How the young Blue Jays could make history
Every team has a current story, something their right now is all about. For the Dodgers, it's whether they're going to finally win that elusive ring. The Red Sox are hoping they can contend without Mookie Betts. The Reds and White Sox wonder if their aggressive offseasons were enough. We don't need to tell you what the 2020 Astros are going to be remembered for. You get the idea.
For the 2020 and beyond Blue Jays, their "right now" is simple. They've had three straight fourth-place finishes in the AL East, and they just lost 95 games, the worst since the expansion Jays of 1977, '78, and '79 lost more than 100 each season. If the near-term Jays, the ones that no longer have Josh Donaldson or Marcus Stroman or Kevin Pillar, are going to turn this around -- or not -- it's going to come down to a positive answer to this question:
Can their quartet of highly touted young hitters with more famous relatives (Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., none older than 26) all succeed? And what if they do?
That obviously extends to pitching prospect Nate Pearson and others as well, but let's stick with the hitters for now. Last year, at relatively young ages, each had various levels of success, with their ages in parentheses.
Bichette (21) -- 144 OPS+ in 212 plate appearances
Biggio (24) -- 113 OPS+ in 430 plate appearances
Guerrero (20) -- 106 OPS+ in 514 plate appearances
Gurriel (25) -- 127 OPS+ in 343 plate appearances
As a group: .269/.346/.478, or a line 17% better than league average. Another way of saying that is that this quartet, combined, hit like Paul Goldschmidt (.260/.346/.476). Goldschmidt, of course, turned 32 in September, meaning that each young Jay was at least seven years younger, or in some cases, more than a decade younger.
Youth is no guarantee of improvement, of course. But let's have fun for a moment. Let's say that each of them post a full season 10% better than average (a 110 OPS+ or better), which isn't an unreasonable expectation. Three of them just did that in a partial season, and Guerrero wasn't that far from it.
How many teams have had four above-average young hitters?
We defined "young" here as "age-26 season and younger," given that the oldest member, Gurriel, doesn't even turn 27 until October. And, as we just noted, "above-average" means an OPS+ of 110 or higher. Assuming a qualified season of 502 plate appearances, there have only been 15 teams in history to pull this off, though some of them were so long ago that a man who never popped more than a dozen dingers in a season was nicknamed "Home Run" Baker. (The 1910s were a weird time.)
Instead, let's try to keep this a little more modern. Going back to 1969 usually makes sense, because it was the first year of divisional play as well as the first year the mound was lowered to its current height. Since then? Seven teams -- with a lot of fun names.
Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig, Corey Seager, Chris Taylor
Coco Crisp, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore
Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez
Gary Carter, Warren Cromartie, Larry Parrish, Ellis Valentine
John Ellis, Oscar Gamble, George Hendrick, Charlie Spikes
Dusty Baker, Darrell Evans, Ralph Garr, Earl Williams
Johnny Bench, Alex Johnson, Lee May, Bobby Tolan
Right away, there are some impressive names there. Bench, Carter, Bagwell and Biggio -- yes, Cavan's dad -- are Hall of Famers. There are dozens of All-Star appearances from this collection, because it's somewhat forgotten how good players like Evans, Cromartie and Baker were in their day.
Now, these seven teams didn't all have the same kind of success. The 2017 Dodgers won 104 games and made it to the World Series; the '05 Indians won 93 games. A few of these teams finished well under .500. But the point of having a group of talented young hitters isn't just about winning that year, is it? No one really expects the 2020 Blue Jays to take down the Yankees this season. The goal is to take that step forward to show that this is really a group worth building around.
With that in mind, look at those 1991 Astros, who went 65-97 and had made the playoffs just once in the last decade. The next year, they'd go .500; they wouldn't have a losing record again until 2000. The '78 Expos went 76-86; the next year, they went 95-65, kicking off five straight winning seasons. The '69 Reds were the final step before The Big Red Machine got going. Those are the models this Toronto team is shooting for.
It doesn't always work out -- obviously, we're ignoring pitching entirely here. The '74 Indians never turned into anything. Neither did the '72 Braves. Nothing is ever guaranteed. But if you have a young core, all performing at a high level? That's a nice start.
What happened when they started together in 2019?
As we said above, none of them played a full season in 2019; Guerrero's 123 games played were the most of the foursome. (Biggio wasn't recalled until late May and Bichette not until late July; Gurriel was the Opening Day second baseman, but poor defense earned him a month in the Minors transitioning to the outfield, then a quad strain cost him much of August.)
That means that there weren't really a ton of games that this quartet actually started together -- just eight, actually. More meaningfully, there were 80, or basically half the season, that at least three of the four were in together. You won't be surprised to find that the Blue Jays offense did better with three or four of them than without them -- which makes the premise that there's maybe 120 or so games in 2020 that features all four so exciting.
All four: .836 OPS
Any three: .790
Any two: .625
Any one: .676
2019 Blue Jays average: .633
What's the thing to know about each player?
Since we did get some big league looks at each of the four in 2019 ... what stood out, aside from the final line? What's the thing that gives us some hope they could each either take a step forward in '20 or continue what they did in '19?
