Blue Jays OF Ezequiel Carrera is giving the Blue Jays all the right kinds of problems
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. This player starts the season on the bench, as the fourth outfielder. The plan is to have him spell the regulars, and maybe enter the game as a defensive replacement from time to time. But things go sideways, and the Blue Jays are forced to move him into a full-time role. Instead of falling flat on his face, as many predicted, he shines – playing at a ~4 fWAR level with positive ratings both offensively and defensively.
Kevin Pillar in 2015, you say? Good guess, but no. I am talking about Ezequiel Carrera in 2016.
Zeke is having a breakout year, with a wRC+ almost 20 points higher than his previous career high and a holy-cow-Batman level 19.1 UZR/150 defensive rating in the outfield. And, while it is a bit early to start Zeke’s all-star campaign, an excellent article by Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs points out that these improvements result from recognizable changes which might well be sustainable.
If (and yes, this is a big “if”) e-Zeke has really transformed himself into a 4 fWAR outfielder, it raised some interesting questions for 2016 and beyond:
Saving Mr. Bats
Joey Bats has been struggling in RF over the last two years, with a UZR/150 of -12.5 in 2015 (17th out of 18 qualifying mlb RFs) and -11.1 so far in 2016 (19th of 21). It could be the effect of injury, or age, or just small sample sizes, but it is clearly an issue.
Moving JB to 1B/DH for the remainder of the season would keep his bat in the lineup (replacing a struggling Justin Smoak) while improving outfield defence and reducing the risk of another JB injury.
Michael Saunders has been struggling defensively in left field in 2016, with a -15.1 UZR/150. This is in part due to his still not being completely recovered from his 2015 injury, so he does get at least a partial “mulligan”. But it is also relevant that Saunders has not played 200 innings in left field in a year since 2010. His primary corner has been right, where he has a career UZR/150 of 20.7 as compared to his -4.1 in left. So far this year, Zeke has had a better UZR/150 in left than in right. So if Jose moved to first, it might make sense to move Mikey to right and Zeke to left. An outfield of Zeke, Superman and Mikey could well be something special to watch!
The Magnificent 2017
Just how good is a fangraphs WAR of 4+? Well, put it this way: in 2015, only 41 players in the majors achieved that level. Admittedly, the way that Zeke is doing it is unusual. So many players achieve high fWAR by being outstanding in one area, but mediocre (or worse) in others. For example, Kevin Pillar’s 4.3 fWAR in 2015 was due almost entirely to his defence, while Jose’s and Edwin’s 4.5’s were primarily offence. In 2016, Zeke is playing at a 4 fWAR level by being above average offensively, in the field and on the basepaths. Players like that are less spectacular, but highly valuable – more so than a player like a Jay Bruce, who brings (arguably) more value with the bat but far less value elsewhere. If Zeke could play consistently at this level, he would without doubt be a major-league-level starting outfielder and could well be a large part of the answer to the Jays’ 2017 outfield questions.
Glove Don’t Cost a Thing
Zeke is arb-eligible for the first time in 2017 and under team control through 2020. At a 2016 salary of $522,000, he is a bargain and likely to remain so.
The bottom line
It is entirely possible that Carrera’s performance in the first half of 2016 is a statistical blip, and that he will revert to historical levels in the second half and beyond. But it is also possible that this is a legitimate breakthrough. Remember that e-Zeke has less than 1,000 major-league plate appearances in his career – less than 2 full seasons – so while he is 29 years old he is still growing at the major league level. If he is for real, it would solve a lot of the Jays’ problems.