Yeah, I guess I’ve been writing about the Jays a lot lately. But can you blame me? This team is just too dang interesting.
Without a doubt, the Blue Jays’ offense is what gets the presses going. Even losing Edwin Encarnacion, and maybe even Jose Bautista (and his continued aging), this team still flat-out rakes. But what might surprise you is just how good their pitching was in 2016, and how good it looks going forward as well. Aaron Sanchez finished first in the AL ERA race with an even 3.00, and J.A. Happ wasn’t far behind, finishing sixth at 3.18. Marco Estrada also had a successful season, although he was aided with a good heap of luck that may not stay in 2017. In addition to that, Marcus Stroman had pretty fantastic peripheral numbers despite not great overlying numbers, suggesting he has lots of room to grow.
Let’s start with the ERA king. Aaron Sanchez came through the Blue Jays farm system with a hot fastball and a curve with plus potential. He never showed fantastic strikeout rates, but his velocity was strong and he was able to suppress runs despite walking more than desirable for a young pitcher. But since his debut he has managed to cut down on his walk rate to where he’s at 8.3% as a starter, around league average.
Something concerning heading forward. though, is Sanchez’ inability to get whiffs. He posted an 8.2% whiff rates in 2016, and his strikeout rate was 20.4%, slightly more than the whiffs by themselves would predict. Part of this is helped with keeping his fastball speed up, where he sits in the mid 90s. A bigger effect of this is keeping hard contact rates down, as well as on the ground often (54.4%). But this isn’t so sustainable, especially once the velocity comes down, and it’s going to as he ages.
He hasn’t thrown a significant percentage of off speed pitches; his curveball hasn’t quite developed yet to where some hoped it would be by now. Sanchez definitely has dirty stuff, and his upside is someone in a David Price mold where he commands his fastball so well that he builds everything from it. He has huge potential, but still room to grow.
Joining Sanchez as another young gun with big potential around him, Marcus Stroman. He’s just 5’9, but Stroman can ramp up to the mid 90s and is still one of the most intimidating forces on the mound. Again, like Sanchez, he’s not getting a ton of strikeouts (19.8% strikeout rate career average), but he controls the strike zone exceptionally well, walking just 5.9% of batters through his career. He gets a 60.1% ground ball rate thanks to throwing his sinker 43.9% of the time and pounding the zone down low. He pitches to contact instead of trying to miss bats, but this allows him to go deeper into games despite his short stature.
Stroman had just a 68% left on base percentage, which is well below the league’s 73%. LOB% regresses even more consistently than BABIP, meaning that he’s due to strand more baserunners going forward – tied directly to his ERA. His hidden numbers suggest he’s due to breakout in a big way, and not just because he’s forecasted to improve with age and experience. He simply had too much bad luck last season, and we can expect positive improvement simply from luck to middle rotation starter. The sky is the limit as he improves the rest of his pitches.
Most people would think you were crazy to think J.A. Happ would be a major contributor on one of the final four playoff teams remaining, but that’s exactly what he was in 2016. He came up through the Phillies’ organization with big fanfare, contributing a small rookie role to their 2008 World Series win. He throws in the low 90s while staying with the heater over half the time. While this approach doesn’t get him many strikeouts (20.5% in 2016), or force ground balls (his batted ball splits mirror almost exactly league averages), similar to the Sanchez and Stroman he controls the ball well in the zone and doesn’t put himself in spots to have much damage against. He walks just 7.5% of batters, buoyed by a 59.9% first strike rate, staying ahead and throughout the count. Happ may have just turned 34 years old, but his approach ages like a fine wine and has been proven to be successful.
The Blue Jays’ pitching rotation has been thriving and picking up any slack the offense leaves. They may not be flashy in the whiffs department, but they command the zone with precision and accuracy. Depressing contact rates and keeping the ball on the ground is key as well, and as long as they continue they will have success going forward. The Blue Jays’ staff may not get you much in the way of strikeouts, but they’ll be consistent pitchers where you know what you’re getting, and there’s immense value in that.
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