Blue Jays Keys to Success #5 – Better Defense

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 15: Yangervis Solarte
DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 15: Yangervis Solarte /

The Jays ranked #21 in total team defense in 2017.  That will need to improve if they are to contend in 2018

This article is the fifth in a series about areas in which the Jays need to improve to contend in 2018. The first article was about beating the bad teams, the second was about winning in April, the third concerned Roberto Osuna, and the fourth was about starting pitching depth.   The focus is not on large targets – like staying healthy, or scoring more runs than the other guys – but rather on smaller areas where the Jays have underperformed in recent years and where improvement could translate into those critical few additional wins.

When people talk about the Jays’ success in 2015 and 2016, the focus is often on offense.  With some reason – the 2015 Jays’ hitters had an aggregate WAR of 35, which was the best in baseball.  In 2016, their 23.7 was 6th best – not quite as holy-cow-Batman as 2015, but still pretty dang good.

But the Jays defense was exceptional in those years as well.  Their team DRS (defensive runs saved) in 2015 was +20 (7th best in the majors) and in 2016 it was +40 (6th best).   But in 2017, Jays team DRS dropped to -18 (21st).  This was surprising, as the conventional wisdom was that being forced to use Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins more frequently due to injuries would hurt the team offensively but help defensively, as both of those players were thought to excel with the glove.

The impact of this decline on wins is substantial.  If you assume 10 runs per win (the actual figure varies between 9 and 11, depending on the year and on other factors) then the drop from +40 DRS to -18 DRS translates to almost 6 wins.  Even starting from the lower 2015 team DRS, the drop is almost 4 wins.

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Cause for optimism

But good news – there is cause for optimism that the Jays will once again be an above-average defensive team in 2018.  Consider the 5 largest contributors to the Jays’ poor DRS figure in 2017:

Jose Bautista had a -8 DRS.  He is no longer with the team, and his replacement (Randal Grichuk) had a +6 DRS with the Cardinals in 2017.

Ezequiel Carrera also had a -8 DRS.  His replacement, Curtis Granderson, had a -3 DRS in 2017.  But DRS is calculated relative to league average at a particular position, and Granderson’s -3 was made up of a -6 at CF and a +3 in the corners.  So although he is now arguably a below-average centre fielder, he is still a potentially well-above-average corner outfielder.

Steve Pearce had  -6 DRS, but that was in part due to injuries and feeling the pressure to perform in the first year of his Jays contract.  As the weak side of a LF platoon, it is unlikely that he will get the 637 innings in the field in 2018 that he did in 2017.  So even if good health does not improve his defense, fewer innings in left should translate into less damage.

Joe Biagini had a -5 DRS in only 119 innings.  He will likely be pitching in Buffalo, at least to start 2018.

And finally, Ryan Goins had a surprising -5 DRS.  This could still be an issue in 2018 if Aledmys Diaz (and his 2017 DRS of -10 in only 589 innings) fills in for an injured Tulo for significant time.  But the Jays have another option.  Yangervis Solarte is considered primarily a 2B/3B, but in 2017 the Pads gave him 199 innings at shortstop.  He responded with a +1 DRS (and a +11.8 UZR/150).  Assuming Devon Travis is healthy and playing second, might the Jays give Solarte (and his 2016 wRC+ of 119, and Steamer projected 2018 wRC+ of 105) the first crack at filling in for Tulo at short?

Next: Blue Jays: Five First Base Options If Justin Smoak Struggles

The bottom line

The Jays will need to improve their defense in 2018 to contend.  But fortunately, a return to at least 2015 levels of a +20 DRS seems very realistic.  If they can do so, at 10 runs = 1 win, it could add ~4 wins.  If they could return to the 2016 level of +40 DRS, the difference could be almost 6 wins.  Clearly, D is key.