Gregg Zaun, The Blue Jays, and the "Fundamentals"

Tom Szczerbowski

To hear Gregg Zaun spin it, it would appear that the Blue Jays are out to lunch when it comes to playing "fundamental baseball". With the team struggling it's an appealing narrative, but it's not a true one.

Gregg Zaun drives me absolutely nuts as an analyst.

He may well be an absolutely unbelievable human being, but I simply can't abide by his analysis of the game of baseball. I realize I am not alone in this point of view. Alternatively, I'm also not necessarily in an overwhelming majority either. Zaun is a divisive figure. Some love him, some hate him. That, along with questionable sartorial decision making, is kind of his shtick.

One of the things that the former catcher is always harping on, especially when the Jays are losing more games than they win, is the way they fail to play "fundamental baseball". A recent instance of this that springs to mind is a rant that he went on following the Blue Jays' win over the Brewers when both Darin Mastroianni and Anthony Gose failed to lay down bunts late in the game.

Admittedly, that was frustrating to watch. However, it is also the sort of thing that sometimes happens. Bunting is not automatically successful. Gregg Zaun did not seem to understand this fact and on Blue Jays Central proceeded to go on a tirade of sorts where he described bunting as "extremely easy" and waxed poetic on how shameful it was that the Jays couldn't bunt.

I wish I had an exact transcript to present for you and dissect, but the reality is that no one really PVRs Blue Jays Central, and such things are unlikely to wind up on YouTube. The following tweet is the closest there is to evidence of Zaun's rant that still exists:

Zaun proceeded to re-tweet this, because of course the agreement of renowned bunting guru @Mitchell_Astros is all you really need to prove a point.

Here's the problem. Bunting isn't extremely easy, or that easy at all in fact. While it is harder to hit a home run, it's not a walk in the park either. MLB players, especially those like Mastroianni and Gose who have good speed and questionable bats, should be able to execute sac bunts most of the time. However, the fact they won't always succeed shouldn't be a surprise or an outrage.

The following table shows how the Jays have done laying down the sacrifice bunt, compared to league average, as well as their harshest critic, Gregg Zaun.

Sample

Sac Bunts Attempted

Successful Sac Bunts

Bunt Success%

Gregg Zaun

21

14

67

2014 Blue Jays

24

17

71

2014 League Average

N/A

N/A

62

I realize I am in danger of pulling a J.P. Arencibia here by criticizing Zaun as a player. I don't think that someone has to be a good player, or a player at all, to analyze baseball well. In fact, I think far too often networks lean on former players who have nothing to say because they are household names and have automatic credibility with casual fans.

All of that being said, if Gregg Zaun is going to describe bunting as extremely easy I do think it is fair to point out that this is something he almost never did as a player, and was actually less successful with than the team he is criticizing. Even if Zaun sees himself as an expert on the topic (as Sportsnet apparently does) the reality is that this is something that really wasn't a factor in his playing career. His insight here does not come from a wealth of priceless experience, it is simply an opinion.

As mentioned above, when it comes to Zaun's opinions you can count on him to have one on whether the Jays are playing fundamental baseball. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but his prevailing notion is that they do not. I decided it would be interesting to see whether that notion was valid or not.

The problem is that "fundamental baseball" is a tricky thing to define, and as such to quantify. Luckily, Baseball-Reference has a group of statistics they track entitled "Situational Hitting" which includes staying out of double plays, advancing runners, getting RBIs with a runner on third and less than one out. In short, everything that analysts tend to describe as "the fundamentals", at least offensively.

The table below shows how the Jays have fared in these categories in 2014:

Sample

Productive Out %

GIDP%

% of Runners on 3rd <2 out Scored

% of Runners on 2nd 0 out Advanced

2014 Blue Jays

30.8%

10.1%

52.9%

53.0%

2014 League Average

32%

11%

52%

54%


The Jays are pretty much right at the league average in all of these numbers. Additionally, the league averages for these supposedly basic things aren't that high. When fans see a runner at third base and less than two outs they expect him to score, unless he's a San Diego Padre, but teams only cash in guys just over half the time in those situations.

While there will be individual instances where the Jays make basic blunders or fail to execute on plays they should make, this is not a more significant issue for them than other teams. There will be times when opportunities slip through this team's fingers, but that happens to everyone.

The Blue Jays are scuffling right now, and when teams don't win it's easy for analysts to fall into the trap of saying the team "isn't doing the little things it takes to win" or "playing the game the right way".  For the Jays that simply isn't the crux of the issue.

At the moment this team only really needs one thing to get on track: some runs.

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