Blue Jays youngsters will need plenty of defensive improvement in 2020

Andrew G. Zuber

The Toronto Blue Jays introduced several young players into their lineup during the 2019 season, each with designs on being part of the long-term future and hoping to grow together into a competitive core. Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio each had moments at the plate where they looked the part of future major league stars, but there were also plenty of collar-tugging plays in the field that leave questions about whether they’ll be able to hang defensively at the top level.

Defence can be a tricky thing to quantify, but the latest update to Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average (OAA) leaderboards for 2019 paint a picture that mostly matches up to the eye test.

Here’s a look at how the returning Blue Jays fared in the field according to the latest metrics.

From the site: Outs Above Average is the cumulative effect of all individual Catch Probability plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, making it a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them. For example, a fielder who catches a 25% Catch Probability play gets +.75; one who fails to make the play gets -.25.

The Infielders

Outs Above Average for qualified Blue Jays infielders in 2019. Qualifier = 1 fielding attempt per team game played (via Baseball Savant)
Outs Above Average for qualified Blue Jays infielders in 2019. Qualifier = 1 fielding attempt per team game played (via Baseball Savant)

Scouting reports did not hold back on their praise of Guerrero Jr.’s bat skills and power when projecting his future as a player at the highest level, and those same reports were often equally critical of his chances to stick as a third baseman for long. The early results were wonky at best to the eye test, as the 20-year-old racked up 17 errors in 96 games at the hot corner.

The advanced numbers confirmed that not only was the eye test correct, but Vladito may have even been worse than it originally appeared.

Of the 218 infielders who qualified (one fielding attempt per team game played), Guerrero Jr. ranked... 218th. Yes, that’s dead last among infielders, with a minus-8 percent success rate added. He was particularly troubled by balls he had to move in on, posting minus-10 OAA. Guerrero didn’t have an ideal rookie season at the plate, and his accompanying performance in the field gives him plenty to work on this offseason.

Bichette, Vladdy’s running mate through the minors, had the difficult task of stepping in to the toughest position on the field as the starting shortstop down the stretch. There were a couple routine miscues hit his way over the course of his 42 appearances at short, and he also received a below-average grade on the league-wide scale.

Bichette was assigned a minus-4 OAA with a minus-3 percent success rate added, placing him 190th among all infielders and 28th of the 35 qualified shortstops. This puts him in the company of players like Marcus Semien, Brandon Crawford and Orlando Arcia. It’s not a great spot to be in, but the relatively small sample size, difficulty of playing the position at the highest level, and his excellence at the plate makes it something that should not hold him back from being a shortstop full-time for the foreseeable future.

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - AUG 05: Bo Bichette (11) of the Blue Jays and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (27) on defense during the MLB regular season game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays on August 05, 2019, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Bo Bichette and Vladimir Geurrero Jr. have a long way to go on the defensive side of the game. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s not all bad news for the young infielders. Another graduate to the major leagues for the Blue Jays last year was second baseman Biggio. He flashed an elite eye at the plate and a downright aversion to swinging at bad pitches, and his all-around profile only looks sweeter with the defensive grades.

Biggio was worth seven OAA with a four percent success rate added as a second baseman in 2019, putting him 21st among all qualified infielders and fourth at his position. For all the grandeur and headlines that Bichette and Guerrero Jr. generated on their way to the bigs, it was Biggio who graded out as the most well rounded rookie on the team in 2019.

One of the more versatile players last year — defensively, at least — was Brandon Drury. He logged innings all over the infield, and contributed four OAA, 42nd among all infielders. This is buoyed by a plus-6 as a third baseman, and a minus-2 at second base.

The numbers don’t account for catchers, but there’s good news there as well. Danny Jansen was a Gold Glove finalist, and he finished 10th among qualified catchers with seven runs from extra strikes due to framing.

