Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a “winning” brand of baseball. The only way to win baseball games is to score more runs than your opponent, and there are countless ways to go about that.
Is a consistent starting rotation the key to a winning team? Often, but not always. The 2015 Kansas City Royals certainly did fine without. You can’t win with bad defence though, right? Well you can if you’re the 2005 New York Yankees — who advanced metrics figured had the worst defence on record, but managed to win 95 games.
Whenever we’re talking about a team needing to add a particular element as the missing link to success it’s normally an oversimplification. This year’s Toronto Blue Jays team, for instance, often gets criticized for a lack of speed. That’s a valid criticism, but it certainly doesn’t fully explain where the club has gone wrong. This team was designed to punt speed, but it still could have been good in spite of that.
However, now that it’s apparent the Blue Jays — sitting at 59-65 — aren’t a particularly good team, it’s worth examining how much neglect for footspeed has hurt them. The reason scouts love speed so much, other than the fact that it’s easy to measure, is that it plays into all three facets of a position player’s game: hitting, fielding and baserunning. Here’s how the Blue Jays’ decision to build around a group of slowpokes has hurt them in each.
This is the phase of the game where the impact of a speed deficit is most intuitive. A bunch of 30-something veterans are not going to steal a lot of bases, and the Blue Jays’ 44 swiped bags rank 28th league-wide, better than only the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles.
You can steal bases on primarily guile — guys like Ian Kinsler and Paul Goldschmidt manage it every year — but you need something in the legs, too. Even if Kendrys Morales was the best strategic mind of his generation when it came to baserunning, he likely wouldn’t be able to execute.
Not only have stolen bases been a non-factor for the Blue Jays, they also haven’t been able to do much more than run station to station. The club’s extra bases taken rate of 36 percent ranks 26th league-wide, and its BsR — which combines stolen base efficiency and other success — of -13.7 runs is also the 26th best in baseball. That might not seem like a lot, but the MLB-best Rays sport a BsR of +23.8, making baserunning a factor that more than accounts for the difference between the two wild-card hopefuls by itself.
The effect of speed on hitting is significantly more subtle than it is on baserunning, but it can really add up over time. A team with wheels has a significantly better chance of beating out hits on ground balls and staying out of double plays to preserve both baserunners and outs. The Blue Jays do both of those thing exceptionally poorly.
When it comes to getting hits on groundballs, no team does it worse than Toronto. The Blue Jays are currently hitting .208 on grounders, the worst mark in the league. More precisely, their infield hit rate stands at 4.9 percent. The next worst team is the Cincinnati Reds at 5.6 percent — 14.3 percent better than the Blue Jays. A lot of luck goes into infield hits, but it’s hard to dispute the Blue Jays just don’t have the guys to beat them out.
Perhaps a bigger issue caused by a speed void is the inability to avoid the double play. The Blue Jays have grounded into 128 double plays this year (the next highest is the Houston Astros at 115), killing rallies for a team that doesn’t have baserunners to spare. They’ve hit into twin killings in 14 percent of their opportunities this year, also a league high. To put that number in perspective, that’s the career GIDP rate of Albert Pujols who set the all-time record for grounding into double plays earlier this year.
This is where it’s most difficult to draw a straight line between being slow and poor results, especially given the unreliability of single-season fielding stats. However, the Blue Jays have populated their outfield corners most consistently with a pair of players with a combined age of 70 in Jose Bautista and Steve Pearce. That’s going to lead to some balls falling in.
By both DRS and UZR the Blue Jays have been significantly below average when it comes to outfield defence, despite the presence of Kevin Pillar. DRS pegs them at 16 runs (26th league-wide), while UZR has them at a significantly more generous -6.6 runs (24th). Not all of that can be chalked up to raw speed issues alone — some questionable Ezequiel Carrera routes have played a role — but it’s probably the most significant factor.
Ultimately, the Blue Jays have been a bad team this year, and that’s more important than the fact they’ve been a slow team. With better injury luck maybe they would have been a good, slow, team. However, the club’s lethargic pace certainly would have been an impediment, even if they’d been stronger contenders.
The Blue Jays haven’t necessarily disappointed because they can’t run, but their inability to to run has certainly greased the wheels for what looks like a lost season.