBP from any slot in the lineup if they ever decide to actually try and go for it.

First Base: .251/.327/.478 (.254/.329/.431)

Edwin Encarnacion has an OPS of an even 1.000 (.305/.390/.610) as a first baseman this year, but more than half of his at bats have come at DH (where he rates .100 points worse. This is almost certainly random, FYI), so we'll look at him there I guess.  Adam Lind has almost the same number of PA (131 vs. 136) but is hitting .194/.280/351 overall, so you can see why the positional number isn't higher (it still ranks 9th in terms of OPS). David Cooper has 44 pretty decent PA at 1st, while Yan Gomes has 19 pretty awful ones.

Lind appears set as the regular first baseman going forward. He's hitting .250/.333/.625 since his return; 2 home runs in 18 PA will do that (though he went 0/4 on Monday). There are some underlying things to take solace in his line - he's walking 10.7% of the time, a career best rate, and his strikeouts are under control. He also has been very unlucky, BABIP-wise, with a .206 mark to date. He is making more contact as well, and he also basically isn't swinging at anything, but when he does he's hitting the ball weakly on the ground. Lind has 6 doubles and 5 home runs in 150 PA; even in two bad previous seasons of ~550 and ~600 PA he had 16 and 26, and 32 and 23, so an already bad isolated power mark for a 1B (.188 in those two seasons) continues to get worse (.157 this year). I don't really think Lind can get worse, but in 5 major league seasons, including this one, Lind's broken 100 wRC+ exactly once, so I'm not exactly sure there's much reason to suppose he'll get much better.

David Cooper has 69 plate appearances so far, and he's hitting .292/.333/.431, which is probably slightly above what I'd peg him at if the club gave him regular at bats. He's a nice backup to have in AAA, but I still doubt he has much of a future. Nice performance for a fill in though.

All of this begs the question of what happens after the season. I doubt Lind is going to magically improve to an adequate level for a contending team, which leaves Encarnacion as a possibility. I think the most likely way things goes down is with Toronto offering arbitration and Encarnacion declining. Hear me out. EE's on a $3.5 million club option, and right now he ranks second amongst 1B in WAR. I can't see him getting less than 3/$30 million on the open market going into his age 30 season, with the only thing potentially holding him back being that a lot of big market AL teams (where he also makes sense as a DH) like Anaheim, New York, Boston and Detroit all have logjams at 1B/DH. I doubt the Jays would really want to pay that, but I could see the club, bereft of any other real options (other than trying to move Bautista) offering him arbitration, which I think is around $12 million, especially given the possibility he declines - as I mentioned I think Encarnacion can get close to that, but over multiple years. Cooper and Lind are the only 1B under contract (with Mike McDade in the minors), but none of them seem especially palatable. Mystery!

Second Base: .248/.332/.373 (.254/.317/.380)

As you can see, Jays second baggers have been pretty close to league average. Kelly Johnson has a couple of at bats at DH and as a PH, but his 2B line of .247/.333/.390 almost exactly mirrors his overall line (which is 2 points worse in BA and 7 points worst in SLG). Omar Vizquel has been Omar Vizquel-y, hitting .237/.310/.237 in 42 PA. After a strong start to the season, Kelly Johnson is scuffling, with a .216/.287/.275 line in the last month (117 PA). He's also struck out 35 times in that span. Johnson has always struck out a lot, but last year he easily bested his career high, at 26.6% of the time; this year he's worked that number up to 27.8%, and his swing and miss rate puts him in the top-15 (worst) in baseball. Still, Johnson walks a fair amount, close to 12% of the time, so he would still be a pretty valuable player if he hit for his usual amount of power. Which of course he isn't doing. Johnson hit over 20 homers in each of the past two seasons, and he is close to on pace to do so again, with 9 so far. However Johnson's ability to hit doubles has seemingly vanished. He's got 7 so far, after hitting 36 and 27 in his previous two seasons, and 20 in 346 PA in 2009 (he has 320 PA so far this year). Johnson's HR/FB and BABIP are both very healthy, and he has a blistering LD% of 24.1%. The culprit is almost certainly his fly ball rate though (in addition to the whiffing), as it has absolutely plummeted, to 30%, and it's obviously easier to double into the gap than through the infield. Unless he stops striking out as much as he does, or rediscovers his missing doubles stroke I don't think there's much prospect for in season improvement (well, duh!)  I don't see either of those things as being especially likely to happen, at least in a major way. Subjectively Johnson has looked pretty awful at the plate in the last month. His contract is up at the end of the year, and he'll be 31 in 2013, so I'd be surprised if he's back as a Jay, though there are no obvious internal solutions.