The Outfielders

Outs Above Average for Blue Jays outfielders in 2019. Minimum 75 chances. (via Baseball Savant)
Ranking out of 148 outfielders with at least 75 fielding attempts. (via Baseball Savant)

The Blue Jays cycled through several outfielders last season in search of a proper fit, to what we’ll politely call mixed results.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. started the season as an infielder, but after attempts to throw the ball from second base to first turned into a recurring nightmare he was shifted to left field. He showed off his arm with nine outfield assists, but several of them were a result of him being tested to prove he could make plays and there was a clear learning curve to his new position.

He rated out with minus-4 OAA, contributing a minus-3 percent success rate added. That places him 106th of 135 outfielders with at least 100 opportunities. If he can grow to at least an average level and repeat his performance at the plate that saw him post a 127 OPS+, he slots in as a worthwhile contributor to the 2020 outfield.

It’s a similar story for Teoscar Hernandez, who had more than his share of borderline hilarious misplays in the left field corner of Rogers Centre. The team put into action the strategy that he’d be able to get better reads on the ball in centre field, and the numbers bear that out.

Hernandez was worth minus-5 OAA across all positions (72nd of 92 qualified OF), with a minus-4 in left and minus-1 in centre. He actually saw more action in the middle of the field than in left (205 chances to 93), but the overall picture likely aligns a lot better if he sticks as a designated hitter.

It’s a similar story for Billy McKinney, who also had a minus-5, right between Gurriel and Hernandez at 109th among outfielders with at least 100 chances.

Derek Fisher, in limited action, was just slightly better than those listed above, posting a minus-3.

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 02:  Randal Grichuk #15 of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. #13 after they defeated the Miami Marlins 6-1 at Marlins Park on September 2, 2018 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
The Blue Jays don't have many defensive bright spots in the outfield. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The bright spot in the outfield — defensively, at least — was Randal Grichuk.

The $50-million man played right and centre last year, and though he was hot-and-cold at the plate over the course of the year, he held things together as the best defensive option in the vast outfield space.

He rated out with a plus-6 OAA, 21st among outfielders. He was a plus-4 in right and a plus-2 in centre, adding a two percent success rate overall. He was worth positive value moving straight back and over his right shoulder, posting small negative marks to the back left and on balls in.

Grichuk struggled to get on base last year to the tune of a .280 OBP, but set a career high in home runs with 31. If he can raise his offensive profile to the above .800 OPS numbers he was capable of in previous years while maintaining this plus defence in the outfield, he will prove himself a useful stabilizing force as the rest of the team finds their way.


TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 29: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays and teammates salute the crowd during the last game of the season against the Tampa Bay Rays in the third inning during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on September 29, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
The Blue Jays need to make big strides on defence to be competitive in 2020. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

As a team, to the surprise of likely nobody, the Blue Jays look to be a sub-par defensive team coming in to 2020.

Their infielders actually combined for plus-4 OAA in 2019, 12th in baseball. As great as that sounds, a lot of it is tied up in players who won’t be around in 2020. Freddie Galvis was 10th best among all infielders with a plus-12, Eric Sogard was plus-4, and Justin Smoak was a plus-2. That’s 18 runs above average that won’t be a part of the 2020 infield, with only Biggio proving he can step in right away to maintain that level.

Travis Shaw (plus-4 OAA in 2018, 35th among IF and plus-12 in 2017, third best) should help at first and provide some relief for Vladdy, but otherwise the infield will rely on Guerrero Jr. and Bichette taking big steps forward as fielders.

The outfield is another story. Grichuk has been consistently at last year’s level most of his career, but the rest of the options are uninspiring to say the least.

They combined for a minus-4 OAA, 21st among the 30 MLB teams. The team hasn’t made any additions to the outfield and it seems unlikely they will before the season opens. They’re still without a true centre fielder to man the most important position. The front office is high on Fisher, but he and Gurriel Jr. will need to make some significant gains to keep the outfield defence from being a sore spot.

Twenty-twenty projects to be a big growth year for the Blue Jays in all aspects of the game. While the highlights and headlines will go to Guerrero Jr. and Bichette’s offensive exploits, one of the biggest keys to pushing this team forward to competitiveness will come from their ability to grow as reliable fielders who can keep the pitchers from getting overworked.

The faster they pile up the outs, the quicker they can get back in the box, after all.

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