Having two players performing at a sub-par level is not a unique thing. Based on normal distributions, you would expect every team to have a few players below and above average in a given season, with the odd player being extreme on either side. So the fact that the Toronto Blue Jays have received very little contribution from their second base-come-utility duo of Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio isn't objectively surprising.
But it feels like it is, because the Jays were expected to compete. Having a combined 500 plate appearances go to that pair by midseason seems like a glaring mistake in retrospect – this team was built for the now, and having a hole like this is troublesome.
In defense of the Jays’ brass, this was hardly to be expected. Izturis hasn’t hit this poorly since his 2004 debut with the Montreal Expos. Bonifacio has never hit this poorly. And at 32 and 28, respectively, they were hardly prime fall-off-the-cliff candidates, although small declines could have been anticipated.
As it is, though, not even a recent tear from Izturis has been able to keep them from being one of the worst pairs in baseball. Baseball-Reference grades the pair as performing at replacement level while FanGraphs believes they’ve cost the Jays about 1.7 wins to date.
To try and find out just how bad a duo these two have been, I did some digging in BRef’s Play Index to find similar seasons. Since 2000, there have been 885 individual seasons where players had at least 225 plate appearances and had an OPS+ below 80. In other words, 885 players since 2000 have played as much as Izturis and Bonifacio and been 20 percent below league average at the dish. Like I said, it’s not that rare, although this number is artificially inflated since we're using Izturis's and Bonifacio's mid-season numbers to compare to full seasons from others.
However, what’s a bit more rare is having two such players on the same team. There have still been 228 such seasons since 2000, or about 16 teams per season, so half the league. Why am I even writing about this then, you might ask, if half the teams in the league in a given year have two players that bad play that much? Well, for one, the Jays also have J.P. Arencibia meeting the criteria, making them a more rare case – only 108 teams, or about eight per year, have three such players get the required playing time to qualify.
So the Jays have done in 90 games what only about eight teams per year do over the entire season in giving 225 plate appearances to three players who are 20 percent worse than league average at the plate. Munenori Kawasaki comes very close to qualifying with 205 plate appearances, as well, something that would push the Jays into more rarefied air. Overall, the Jays have given 1259 plate appearances to non-pitchers who have performed 20 percent below league average or worst - essentially, two full player-seasons. Back to the point...
Of those teams who gave three or more players 225 plate appearances with an 80 OPS+ or worse, the sub-par players have combined for an average of 1360 plate appearances. The Jays, meanwhile, are on pace to give their trio 1500. Said differently, only about three teams per season, on average, "waste" that many plate appearances on regular players.
The 32 teams who had three or more of these players from 2008 to 2012 averaged 1239 plate appearances given to those subpar regulars, and the Jays’ 1500 would rank as the sixth highest total in that span.
Perhaps most importantly for these Jays, just 11 of those 32 teams finished at or above .500 and just five made the playoffs. They averaged 76 wins. The above-.500 teams averaged just 1087 plate appearances to said player types and only one, the 2009 Minnesota Twins, gave away more than the Jays are on pace for.
Of course, this is all just a lot of numbers based on the recent past, and there have been counterexamples of teams succeeding doing what the Jays are doing this year. And it sounds like a lot of hindsight – I didn’t think Arencibia would hit this poorly, and I thought Bonifacio and Izturis would be a sufficient pair at second. I’m sure many thought the same.
But history, especially recent history, shows that this is an issue worth fixing. With money owed to Izturis, it’s tough to see the team bringing in an external solution. Munenori Kawasaki has been fine against righties but has just a 69 OPS+ overall. Brett Lawrie has played a few games at second base in Buffalo which is perhaps a way of maximizing the daily lineup when he returns. An external catcher might also help the cause.
There’s not a clear-cut way to reshape the team mid-season, but with the window to win at least as far as 2014, it would behoove the Jays to improve at the bottom of the lineup. We didn’t think it would be this bad, and it’s tough to overcome a surprise like that.