Home run deficit at the heart of Blue Jays' early struggles

Troy Tulowitzki is among a number of Toronto Blue Jays hurting for a home run. (Fred Thornhill/CP)
Troy Tulowitzki is among a number of Toronto Blue Jays hurting for a home run. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

In 2017, there is no more reliable way to win baseball games than to hit more home runs than your opponent.

That’s always been a good way to pile up the wins, but as the league-wide strikeout rates continue to rise to historic levels, “stringing hits together” is getting harder to do. That makes quick-strike power more important.

At the same time, home run rates are surging and the big fly has become the most reliable vehicle for offensive production available. Winning games is now inextricably tied to clearing the fence and stopping your opponent from doing the same.

Theoretically, that’s exactly the type of environment this year’s Toronto Blue Jays were built for. The team is stocked with guys with proven power pedigrees. They also opened the year with a rotation featuring three groundballers in Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, and Francisco Liriano, plus two hurlers known for inducing weak fly balls in Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ.

Last year, this squad was one of the best in baseball in winning the home run battle:

As well as ranking among the best teams in baseball at piling up round trippers, the Blue Jays remained safely in the middle of the pack when it came to conceding them. This year has been a different story:

In 2017, the Blue Jays have been nothing short of abysmal at both delivering the big fly and preventing it. Clearly a 2-10 team isn’t doing many things right, but given the way the Blue Jays are constructed, this isn’t how you’d expect this team to struggle.

These numbers being so poor is actually encouraging for Toronto in that they almost can’t be sustainable. For instance, since FanGraphs began tracking HR/FB rate in 2002, only one out of 450 teams has ever allowed a number as high as the Blue Jays’ 15.9 percent over a full season. That club was the 2016 Cinncinati Reds, whose historically-awful staff posted -0.5 WAR in 1442 innings. Even with Happ and Sanchez on the shelf, the Blue Jays aren’t in that category. They are going to allow home runs at a lower rate going forward.

On the offensive side, their 6.5 percent HR/FB rate is also the kind of number that almost never lasts for a full season. In the sample sample of 450 teams, only seven matched that level of futility. All of them played 81 of their games in pitcher’s parks, and not one had a lineup stacked with brand-name power threats like Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Kendrys Morales and Troy Tulowitzki.

This information brings us to a conclusion that isn’t inherently surprising. The Blue Jays have been awful in a very unpredictable way so far in 2017. In order for a team like this to start 2-10, that almost has to be true. By losing the home run battle, they aren’t demonstrating an exaggerated version of a known weakness – they’re falling short in an area where they were set up to succeed.

For increasingly-endangered optimists, this is an easy one to spin. The Blue Jays will hit home runs much more frequently than they’ve shown. They will also keep more balls in the park. This confluence of events will lead to wins.

Alternatively, there’s ammunition for the growing horde of pessimists as well. Toronto entered this season with known concerns like depth issues, a relatively short lineup, and Father Time’s favourite presents: injuries and decline. These numbers are an unexpected and unwelcome addition to that list.

Whichever side you fall on, everyone can agree that if this team continues to rack up a massive home run deficit it’s difficult to see how it turn things around.

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