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Blue Jays Starters: League Leaders In Upside?

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Does the Blue Jays’ starting rotation lead the majors
in upside potential?

Much has been made of the Blue Jays’ “perfectly cromulent” starting rotation.  Many writers consider it acceptable – if only barely – but bemoan the lack of a “true ace” or of multiple high-upside starters.  But is this entirely fair?  Or is it more accurate to describe the Jays’ rotation as solid, with considerable potential to performance far in excess of expectations?

Marcus Stroman  (Steamer 2016 projection = 3.70 ERA)

The Steamer projection system calls for the Stro Show to pitch 201 (!) innings in 2016 at a 3.70 ERA.  That would be a marginal #2 starter level, which is not bad for a pitcher with only 157 career innings at the major league level.

Except …

Stroman’s career ERA is 3.31.  This is supported by his advanced stats: a career xFIP of 3.20 and SIERA of 3.21.  It is also supported by his exceptional pitching arsenal and comments from scouts.  And Stro is still learning, and still improving.  So would it be crazy to expect him to perform in 2016 at his historical SIERA, or an ERA around 3.20?

Reasonable upside ERA:  3.25

Marco Estrada (Steamer = 4.47 ERA)

Marco is a funny beast.  His 2015 ERA of 3.13 was 5th best in the AL – better than Chris Archer, Chris Sale, or Corey Kluber.  But his advanced stats were far weaker.  His 4.64 SIERA was 5th lowest among qualified AL starters, and his .216 BABIP appeared anything but sustainable.  Steamer accordingly projects him for a substantial regression – all the way back to a #4 starter.

But Steamer’s projections are based on pitchers fitting a standard profile.  Marco does not.  For example, his career BABIP as a starter (since 2011) of .259 is tied with Jered Weaver for the lowest in baseball.  And while his 2015 ERA is by far the best of his career, he averaged an ERA of 3.80 as a starter from 2011-2013.  Marco has developed an exceptional contact management game, helped by his hard contact rate which has decreased every year since 2011.  Put all this together with one of the game’s best changeups, and it would seem reasonable to expect him to match his career 3.93 ERA as a starter in 2016 – or perhaps to even do a bit better.

Reasonable upside ERA:   3.75

R.A. Dickey (Steamer = 4.30 ERA)

RAD is a tale of three knuckleballs.  From 2010-2012 he was dominant with the Mets, pitching to a 2.93 ERA using a combination of knuckleballs with three different speeds, including a “fast” knuckler of up to 80 mph.  But in early 2013, Dickey suffered an upper back injury which made it harder to throw the fast knuckler.  His back eventually healed, but his knuckler velocity didn’t return most of that year, or most of the next.

This was important for two reasons.  First, because Dickey’s swinging strike rate for the fast knuckler is almost double that for the slow one, making it arguably his best pitch.  And second, because the lack of the fast knuckler made it possible for hitters to key on the slow one.  As a result, Dickey’s ERA averaged almost 4 over those two years.

2015 started poorly.  His velocity was even lower than in 2014, and as a result his first-half ERA of 4.87 was his worst half-year since 2009.  But by July, he appeared to rediscover the fast knuckler.  His average speed rose to over 77 mph, and stayed at that level for remainder of the year. The result was an ERA of 2.80 – back in the range he maintained consistently from 2010-2012.

It would not be crazy to peg Dickey’s upside at the sub-3.00 level.  He averaged 2.93 for the Mets over three years, and the usual age-related decline rules do not apply to knuckleballers.  But to be conservative, let’s say …

Reasonable upside ERA = 3.50

J.A. Happ (Steamer = 3.97 ERA)

One of the hardest things to project in baseball is the future effect of a breakthrough.  As for example – from 2010-2013, Jake Arrieta averaged a 5.41 ERA with the Orioles.  Traded to the Cubs, Jake pitched to an impressive 2.53 ERA in 2014.  So how to project his 2015?  Should 2014 be seen as a legitimate breakthough, and similar performance expected in the future, or should the Baltimore years be given more weight?  Steamer chose a middle ground, predicting 163 IP with a 3.64 ERA.  Arrieta went on to pitch 229 innings with a 1.77 ERA, and won the NL Cy Young.

