Can the Jays Rotation Handle Left-Handed Batters?

Hannah Foslien

The Jays starters are off to a good start in 2014, but do they have a fatal flaw?

Just a hair away from 20 games into the season, it's easy to feel like we know something about the 2014 Blue Jays while remaining confident that we can't exactly trust what we're seeing.

Edwin Encarnacion will hit a home run. Brett Lawrie will find himself on the right side of the Mendoza line. On a sadder note, Mark Buehrle's ERA will skyrocket until it no longer begins with a 0.

Although a great deal of the numbers for the 2014 Blue Jays can be dismissed as small sample size nonsense, we are starting to learn something about this team. One thing that is apparent is that the rotation may well be better than expected. Along with Buehrle's mastery, the Jays have gotten strong performances from Drew Hutchison, encouraging outings from Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan's arm remains firmly attached to the rest of his body. The less said about R.A. Dickey at this juncture the better. The table below shows how Jays starters have fared compared to the rest of the league in a few basic categories:

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

ERA

FIP

xFIP

WAR

7.99 (11th)

3.65 (27th)

0.61 (3rd)

3.82 (13th)

3.57 (12th)

4.12 (26th)

1.8 (9th)

There are some red flags here, the walks and the xFIP are pretty ugly, but overall the Blue Jays rank in the top half of the league in most categories. When the starters spend more time at the Rogers Centre it will become clear whether or not they can continue to suppress home runs, but for now their 3.57 FIP and 3.82 ERA earn them the benefit of the doubt.

While there are many to reasons to be encouraged, there is one hurdle that this staff may struggle with going forward. That hurdle is getting out left-handed batters.

This problem occurred to me when Dustin McGowan started the home opener against a Yankees lineup stacked with left-handed bats. At the time I thought that the Yanks were going to be a tricky matchup for McGowan, a right handed pitcher that leans heavily on his slider. Seeing as sliders have notoriously high platoon splits, pitchers who use them as their primary breaking ball can struggle against opposite-handed batters.

That thought got me pondering the other right-handers in the Blue Jays rotation, three of whom feature a slider-heavy attack. Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchison and Dustin McGowan have all thrown sliders between 19.9% and 22.7% of time this year. None of them have a curveball they really feature, and only Morrow uses his changeup more than 15% of the time. In theory, a knuckleball should be platoon neutral, or even have reverse splits, but Dickey had a very difficult time with left-handers last season and hasn't improved in that area so far this year.

The following table shows the performance of the Jays starting rotation against left-handed batters in 2014:

IP

H

ER

BB

K

AVG

OBP

SLG

ERA

FIP

41

53

28

25

45

.263

.357

.429

6.14

4.76

These numbers are undoubtedly bad, but they technically speaking could be worse. That's because they include the work of crafty lefty incarnate Mark Buehrle. When Buehrle's efforts are removed, the chart below shows how the four right-handers have faced against batters attacking them from the left side.

IP

H

ER

BB

K

AVG

OBP

SLG

ERA

FIP

35

50

28

23

43

.276

.359

.459

7.20

4.94

This is troubling stuff. The question is whether it will continue. To find that out one must dive into each right hander's track record against lefties.

R.A Dickey

Time Period

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

ERA

FIP

xFIP

Career

6.76

3.36

1.31

4.09

4.65

4.29

2013

6.77

3.11

1.79

4.82

5.24

4.43

2014

6.39

4.97

1.42

6.39

5.37

5.00

Dickey's career has been such a winding road that his career stats mean virtually nothing at this point, but it is worth noting that he's always struggled with lefty bats, especially when it comes to keeping the ball in the yard. He'll probably improve on what he's done so far, but given he's been so poor in every facet of pitching so far this year that sentence could apply to virtually anything...

Drew Hutchison

Time Period

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

ERA

FIP

xFIP

Career

8.52

3.74

1.25

4.36

4.38

3.99

2012

7.47

3.16

1.15

3.73

4.34

3.99

2014

11.25

5.25

1.50

6.00

4.49

4.00

Hutchison's numbers here are perfectly respectable. The problem is that his big-league career has spanned so few innings that we know nothing definitive about what to expect from his splits going forward.

Brandon Morrow

Time Period

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

ERA

FIP

xFIP

Career

9.39

4.72

1.08

4.28

4.18

4.12

2013

7.14

4.66

3.10

6.83

7.50

5.18

2014

9.26

3.86

1.54

5.40

4.54

3.34

Morrow put up some scary numbers in 2013, but both 2013 and 2014 are minute samples in the context of his career. The right-hander has survived lefties just fine for the most part, which is not surprising given his plus velocity and quality changeup/splitter/split-change.

For reason it is very difficult to get either pitch classification systems or commentators to agree Morrow's third pitch. However, I'll be sure to ask Brandon about it should I ever run into him at the supermarket. Why a supermarket you ask? I have no idea, but it seems strangely appropriate.

Anyway.... long story short Morrow is not a cause for concern.

Dustin McGowan

Time Period

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

ERA

FIP

xFIP

Career

7.43

4.57

1.36

5.28

5.11

4.65

2013

6.00

4.50

1.50

3.75

5.38

5.04

2014

7.27

4.15

0.00

4.15

3.54

5.54

In a sense McGowan is the opposite of Morrow, he's been OK against left-handers in recent memory, but he has an ugly track record against them in his career. In fact his massive lefty-righty splits had me pegging him as a potential ROOGY going into the season. When a team with a lot of left-handed thump faces McGowan, Blue Jays fans should be nervous. Not that Jays fans need more reasons to be nervous when the 32-year-old is on the hill.

At the end of the day managers are going to put as many left-handed bats in the lineup as possible against virtually any RHP, unless they are Joe Maddon. This isn't a question of what tactic managers will use to attack the Blue Jays. It's a question of what the efficacy of the kind of all-lefty starting nine a team like the Yankees can put out will be against Toronto.

This team has guys like Morrow, and perhaps Hutchison, who can survive an afternoon at a constant platoon disadvantage, but they also have guys like McGowan and Dickey that might get lit up in a situation like that with some consistency.

So far in 2014 left-handed batters have done a number on Blue Jays starters. That will probably continue to a degree given the slider-heavy arsenal that this staff brings to the table. A steady diet of guys like David Ortiz and Chris Davis is likely to hurt this rotation more than it would some others, but it hopefully it won't be enough to cripple it. After all, on every fifth day the Blue Jays can count on an all-world southpaw to give them dominant inning after dominant inning.

Thank God(s) for Mark Buehrle.

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