When the calendar turns to April on Saturday, not only will the baseball season be mere days away, so will a month of overreactions.
Although everyone has seen poor starts to seasons by teams or players turn around and hot starts evaporate in the dog days of summer, we are still inclined to try to squeeze the blood of insight from the stone of early-season results. It’s a sin that everyone around the game is guilty of, from managers, to fans, to the media.
The fact that April results are simultaneously meaningful and potentially small-sample-size deceptions creates a frustrating dichotomy for those who love baseball. If Josh Donaldson were to hit 15 home runs in the season’s opening month that would be worthy of attention, but not necessarily indicative that he was on the road to setting records.
With that lengthy preface in mind, small sample or no, in the mess of April statistics we can expect to find some early indicators that may reveal clues as to how certain players will perform. Numbers like strikeout rate and walk rate tend to stabilize quickly, as do plate discipline and batted ball stats. Looking at these peripherals earlier in the year isn’t an ironclad way to make predictions, but it serves better than getting too excited about impressive-looking ERA, batting average or RBI marks.
Here are a few of those peripheral stats that could be meaningful for the Toronto Blue Jays in April:
Jose Bautista’s Strikeout Rate
There are a number of things that make Bautista special as a hitter. He possesses a remarkable eye, excellent bat speed and the ability to pull almost anything in the air. Combine that with an instinct for showmanship and it’s no wonder that he’s been so fun for Blue Jays fans to watch over the years.
One one of the less sexy tools that makes Bautista such a strong offensive contributor is his ability to avoid the strikeout. The right-fielder became a star by making consistent contact without sacrificing power, but during his 2016 off-year he wasn’t able to maintain that difficult balance as his K% ticked up toward league average for the first time since his 2010 breakout:
Curiously, his contact rate of 80.1 was just about normal for him, and even better than during his career-best 2011 season — so there’s reason to believe the strikeouts will come down. If they do early on, it will be a good sign that vintage Bautista is back.
Francisco Liriano’s Walk Rate
As long as Liriano has been a Blue Jay he’s been effective, but it wasn’t so long ago that he was one of the worst starters in the majors. In 113.2 innings with the Pittsburgh Pirates last year he put up a 5.46 ERA backed by a 5.28 FIP and a -0.3 WAR.
The change of scenery seemed to help him, but the threat of him struggling with his command again is ever-present. He’s never going to be a prolific painter of corners, but recently he has done an excellent job keeping his walks under control as his BB% dropped continually during the 2016 campaign:
Grouping together his strong September with his stellar spring training work he’s only walked 10 batters in his last 41 innings on the mound. If he continues to keep the free passes down early in 2017, he’ll be a menacing presence in the Blue Jays rotation.
Devon Travis’ BB/K Ratio
Because so much attention was paid to the health of the Blue Jays second baseman last year, it feels like what he actually did on the field went unexamined at times. Overall, he was excellent flashing above-average power, an excellent line-drive swing and defence that was solid at the keystone apart from one stretch in September.
There was very little not to like about his production, but some of the numbers underlying it were a little bit iffy. For instance, last year Travis saw both his walk rate decline and his strikeout rate rise compared to his rookie year.
Running a 0.23 BB/K rate is usually not the best way to have sustained offensive success. The Blue Jays would like to see Travis bring this number up significantly at the outset of 2017 — especially if he’s going to be their leadoff hitter.
Steve Pearce’s Ground Ball/Fly Ball Ratio
Considering his .288/.374/.492 line last season, you’d be hard-pressed to complain about what Pearce did at the plate. However, much like Travis, it is reasonable to worry a little bit about how he managed those numbers.
Since Pearce broke out in 2014, his hallmark has been getting lift on the ball and keeping it off the ground to maximize his power potential. Between 2014 and 2015 his 0.75 GB/FB ratio ranked 13th out of 302 hitters with at least 600 plate appearances. In 2016, he hit far more balls on the ground — not a great look for a slugger.
He ended up hitting an unsustainably high .319 on ground balls which added some polish to his final line, but he can’t expect to find as many holes in the infield this year. Fly balls are always going to be more productive than grounders for power hitters like Pearce and it will be interesting to see if he’s putting it in the air early.
Kevin Pillar’s O-Swing Percentage
Pillar’s major offensive weakness is his tendency to go outside the zone and reach for pitches he shouldn’t. In 2016 he swung on 37.1% of such offerings, which ranked him 130th out of 146 hitters in the discipline metric. He’s never sniffed the MLB average, but he’s actually gotten a touch better in recent years.
The centre fielder has made it abundantly clear he wants to change his ways, and during his Grapefruit League at-bats he seemed to show improvement. Whether that carries over when the games matter remains to be seen. If he has made a breakthrough it’s likely to show up early — and that would be extraordinarily good news for the Blue Jays.