Which brings us to J.A. Happ.

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Happ’s early years showed promise.  In 2009, pitching for the Phillies, he won the Sporting News Rookie of the Year award with a 2.93 ERA, 119 strikeouts, and a 1.24 WHIP in 166 innings pitched.   He followed up with a 3.40 ERA in 2010 with the Phillies and Astros.  But from 2011-2014, Happ regressed badly, with a 4.72 ERA (12th worst among 151 qualified pitchers).  He appeared to be destined to be a back-of-the-rotation, 150 IP option – worth keeping, but nothing special.  His first half of 2015 seemed to support that view, posting a 4.64 ERA with the Mariners.

And then came Pittsburgh, and a healthy dose of Ray Searage pixie dust.

In 11 starts with Pittsburgh, Happ pitched to a 1.85 ERA (3.00 SIERA, 2.90 xFIP).  And more importantly, he did it with clearly identifiable changes in his pitch mix, aggressiveness and release mechanics.  All of which should be sustainable.

In preparing Happ’s 2016 projection, Steamer took a middle-of-the-road approach similar to what they did with Arrieta.  The 3.97 ERA is near the midpoint of Happ’s Pittsburgh 3.00 SIERA and his 2011-2014 4.72 ERA.  But if you believe that Happ is for real, would something closer to his 2015 Pittsburgh SIERA not be justified?

Reasonable upside ERA = 3.50.

Jesse Chavez  (Steamer = 3.90 ERA)

Jesse “The Body” Chavez is 6’2″ and weighs 160 pounds.  This might be one reason for his splits:  in 2014, he pitched to a 3.14 ERA in the first half and 4.60 in the second half.  In 2015, the splits were even more exaggerated:  3.40 and 5.59.  Of course, his inning counts may have also contributed to this apparent fatigue factor, as he jumped from 87.1 innings in 2013 to 146 in 2014.

Clearly, a well rested Chavez has been pretty good.  And this is despite pitching to a below-average catcher (Stephen Vogt) with a well-below-average defensive team behind him (in 2015, the A’s team UZR/150 of -5.9 was second-worst among MLB teams).

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Some might say that Jesse’s results stem from pitching in the O.co Coliseum, which historically has been a pitcher’s park.  But its park rating was 1.023 in 2014 and .944 in 2015, neither of which ranked in the top 10 pitcher-friendly parks.  Concern has also been raised about Jesse’s home/away splits.  In both 2014 and 2015, Jesse’s home ERA was over 1.5 runs lower than his away ERA.   But that might be a combination of luck (he had a 2015 .327 BABIP on the road, vs. .294 at home) and a less-than-successful change in pitching style on the road (more strikes, a significantly higher K-BB%, and hard contact of 34.5% vs. 27.9% at home).

The Jays have two reasons for optimism in 2016.  First, with two 140 IP seasons now under his belt, Jesse’s fatigue factor should be reduced.  And even if it is not, the Jays will know to look for signs of fatigue and to manage for them (perhaps by giving Jesse more rest earlier in the season? Or by something more creative?).  And second, the apparent mismanagement of Jesse’s pitch strategy on the road should not happen under Martin, who is considered one of the better pitch-callers in baseball.

Realistically, the Jays can not expect much more than the 140 innings projected by Steamer.  But if the fatigue factor improves and Martin manages his pitch selection better, would it be reasonable to expect that he could produce at something like his combined 2014-15 first half ERA of 3.30?

Reasonable upside ERA = 3.50

Drew Hutchison  (Steamer = 4.11 ERA)

I would take that.

The bottom line

It is highly unlikely that the entire Blue Jays staff will produce at the upside levels I suggest above.  But I would argue that it is almost equally unlikely that none of them will.  In my view, the Jays have signed and traded wisely, putting together a staff where every pitcher could be a #3 arm or better, and where several have the potential to perform at a #2 level (which I define as an ERA of 3.25-3.75).

We’re going to miss you, David.  But the Jays 2016 pitching staff should hold up better than many people think.  And the offseason is not over yet!

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