Five Blue Jays spring training stats that could mean something

Nick Ashbourne
Francisco Liriano has undoubtedly been the Toronto Blue Jays most impressive pitcher this spring. (Chris O’Meara/AP)

Trying to draw insight from overtly meaningless spring training baseball is always an exceedingly dicey proposition.

Level of competition varies, some players are working on very specific things at the expense of playing their best, and the whole thing begs not to be taken seriously. That being said, sometimes the mess of statistics it creates can offer kernels with predictive value.

As the Toronto Blue Jays conclude their Grapefruit League season Wednesday, it would be overly ambitious to suggest we’ve learned anything definitive about the team from what they’ve shown on the field. There were, however, a few individual performances that may help foreshadow the upcoming season to some degree.

Here are five Blue Jays Grapefruit Leagues statistics that could have ramifications for the 2017 season:

6.71 – Francisco Liriano’s K/BB rate

At 33 years old, it’s easy to see Liriano as a known commodity at this point, but his sheer level of dominance this spring has opened some eyes. It’s worth noting that he hasn’t posted a K/BB ratio above three since his stellar 2006 season with the Minnesota Twins.

Striking out batters is never going to be an issue for the slider-wielding southpaw, so what makes this number interesting is the sharp command he demonstrated in four Grapefruit League outings. Making these performances more compelling is the fact he posted a similarly high 4.83 K/BB ratio in September last season as he went with a more balanced four-pitch mix and reunited with Russell Martin.

On paper Liriano appears to be the Blue Jays fifth starter, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he looks more like a number three when 2017 is all said and done.

45.4% – Russell Martin’s caught stealing rate

Russell Martin’s arm looks to be in mid-season form. (Getty Images)

For all his defensive acumen, Martin struggled mightily to throw out runners last season. The veteran backstop allowed 61 runners to successful steal while catching just 11 – good for a paltry 15 percent CS rate that was just over half the league average of 29 percent.

It must be a relief this spring for the Blue Jays to see their catcher get back in the groove throwing out runners – something that has traditionally been a strength of his. In just 10 games behind the plate, Martin caught five Grapefruit League runners stealing. That could be an indicator he’s ready to put a puzzling off-year with his arm behind him.

.609 – Justin Smoak’s OPS

As much as the Blue Jays might want Smoak to run with the first base job, his playing time is undoubtedly under siege with Steve Pearce in town. He could have done himself a serious favour with a strong spring showing. Instead, he floundered in Florida.

This is of particular interest because Smoak had a hard time down the stretch last season with a .184/.283/.368 second half line and was unplayable in September hitting (and slugging) .056 in 24 plate appearances. The last time he posted a strong month at the plate was July, and he will be under a great deal of deserved scrutiny early in the season.

The Blue Jays will have to hope his rough spring is a mirage, but given what they’ve seen from Smoak lately it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his struggles carrying into the season.

1.00 – Kevin Pillar’s K/BB ratio

The Blue Jays are hoping Kevin Pillar’s new-found patience this spring carries over into April. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Offensively speaking, if there’s one thing Pillar is known for it’s his tendency to swing the bat – even at questionable pitches. His aggressiveness is part of what makes him effective at avoiding strikeouts and putting the ball in play. It also ensures that his walk rate stays well below league average.

Pillar has paid lip service to being more patient this offseason and he’s backed those words up on the field by drawing as many walks as strikeouts in 20 contests. It’s just 53 at-bats, but plate discipline statistics can be more meaningful in smaller samples.

If Pillar is making a point of accumulating more free passes in 2017, it could certainly help him provide more value at the plate.

11.81 – Dominic Leone’s K/9

When the Blue Jays claimed Leone on waivers in November, he looked like Triple-A depth and nothing more. After all, he’d been shelled in brief major-league stints over the last two seasons to the tune of a 7.07 ERA and -0.7 WAR in just 42 innings.

Leone will almost certainly open the season in the minor leagues, but during his spring campaign he’s missed bats, kept his walks under control, and allowed just eight hits in 10.2 innings. It’s easy to forget that as recently as 2014 he was a 22-year-old who was one of the most promising young relievers in the game with the Seattle Mariners. While it’s been a hard fall since then, there’s a chance his strong spring campaign is a sign of life.

A good start at Triple-A Buffalo would put Leone in a position to be one of the first bullpen callups for the Blue Jays this season – a scenario that seemed highly unlikely before he arrived at camp.