2017 Fantasy Baseball: The Fielding Chronicles– Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays have dominated the AL East over the past couple of seasons and most people attribute it to their great offense. Why not? They had Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin, and Troy Tulowitzki. What’s more, they still have most of those guys this season. You could look at the pitching too and call it underrated. Very few people would look at the fielding and consider it as a major factor in their success.
We talk about defensive runs saved from the Fielding Bible all the time, but the holy grail is defensive efficiency rating. There is very little interpretation involved. It simply calculates the percentage of balls in play that get converted into outs. Truth be told, there is some luck involved and some performance from pitchers involved, but the results themselves are what they are.
The Blue Jays led the American League in DER the last two seasons. However, you think they got there, it had a lot to do with why they were so successful. A quick look up and down their rotation is a quick reminder of how important fielding can be. You could argue that all of them overachieved last season. Of course, as long as they don’t make any major changes then the magic could theoretically continue.
Billjamesonline.com breaks down individual fielders and team fielding by position. The Blue Jays have been very good, but they have not been quite as good as their overall DERs from baseball-reference.com. That can happen for a few reasons. Some pitchers are more adept at getting softer contact and when that happens the fielders typically make more plays behind them. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of luck, but when it happens two years in a row it usually is more than just luck.
The Blue Jays staff has a collection of starters that throw harder as a group than most other rotations in the game. DRS is calculated by looking at the relative difficulty of the plays that are made. If the fielders have to make a bunch of easy plays then they won’t necessarily get extra credit for making a bunch of them. The end result is that if he components of the pitching staff and defense remain the same then the results should be the same.
Most fantasy players think looking at fielding is a waste of time. Yet, we have the curious case of Kevin Pillar. Pillar is a perfect example of a player that doesn’t look special when looking at the basic offensive numbers. Yet, the Blue Jays will throw him out there as often as they can because he has been plus 43 runs over the last two season defensively. Even when the club added Melvin Upton Jr. through trade, they still wanted to keep Pillar out there. So, while he isn’t a front line fantasy center fielder, he is a decent fantasy backup because he will get to play even when he is slumping.
It might have surprised some folks when the club was able to add Jose Bautista back. They exposed him to free agency and he even had more lucrative offers elsewhere, but he wanted to stay home where he was comfortable. It’s also possible that other clubs would have asked him to be a DH at this point in his career. He has been minus 13 runs over the past three years with most of those (eight) coming in 2016. Even with Pillar, the Jays outfield might be closer to mediocre with both Bautista and Steve Pearce flanking him.
Teams that win their division two seasons in a row usually don’t make a number of changes, but the Jays had to overcome the loss of Michael Saunders and Edwin Encarnacion. Replacing them defensively is a lot easier than replacing them offensively. They brought in Steve Pearce to play first base and left field. He has been above average at both slots in his career, so they should be okay there.
Kendrys Morales will strictly DH in Toronto, so that puts a little more pressure on Pearce and Justin Smoak to play first base full time. Smoak has been a negative impact fielder over the years, but only to the tune of minus five runs over the past three years. So, all in all the club should maintain its advantage that it brought in.
One of the great things about the Jays is that they have five solid starting pitchers in their rotation. The problem with the Jays is that they have solid starters and none that are really good. J.A. Happ won 20 games last season. Anyone who believes he is doing that again is a fool. His ground ball rate is below average which means he will be reliant on Pillar and whether he can keep the ball in the ballpark. Here is guessing he won’t be nearly as successful.
Marcus Stroman is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He has a 60 percent ground ball rate over the past three seasons to be amongst the league leaders. His success should continue and perhaps even improve. Their rotation is split between extreme high ground ball rates and fly ball rates. Francisco Liriano should join Stroman in the sleeper category while Marco Estrada has bust written all over him.