Shortstop: .252/.301/.333 (.256/.310/.375)

Yunel Escobar has played almost every inning at shortstop this year, with Omar Vizquel receiving a handful of at bats and doing Vizquelian things in them (plus Brett Lawrie's memorable cameo). Escobar's defense has been very good, and although he's picked things up a bit since an awful April, his overall hitting numbers are very poor. It's tough to identify the culprit, too. He's swinging at more pitches outside of the zone, and more overall, but his strikeout rate is down, under 10%, and he swings and misses at only 5.4% of pitches he sees, both amongst the best marks in baseball. His walks rate is down a lot, 6.3%, vs. 10.3% last year and 9.3% career. I am not entirely sure why. Escobar has always hit the ball on the ground a lot, and this year is no exception, as his ground ball rate has risen for the 4th straight year, with corresponding fly ball rate drops. His BABIP has generally been all over the place, but this year's .270 (bad but hardly atrocious) is the worst mark yet. His power numbers, never great, are also bad - 15 XBH (5 HR, 9 2B, 1 3B) in 334 PA. I don't think there's any inherent reason Escobar should be hitting this poorly - he does turn 30 in a few months, but he also has a career .359 OBP, and has never posted a mark worse than .337, at any level, much higher than this year's .303. I have to think he recovers somewhat the rest of the season, though he may be making the Adeiny Hecchavaria decision easier for next year. Still his $5 million deal for next year is very team friendly.

We'll pop in Omar Vizquel here - Vizquel's hitting .219/.275/.219. That's right, in 70 PA he has 0 extra base hits. He had 8 in 182 PA last year. Vizquel isn't a major league hitter, and really doesn't belong in the majors, even as a super sub. I'd rather see Mike McCoy on the bench - at least he can pitch.

Third Base: .293/.343/.439 (.257/.319/.413)

Like at short, third base has been a one man show, with Yan Gomes, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and Omar Vizquel collecting only a handful of appearances, almost exclusively while Brett Lawrie was suspended. Lawrie's hitting .291/.338/.434 on the year, which combined with the other players puts Toronto 10th in OPS in the majors in 3B production (this of course ignores Lawrie's prodigious defensive contributions). While Lawrie's numbers don't match last year's I wouldn't worry too much, as Lawrie has improved at the plate every month, going from a .704 OPS to .721 to .884 in June (.305/.322/.369 in wOBA). Lawrie is swinging at a lot more pitches in 2012, 45.9% of them vs. 40.1%, and making a lot more contact, 83.8% vs. 77.9%. As a result he's actually cut his swinging strike percentage, to 7.1% from 8.3, and his strikeout rate, from 18.1% to 13.5%. His walk rate has fallen by the wayside too, down to 5.2% from 9.4% Lawrie is hitting the ball on the ground a lot more, and a result is hitting way more singles and a lot fewer home runs, with his isolated power halved from last year. Lawrie runs well, and has legged out a ton of infield hits, so it's not like the change is killing him, but I'm not sure this approach is an optimal one; I don't know that Lawrie becoming a slap and speed guy is where he's really going to make his mark.

Still, this model of player is pretty good, and again, Lawrie is only 22. If he manages to keep his strikeout numbers down and walk a bit more and hit for a bit power, he has a chance to be great (again, duh!) But these tasks seem to me to be well within the realm of the possible and not just wishful thinking, as Lawrie has done this kind of thing before, and he clearly has the talent to do so. I haven't mentioned defense much in this roundup, but as I'm sure you all know by this point, Lawrie's rates as phenomenal. About the only thing to complain about (aside from the earlier, not-really-complaint complaints) is that Lawrie needs to learn to exercise some better judgement on the basepaths, where he's 11/19 on the year. With less than a full year service time Lawrie may still be a ways away from a long term contract, but there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that the team should try to Longoria him if Lawrie will accept it.

