Baseball – like virtually every business – is a results-driven endeavor. Once players get past the little-league level there are no awards for showing up, and for all the talk of “playing the game the right way,” winning is all that really matters.
Unfortunately for the Toronto Blue Jays, winning is not something they’ve been doing much of early in the season as the club is off to a franchise-worst 1-6 start. That’s a rough mark, and one that doesn’t reflect the talent of a squad that sees itself as a playoff contender.
It’s easy to get fixated on seven ugly games, but this group won’t put up a 23-139 record and go down as the worst team in MLB history. So, instead it’s more instructive to look at the “how” than the “what” early in the season. Focusing on process over results sounds like front office talk, but at this point in the year it gives us a better idea of where the Blue Jays are at.
As it happens, Toronto has a number of key players who seem to be doing things the right way, but haven’t seen success follow. Here are four guys who have little to show for a seemingly sound process so far:
J.A. Happ: Pounding the zone
One of the biggest pitching cliches going is that pitchers need to “pound the zone” and get strike one with consistency. It can be overstated at times as forcing hitters to chase offerings out of the zone is essential and throwing all strikes would probably get you bludgeoned.
That said, Happ has seemingly done an excellent job of controlling the zone so far. He’s throwing first-pitch strikes 70 percent of the time and rocking a downright goofy 17/0 K/BB rate. Even during his career-best 2016 he never went two straight starts without a walk.
He hasn’t been throwing meatballs either, as his fastball heatmap looks like this:
For all his dominance of the zone so far, Happ has 5.40 ERA and 4.50 FIP due to four home runs allowed. It seems likely that he gets the long ball under control and finds himself back on track.
Kevin Pillar: Reigning in the swings
There was a lot of talk prior to the season that Pillar would alter his approach and chase out of the zone less. In the early going he’s walked the walk with a 22.0 percent O-Zone swing rate, well below his 37.1 percent from last year.
For good measure, laying off bad pitches has helped him take some swing-and-miss out his game. So far he’s made contact on 90.7 percent of his cuts, and he entered Wednesday’s action as the only qualified hitter who has yet to strike out. It’s too early to say that we’re looking at a whole new Pillar, but we should be looking a decent stretch with those discipline numbers.
Instead, he’s hit .231/.259/.231 as the patience hasn’t yet led to walks and the contact hasn’t led to hits.
Justin Smoak: Putting the bat on the ball
Coming into 2017, it was no secret that Smoak’s biggest issue was his tendency to swing through pitches and take the long walk back to the dugout. The first baseman has some power, it’s the quantity of his contact rather than the quality that’s been an issue.
So far this year, the 30-year-old hasn’t been letting too many balls past him. Smoak has made contact with 86.8 percent of the pitches he’s offered at – a very strong number in sharp contrast with the 72.0 percent he posted in 2016.
Has this improvement led to a needed reduction in strikeouts though? Not in the slightest. Smoak has struck out in seven of his 23 trips to the plate and sports a .227/.261/.318 line.
Russell Martin: Top-level patience
One of Martin’s best qualities as a hitter is his ability to let the game come to him and using his strong eye to force opposing pitchers to throw him a strike. In the early going, he hasn’t just been at his own career standards in this area, he’s been among the league’s best.
Martin has walked in a quarter of his plate appearances so far and has a 14.8 percent O-Swing rate that’s 11th in the majors – just behind Paul Goldschmidt. The Blue Jays catcher clearly isn’t pressing, he’s executing his gameplan at the plate. The only problem is that when he’s getting a pitch to hit that offering hasn’t been punished sufficiently.
At this point we still don’t have enough information to know if these underlying trends are for real. Pillar could easily go back to his free swinging ways and Happ likely won’t keep the strikeouts way up and walks way down forever. A player’s track record is going to have more predictive value than seven games each and every time.
Even so, these Blue Jays have flashed the kind of strong processes that should lead to success, but haven’t so far. That helps account for the gap between the team’s talent and their record. Time will tell if it also has a say in predicting where the team goes from here.
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