.571 slugging -- We don't believe Bichette, over a full season, is a true-talent .571 slugger. The underlying Statcast metrics don't really support that, and again, just 212 plate appearances. But it's undeniable that he just did actually slug .571, which was was a top-20 mark among players with 200 plate appearances last year. You can probably guess most of the names above: Trout, Yelich, Springer, Arenado and so on.
We don't, obviously, want to overthink this small-sample number, especially in a year where every home run record was shattered. But he did it at age 21, and if you really want to have some fun, here's the all-time list of players 21 or younger to slug that high in at least 200 plate appearances. Hello, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. Hi, Albert Pujols, Willie McCovey and Cody Bellinger. It's not a list that guarantees even the tiniest thing. It's a list you'd like to be on.
Cavan's getting two numbers, because they're both cool enough to share.
16.5% walk rate -- Of the 207 players who stepped to the plate at least 400 times last year, Biggio's 16.5% walk rate was behind only Mike Trout, Yasmani Grandal and Alex Bregman. Full stop: Here's a list that includes three of the 20 or so best players in the game, and also Biggio. Good start.
44.2% sweet spot rate -- All launch angle isn't good launch angle, right? You can hit the ball too low (grounders are bad), and you can hit the ball too high (popups are bad). So that's what the "sweet spot" is, the balls hit in the nitro zone between 8 and 32 degrees. (Balls hit in that zone in the Majors in 2019 had a .610 average and 1.177 slugging. It's what you want.) Last year, the top of the "sweet spot" rate leaderboard looked like this:
- Biggio, 44.2%
- Trout, 44.1%
CAVAN BIGGIO IS NOT MIKE TROUT. Uh, probably.
After all the hype, Vlad Jr.'s 106+ OPS in his rookie year felt like something of a disappointment, somehow. Of course, even having an age-20 season with an above-average hitting line is an accomplishment. Over the last 30 years, only nine others have done it, and the list is full of studs -- Trout, Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Alex Rodriguez, Adrián Beltré, Jason Heyward, Ken Griffey Jr. and Starlin Castro. No, the defense wasn't good, nor was it expected to be. But the bat? It's going to play.
Three of 2019's six hardest-hit balls -- Take a look at the list of hardest-hit balls from last year, won't you? Focus on the top six. Giancarlo Stanton had two. Gary Sánchez had one. Guerrero had three, topping out at 118.6 MPH on this line-drive laser to left in May. No, exit velocity doesn't by itself put runs on the board, but there's evidence that showing the skill to hit even a single ball north of 108 mph might allow a hitter to outperform his projections. Guerrero had 43 such balls last year, 15th most in MLB.
We could have gone with the rookie record 11 straight multi-hit games in July, but there's something better.
.391 wOBA against non-fastballs -- We know that, as a sport, Major League pitchers are throwing fewer fastballs than ever. There's no such thing as a "fastball count" anymore. Bendy pitches miss more bats, so they get thrown more often. That's why, if you're going to succeed in the current version of baseball, you'd better pound some non-fastballs. That's why, if you're a Gurriel fan, you will very much like the list of best performers (min. 100 plate appearances) against sliders, curves, changeups and everything that's not a fastball.
- Mike Trout, .443
- Christian Yelich, .431
- Yordan Álvarez, .410
- Keston Hiura, .405
- Alex Bregman, .392
- Gurriel, 391
That ... is a list you want to be on. Right?
Bonus: What of Danny Jansen?
Why are we bothering with Jansen, a 24-year-old catcher who was an objectively poor hitter (.207/.279/.360, a 70 OPS+) in 2019?
Because he had a weird year; a poor-hitting/good-fielding catcher is pretty much the exact opposite of what he was viewed as in the Minors. (He did hit .323/.400/.484 at three Minor League levels in 2017, after all.) And because his 2020 projections (via Steamer) are actually pretty good, giving him a league-average .250/.326/.432.
As MLB.com's Keegan Matheson wrote this month, Jansen has focused on reaching that improved level, using a "completely different" offensive routine.
“He didn't really have a routine,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “He had a routine when it came to his defense, he knew what he had to do to get ready for the game, but when it comes to the hitting part, he never really had one. And I know he found one now, so that's good news for us.”
"I’m starting to understand my body more and my swing," Jansen told the Toronto Star, in regards to tee work and hitting weighted balls.
We are not, here, going to assume that a hitter who was demonstrably poor last year -- unlike his colleagues -- will suddenly be a plus this year. That's not how it works. But just for a second, if he did, if he also put up a year of 110 OPS+, has there ever been a team with five different above-average hitters no older than 26? We'll drop the plate-appearance minimum to 400 to account for the fact that catchers rarely play enough to qualify, and the answer is: Just once, the 2016 Marlins of Yelich, Stanton and J.T. Realmuto.
A lot would have to go right for the Jays' young hitters to actually stay healthy and succeed in 2020. It's more likely that they don't than that they do, and even if they do, they're still not as good as the Yankees or Rays. But it's not all about 2020, is it? It's about the next three to five years, and it starts here ... if it's going to start at all.