Blue Jays' revamped outfield turns major weakness into big strength

Toronto pitchers can breathe a little easier with Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier and George Springer roaming the outfield behind them.

Following a disappointing end to the 2022 season, the Toronto Blue Jays have overhauled two-thirds of their starting outfield this winter, turning what was previously a weakness into a major strength.

But first, let’s revisit how we reached this massive turnaround.

The club’s outfield trio of George Springer, Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was reliable from an offensive standpoint, with all producing a 110 wRC+ or higher. That combination wasn’t anywhere near as effective on defence, though.

Proving ineffective, the Blue Jays featured one of the worst defensive outfields in the majors last season, ranking 18th in Outs Above Average (-3) and 21st in Defensive Runs Saved (-6), according to FanGraphs. And they likely would’ve finished much lower if not for Bradley Zimmer and Jackie Bradley Jr.’s stellar fielding.

Kevin Kiermaier gives the Blue Jays an elite defender in centre field. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Kevin Kiermaier gives the Blue Jays an elite defender in centre field. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Hernández and Gurriel, in particular, were defensive liabilities, as they each failed to record either a positive DRS or OAA, with at least one of those metrics in the negative. Springer also struggled in centre field, registering a negative DRS for a second straight campaign.

This troubling issue wasn’t just a one-off, either, as the franchise’s defensive woes have been well-documented over the last few years. Despite that, Toronto’s front office had been unsuccessful in addressing that area heading into this offseason.

As a result, the team’s outfield defence was tied for 10th in DRS (+11) — which was encouraging — but 18th in OAA (-3) during the 2021 season. Things were even worse the year before, ranking 28th in DRS (-20) and 29th in OAA (-8) across the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.

Which players were responsible for these prolonged inefficiencies? Hernández and Gurriel. While both had been crucial to the offence’s success, at the same time, they were also weak links for the club’s run prevention.

For his career, Hernández has logged 4,959.1 combined innings at all three outfield positions with the Blue Jays and Houston Astros, posting -25 DRS and -24 OAA. Most of his issues came in right field, where he racked up -13 DRS and -11 OAA over 2,525.1 career innings.

So, entering his eighth big-league season, the Blue Jays knew what they had in Hernández, who was just one year away from free agency after this past season.

Gurriel, meanwhile, transitioned from the infield to the outfield in 2019, compiling 2,810 career innings in left field since then. But like Hernández, his career defensive results were also unimpressive, resulting in +4 DRS — salvaged by his outstanding arm strength — and -16 OAA.

The 29-year-old, coming off offseason wrist surgery, also finished last season with just one year of team control remaining, forcing the organization to make tough decisions regarding both of its corner outfielders.

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins made a conscious effort to significantly improve his team’s run prevention this winter, particularly in the outfield, signalling trouble for Hernández and Gurriel. And it wasn’t long before both outfielders were shipped out, making way for a pair of defensive-first replacements.

First came Kevin Kiermaier, a three-time Gold Glove winner and a former Platinum Glove winner, who signed a one-year deal worth $9 million. While he’s north of the age-30 threshold, he remains one of the game’s most elite defenders.

Since 2014, Kiermaier ranks first in DRS (+147) among all major-league outfielders. The 6-foot-1 centre-fielder also possesses the second-most OAA (+64) — behind only Lorenzo Cain (+66) — since it became an official stat in 2016.

The former Tampa Bay Ray was limited to just 63 games in 2022 due to hip surgery, though he still earned +2 DRS and +1 OAA over 482.1 innings — his lowest total since 2013. So there is some injury concern with the award-winning defender, but the opportunity to add his skill set to the mix was too tempting to pass up.

When healthy, which is the biggest caveat here, Kiermaier has proven to be a game-changer in the field throughout his career. And as Toronto’s everyday centre-fielder, he is expected to make a similar impact in 2023.

Then came the massive blockbuster with the Arizona Diamondbacks, swapping Gabriel Moreno and Gurriel for Daulton Varsho. Making that deal came at a steep price, although it should prove beneficial to the Blue Jays’ outfield in the end.

After watching two highly-coveted pieces sent the other way, much of Toronto’s fan base was up in arms over the franchise’s latest move, especially since it meant acquiring an unknown commodity. The 26-year-old, however, could quickly win the hearts of Blue Jays fans.

Varsho, son of former major-leaguer Gary Varsho, made numerous highlight-reel catches over three seasons with the D-Backs and will now look to add to his impressive collection with his new team.

Varsho should also make a considerable offensive impact, but the bulk of his contributions will likely occur in the field.

As part of his breakout 2022 season, the left-hander provided elite defence in right and centre field, leading all outfielders in OAA (+18) and finishing tied with Kansas City’s Michael A. Taylor for first in DRS (+19). His outfield jump (3.7 feet per second) also ranked in the 97th percentile, according to Baseball Savant.

The 5-foot-10 outfielder will be tasked with managing left field, where he hasn’t played since 2021 and has compiled just 103.2 career innings. Changing positions may be beneficial, however, as the team believes moving to left will help mitigate his suboptimal arm strength.

Varsho excels at making tough plays look routine, producing the third-highest conversion rate (24 percent) on five-star outfield plays last season. For context, Baseball Savant gives any situation with a catch probability between zero and 25 percent a five-star rating.

Hernández and Gurriel, in comparison, encountered 29 combined five-star opportunities in 2022, converting just a single out. That duo also registered a 22.2 percent conversion rate on four-star plays (25-50 percent catch probability), whereas Varsho came in at 69.2 percent.

Plenty of catchable fly balls hit the Rogers Centre turf a season ago, but after acquiring Kiermaier and Varsho, chances are history won’t repeat itself in 2023. Moving Springer to right field should also help that narrative, as he’s been far more effective at that position, recording +12 DRS and +5 OAA across 4,229.2 career innings.

The four-time All-Star should endure a substantially lighter workload, as well, keeping him fresher and healthier long-term. That way, the 33-year-old can hopefully avoid missing significant time due to injury for a third straight campaign.

In just a few months, the Blue Jays have gone from featuring one of the worst defensive outfields in baseball to one of the top units — if not the best. That’s not easy to accomplish. But, thanks to Toronto’s aggressive pursuit of Kiermaier and its surplus of catchers, the organization pulled it off in one offseason.

Their job isn’t complete, of course, as management could still benefit from procuring another outfielder, preferably one who thrives against left-handed pitching. It’d also be ideal if that player could provide at least average defence - like Adam Duvall or Robbie Grossman, perhaps.

Still, as currently constructed, the Blue Jays’ 2023 starting outfield of Varsho, Kiermaier and Springer is miles ahead of last season’s trio, at least from a defensive perspective.

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