Left Field: .270/.317/.389 (.262/.332/.432)

Pretty much every other position we've looked at so far has been close to league average, (thanks in part to how bad the average catcher and shortstop is) but left field is where the team really starts screwing the pooch, which is a bit of a surprise (well, compared to preseason expectations). Eric Thames won the job in spring training and was very mediocre, hitting .255/.301/.383 with poor defense in 153 PA before getting sent down. Since then Rajai Davis has been the regular left fielder, and he's hit .288/.336/.402 (.268/.322/.414 overall), which apparently precludes the team from even considering calling up Travis Snider, who like clockwork has been destroying in AAA and subsequently suffering extremely poor timed injuries. But I digress. Davis is basically doing what he always does, with a few more walks and a little more power, and ranks 7th in baseball in steals, with 20 (in 25 attempts). Despite his speed Davis' defense in left can still be a bit of an adventure, and his arm frightens no one. Despite this Davis is a valuable player, and he certainly isn't embarrassing himself in an everyday role even though he may be better suited as a bench player. I would be surprised if the club didn't picked up their $2.5 million option on Davis (well, $3 mil + $0.5 mil buyout).

Meanwhile Eric Thames is hitting .305/.397/.448 in AAA, while Travis Snider is posting a .329/.409/.568 mark (and striking out less and walking much more than he has ever and in recent memory, respectively). Davis isn't a bad player, obviously, and it never hurts to reward guys like that, but frankly the Blue Jays are nuts if they don't bring Snider up and play him the rest of the season, and soon, especially considering the team is essentially .500 at the midway point of the season and last in the division. Snider's still only 24, he's probably better than Eric Thames and Rajai Davis anyway, and the club needs to figure out what they have in him going into next year, and that question just isn't going to be answered in Las Vegas.

Centre Field: .261/.322/.507 (.266/.331/.415)

Alex Anthopoulos strikes again! From the first spot where the Jays are significantly underperforming to the first where they're overperforming (buoyed by Rajai Davis's 2 HR in his 14 CF PA). Colby Rasmus has been the Jays 3rd best player by wOBA and 4th in terms of fWAR so far.  Moreover, he's been on an absolute tear, raising his wOBA from .297 to .323 to .373 month by month by month; he even has two home runs so far in July (counting tonight's game). In his last 37 games he's hitting a robust .304/.353/.614, while being solidly above average, I would say subjectively, in the field (on the season, not just those games). Rasmus is both striking out and walking slightly less than he did last year, and for his career, and he's making more contact while swinging and missing less than he has previously - all good. Still, his BABIP isn't markedly different (.281 this year vs. .267 last year). His HR/FB has doubled, from 8.3% to 16.5%, which is above average but not outrageously high. Rasmus is popping up a little less and hitting more line drives as well, at the expense of his fly ball rate. I don't exactly know what to ascribe Ramus' improvement to specifically - he's just gotten slightly better at a bunch of different things, and this overall level of performance probably isn't too unreasonable of a baseline for a young and talented going forward.

This is Rasmus' 4th season, and he's going to start getting more expensive in arbitration. The Jays may be waiting things out with Anthony Gose and Jake Marisnick, but I think the team would be well served by trying to lock Rasmus up, especially given that he only turns 26 in a couple of months. Also, has there been a better crop of centre fielders in recent memory? Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton (50% credit), Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones, Matt Kemp, Curtis Granderson, Ramus, not to mention players like Michael Bourn, Austin Jackson, and Dexter Fowler who are having phenomenal years. There are 14 guys who have played at least some CF and are posting wOBAs above .350.

Right Field: .224/.345/.521 (.265/.337/.460)

Jose Bautista is the best right fielder in baseball. There are a couple of people you could say are in his league, or are having slightly better seasons than him so far, but combining everything I don't see how you don't choose Bautista. And that's with a .239/.356/.543 mark (.382 wOBA) that is by far his worst mark as a Blue Jay. Like Lawrie and Rasmus though, Bautista has gotten much better as the season's gone on, improving his wOBA from .288 to .381 to .470 in April, May and June respectively. In the last calendar month (June 2-July 1, so not even counting tonight's dinger) Jose is hitting .268/.405/.742. That isolated power (almost .500! which would be a good slugging percentage overall) may jump out at you. That's because of the 70 balls Bautista put in play during that time, only 12 of them went for hits, a basically impossible occurence. That's a .171 batting average on balls in play.  14 of his 26 hits (15/28 including Monday) have been home runs, and he's walked 22 times (against 14 strikeouts) in this period of time.

