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Silly Stats: Blue Jays statistical outliers for batters early in 2016

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Apr 24, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Jose Bautista (19) is greeted at home plate by third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) after hitting a two-run home run against Oakland Athletics in the fourth inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 24, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Jose Bautista (19) is greeted at home plate by third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) after hitting a two-run home run against Oakland Athletics in the fourth inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /
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Some statistical outliers have been behind the Blue Jays’ unsteady start

The Toronto Blue Jays have completed their first full month of baseball: 30 games down, 132 to go. In the early-season flood of small sample sizes and unsustainable stats, a closer look at the numbers making the least amount of sense is often a good place to start.

Whether it be a hitter’s BABIP .100 points above or below a career average, or a pitcher’s velocity showing a significant variance from their past seasons, these outliers from month one can be a sign of things to come, or an indicator of how a season will get back on track.

Let’s begin with the batting order.

Note: All statistics and percentages accurate as of first pitch against Texas Rangers (29 games played) on Thursday night. The Blue Jays’ offensive outburst impacted the numbers of several players, but the intention of highlighting these specific numbers remains the same.

1.  LF Michael Saunders:  .400 BABIP

Starting with the simplest culprit, left-fielder Michael Saunders has taken up the BABIP torch from Chris Colabello, who owned an astronomical .411 rate in 2015. Saunders’ career BABIP sits at a more predictable .292, so he can be expected to fall back to the low-300s over the coming months.

Saunders has already earned 0.7 fWAR, nearly one-third of the way to his single-season career-high of 2.3 in 2012 with the Mariners. His ISO of .241 (career average: .155) is a likely candidate for regression, too.

2.  3B Josh Donaldson:  -3.8 UZR/150, 53.8 PULL%

Despite Donaldson’s 1.6 fWAR through the first 30 games, his excellent defence is still rounding into form. His UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating measured in runs above average over 150 games) of -3.8 is due to shoot back into the 8.0+ range, as he’s finished at 9.8 or higher every season since 2012.

Donaldson’s batted ball profile is also looking a little different in 2016. After pulling 42.9% of balls in 2015, right near his career average, he’s been pulling 53.8% of balls this season. As should be expected to come along with that, his Hard Contact Percentage is up over 10% from last season.

3.  Jose Bautista:  23.0% Line Drive Percentage

Bautista has started relatively slowly at the plate. Not that he’s typically been a high-average guy, or needed to be, given his excellent on-base tool, but Bautista’s base hits and raw home run numbers haven’t been quite up to expectations.

That could be close to changing, however, if Bautista can get under the baseball just a bit more. The slugger’s Line Drive Percentage is currently at 23.0% on the young season, high highest career mark and well above his average of 15.5%. This has brought his Fly Ball Percentage down to 40.5%, slightly below his career norms.

Defensively, Bautista is on pace to have one of his poorer seasons in right field, but outside of some minor variances with the bat, things should normalize fairly soon.

4.  DH Edwin Encarnacion:  -0.1 WAR, .400 SLG%

That’s right, a negative WAR for Encarnacion (though Thursday’s bases-clearing double and three-run blast will surely take care of that…). Without much defensive value to buoy his slow start at the plate, Encarnacion has gotten off to a difficult start in his free agent year.

That .400 slugging percentage should balloon back to the .500+ level where it’s spent the last four seasons. He’s also striking out more and walking less than his career averages, two statistics that should be expected to level out for a veteran hitter like Encarnacion. Besides, his month-long streaks are well-know, and his mammoth Thursday night looked like the first scene of another one.

Like Bautista, Encarnacion’s Line Drive Percentage of 27.1% is a career-high and taking away from his fly ball totals.

5.  SS Troy Tulowitzki:  28.4 K%, .175 BABIP

With his WAR sitting flat at 0.0, Troy Tulowitzki hasn’t gotten any help, either. That low .175 BABIP entering play on Thursday is far beneath his career average of .318. Expect that to begin rising very soon for the shortstop.

His 28.4% strikeout rate is also an outlier from his career average of 16.7%. He did post a 21.3% rate last year, though, so perhaps this is something to keep an eye on. Leading this struggle is Tulowitzki’s inability to hit balls inside the strike-zone at a high enough rate.

For his career, Tulowitzki has made contact with 88.2% of the pitches he’s swung at that are inside the strike-zone. That number has fallen to 75.4% in 2016. He’s also hitting far more fly balls than he ever has (52.9% compared to a 38.6% career rate). Whereas Bautista and Encarnacion need a little more air under the ball, Tulo needs a bit less.

6.  1B Justin Smoak: .440 BABIP, 11.1 GB%

Smoak’s numbers are all out of sorts, so let’s begin with the BABIP. His .440 mark isn’t sustainable, and while he may not plummet all the way back to his career mark of .262, he’s due to regress. Expect a leading factor in this to be more ground balls from Smoak, whose 11.1% Ground Ball rate should jump back up closer to his career rate of 39.3%.

He’s walking more than he ever has (19.7% walk rate compared to 10.7% average) and striking out more than he ever has (34.4% compared to 23.0% average). Beyond that, the switch-hitter is making more hard contact, and less soft contact, than he ever has.

The small sample size of April is most obvious with Smoak, and his peripheral numbers can be expected to find their level over the coming month. This isn’t to say, however, that he can’t sustain his overall value. With a 0.3 WAR, he’s well on his way to passing his career high of 0.7.

7.  C Russell Martin: 40.5 K%, 20% Caught Stealing

Martin’s walk-off hit from Wednesday should spark a turnaround, here, and it’s an inevitable one. For a player that’s been known for having an excellent hitter’s eye and on-base tool, Martin hasn’t looked at all like himself.

Striking out 40.5% of the time is miles above his average of 16.6%. Blame it on his contact rates, as Martin is only making contact with 64.2% of the pitches he swings at, well below his average of 80.4%.

Expect him to begin making a little more noise against the running game, too. Eight of ten stolen base attempts have been successful against Martin this season. After averaging just above a 40% caught-stealing rate the past three seasons, that hasn’t completely vanished.

8.  CF Kevin Pillar: 1.2 WAR, 6 Defensive Runs Saved

His demotion from the leadoff spot tricked many Blue Jays fans into missing Pillar’s immense value to the Blue Jays this season. Thankfully a recent burst of hitting has re-awoken that, and his 1.2 WAR has him on pace for close to 6.0 WAR if he stays healthy.

This is due in large part to his defence which, somehow, is even stronger than in 2015. With six DRS (defensive runs saved), Pillar is nearly a third of the way to his total of 22 from last season already. Perhaps there’s still some room to go before his defensive ceiling.

Next: Why the Blue Jays are fine with Thole as backup

9A.  2B Ryan Goins: -0.6 WAR, .197 BABIP

A -0.6 WAR in just a month is impressive in it’s own right, but Goins’ just hasn’t been able to find a groove at the plate. His .197 BABIP surely doesn’t help as it’s way down from his .304 mark in 2015 with the Blue Jays. He’s been just fine defensively, though, with two DRS in just over 200 innings at second base.

9B.  2B Darwin Barney: 0.3 WAR, 4.0% Soft Hit

Barney’s sample size is even smaller, but he’s pulled a 0.3 WAR out of his first month. His bat is largely responsible for this bump, as Barney has hit .281 with a .343 on-base percentage.

He’s got a long line of career numbers saying that those are due to regress, however, and that 4.0% Soft Contact rate will help drag the average back down once he sees another hundred at-bats. Though Barney has shown some surprising pop, he’s typically a light hitter that relies on the fortune of his batted balls.

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