Blue Jays upgraded outfield defense paying off early

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees / Elsa/GettyImages

Plenty was written about the Toronto Blue Jays' retooled outfield defense over the winter. Following the acquisition of Daulton Varsho and the surprise signing of long-time rival Kevin Kiermaier, everyone in the Blue Jays' orbit tried to predict how much better the defense would be this season.

High praise was thrown around for the supposedly elite, new-look outfield before a single player took a backfield rep in Dunedin. Whether it was Jordan Romano praising his new teammates while on the Winter Tour or The Toronto Star's Mike Wilner calling this the "best defensive outfield in Jays history," the preseason parade of positive accolades poured down from every direction.

Talk about pressure to perform. Now a full month into the season, has the revamped outfield lived up to the hype?

So far, so good.

Looking at the outfield as a single defensive unit, the Blue Jays have racked up a major league-leading 11 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). As a reference point, last season, Toronto's outfield finished 21st with a -6 DRS.

Defensive wizards Kiermaier and Varsho have done what GM Ross Atkins brought them here to do — catch balls and make it look easy.

Kiermaier ranks third among qualified outfielders with six runs saved, and Varsho is right behind him with five. George Springer, the best defender in last year's shambles of an outfield, is the weakest link so far, with a -1 DRS in 191 innings in right field.

You can see the immediate impact Varsho made in his first start in center during the season-opening series in St. Louis, saving a run with this diving grab.

Whit Merrifield has one run saved while Cavan Biggio, Nathan Lukes and Jordan Luplow have all been average, with zero DRS ratings in their limited time. From this list, Merrifield will be the biggest factor in the team's outfield defense as the season goes on, already racking up 100 innings in the outfield and staking a claim to the fourth outfielder role.




Kevin Kiermaier



Daulton Varsho



Whit Merrifield



George Springer



As a group, the Blue Jays' outfielders also look good using the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) metric, which, as Piper Slowinski of FanGraphs describes, is "a measure of the average amount of damage that batted ball would do and how often it is converted into an out, relative to average at the position."

The Jays rank second with a solid 5.5 UZR, behind the Brewers' impressive 10.8 UZR. Last year Toronto finished with an ugly 27th-ranked UZR of -18.6. Varsho and Kiermaier are the main contributors here, with Varsho's 3.1 UZR putting him fifth among qualified players, while Kiermaier is sixth at 2.3.

You may have seen this catch by Kiermaier once or twice already.

Springer is keeping his head above water with a 0.4 rating, good for 25th overall. Merrifield is holding steady at a league-average 0.0 UZR.

The Jays sit 12th with zero Outs Above Average (OAA), as measured by Statcast, which so far is an improvement on last season's -3 OAA which put them 18th overall.

Individually, the Jays' outfielders are all above average in the Statcast Jump metric, which measures how many feet a fielder covers in the right direction in the first three seconds after pitch release.

You can see the breakdown of the Jump metric components in the table below. Kiermaier leads the group with good reactions and elite burst numbers. Merrifield has below-average reactions but is among the league leaders in his routes, while Varsho is average or better in all three measurements.


Feet vs Avg
























This year's outfield is a combined 4.2 feet better than the league average in Jump. Last year's outfield finished with a combined -0.1, and that was only bolstered by the additions of Merrifield (0.5) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (2.7). Raimel Tapia (-1.7), Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (-1.5) and Teoscar Hernández (-0.3) were all below average.

Sportsnet's Chris Black outlines the improvement in the right field defense and highlights the importance of good jumps with this thread, comparing Springer to plays by Hernández from the previous two seasons.

The defense looks better using the age-old eye test, and the numbers bear out that the front office did a fantastic job upgrading the outfield for this win-now Jays team. The much-improved outfield has already made, and will continue to make, tough plays look easy and save runs that wouldn't have been saved last season.