This underscores an interesting fact about Bautista's season so far - if he had anything remotely resembling a normal BABIP to date we would be talking about one of the greatest hitting seasons of all time. You can take that as hyperbole, but consider: Bautista has 348 plate appearances to date. Since 1970, there have been 9093 player seasons of at least 350 PA (I'm trusting you here Fangraphs). Bautista's .201 BABIP is the 6th worst during that time. In 9000 player seasons. (He just singled, raising it - he went 2/3 with a home run and a walk.) Interesting side note: Aaron Hill's 2010, where he posted a .197 BABIP, is 4th, but none of the 3 players ahead of him crack 400 PA, which makes Hill first in complete seasons. Other than a weird Mark McGwire half-season in 2001, no one is even under .214 since the turn of the century (at .214 on the nose? Vernon Wells in 2011. I wish I could make up stuff this good). I don't know if I can underscore enough how nuts this is. Bautista is having a top-20 hitting season despite being one of the least hit-lucky players of the live ball era. It doesn't really work this way, but if you goosed Bautista's OBP and SLG numbers by even 70 points (his career mark is .269), and assumed anything close to a normal allocation of singles and doubles, Bautista's numbers would be off the charts.

Of course, all of this ignores the fact that Bautista is a huge fly ball hitter, and those tend to end up as outs a lot; as a Jay his previous marks are .275, .233 and .309.  But Edwin Encarnacion's line drive, ground ball and fly ball rates are almost identical to Bautista's, and he's at a .288 BABIP this year. Even with the ridiculous luck Bautista's been experiencing, he's managed to cut his swing rate, his swing and miss rate, and his strikeout rate. His walk rate is down significantly, but that's because team's aren't IBBing him anymore (hard to do with Edwin hitting like he is). Let's bow our heads for a second, and also imagine that if his balls in play start becoming hits things could get silly fast.

Designated Hitter: .261/.333/.455 (.257/.332/.436 - these ones are AL only)

The Jays have had 13 different players take cuts as the DH this year, and most of them have been awful.  Edwin was once the DH and now is again; he's hitting .275/.355/.544 there (.291/.373/.572 overall). It really has been a pretty great season so far for Encarnacion, All-Star snub notwithstanding. He was phenomenal in April, good in May, and phenomenal again in June, when he posted a .427 OBP in 103 PA, and he's in the top-20 in wOBA in baseball overall. He's striking out slightly more and walking slightly more than he did last year, and doing about as well on balls in play as he has previously. His isolated power has taken a massive jump, to .281 (t-8th MLB) from .181 (Bautista is 4th, at .304), and you may be able to guess where this is going next - his HR/FB % has doubled, from a slightly below average 9.4% to a well above average 18.3%. It's not otherworldly, but I guess if you wanted to read doom and gloom, that would be it. Edwin is basically hitting the same number of ground balls as before, but otherwise is uppercutting the ball more, hitting fewer line drives and more fly balls. He's actually turned himself into Jose Bautista as a hitter (of course he walks less, but the K's are about the same). In addition, he's being more selective and swinging at fewer pitches both inside and outside the zone, although he is actually making less contact than before. I don't think he can quite keep this up, but anything close is still pretty good.

Ben Francisco has the next most plate appearances, with 37, 47 in total. His overall line is .227/.277/.318, and it's hard to evaluate his performance given the injuries and the small sample size, and given that the Jays basically don't want to play him.

Overall Thoughts:

I don't know if the Jays are strong candidates for sharp overall improvement the rest of the year, but I think it's more likely that they improve than regress. I think Brett Lawrie and Jose Bautista's final lines will be higher than they are right now (with, lets say, 60% and 95% confidence). I doubt Colby Rasmus keeps hitting like he has recently, but some improvement on his current line - an .800 OPS) is well within his capabilities.  I don't think Edwin Encarnacion can really hit better than he currently is, and some regression to the mean is more likely. I'm skeptical about Adam Lind, though he could stabilize at merely "below average" which still means the club really has one player between 1B/DH, with no logical candidates in AAA. Yunel Escobar can't really hit any worse, I suppose, but subjectively from watching him I don't see any reason why he'd hit much better. Kelly Johnson is in a free fall that doesn't appear to be stopping, and JP Arencibia just plain can't hit (though again it would be hard for him to get worse). Rajai Davis is probably a bit over his head in left, and I think Travis Snider could best that line. Still, it's been an absolute pleasure to watch the Jays top 4 hitters, who have to rate amongst the best in baseball at this point. The problem is everyone else. (Nicely illustrating this: Monday's game. Lawrie/Rasmus/Bautista/Encarnacion: 5/14, 1 BB, 2 HR. Everyone else: 1/18, 1 BB. Stark.)