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An Early Look At The Blue Jays Defence

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Orioles are currently the class of the AL East. With 96 wins in 2014, the O's captured to their second division title in three years. It wasn't much of a competition either, as the Blue Jays finished 13 games back with an 83-win season. For general manager Alex Anthopoulos, the question probably became: Where did I go wrong?

Let's take a quick look for ourselves:

Offence Pitching Base Running Defence Pitch Framing
Blue Jays 105 3.97 1.8 -6.8 -31 -20.2
Orioles 104 3.96 -5.9 54.8 49 6.2

As their respective wRC+ (weighted-runs created) totals show, the two teams were practically identical offensively. Despite their worse record, the Jays actually held a slight advantage. Base running (BsR) wasn't the difference maker either, as the Jays held an edge there as well.

It must have been the pitching, right? Well, it sure doesn't appear that way. As it turns out, the teams were nearly identical in terms of fielding independent pitching as well. Remarkably, here we have two teams with nearly identical offensive and pitching statistics. Where the Orioles blew the Blue Jays out of the water was on defence.

Regardless of which of the two measures of defence you use, the Orioles saved over 61 runs on defence when compared to the Jays. If you use the Defensive Runs Saved method (DRS), the difference of 80 runs was even more substantial. Now tack on the additional 26.4-run advantage the Orioles had in pitch framing, and this gets ugly. We are left with an 87.4 run-advantage with the UZR method, while the DRS method sums up to a 106.4-run difference. At 10 runs per win, we are looking at a difference between 8 to 11 wins on defence and pitch framing alone. Yikes.

This offseason the Orioles have had a relatively low amount of roster turnover. Other than Nick Markakis (who graded out poor defensively in 2014), the majority of the Orioles fielders should return for next season. If Matt Wieters and Manny Machado can avoid the disabled list this time around, the Orioles defence could be even better. This makes me ask: how much have Toronto closed the gap?

Projecting the 2015 Blue Jays UZR

Focusing solely on the starting position players, we can attempt to project how many runs each player will save or lose the team on defence. To do this we will take a simple weighted average of each player's UZR/150 over the last three seasons and weigh the more recent season more heavily. Here, 50% of the weight will be based on 2014 numbers, 30% 2013 numbers and 20% 2012 numbers. I also used this weighting scheme to project Russell Martin's pitch framing numbers for 2015 (RAA).

A projected the numbers for Michael Saunders and Dalton Pompey a bit differently. Saunders did not have very large samples in left field to draw from, so I used his 2014 numbers in right. As FanGraphs says, when taking a one year sample of UZR, the player's true talent UZR should be considered the midpoint between the given number and zero, so Saunders' 2014 UZR was simply divided by two in order to do this.

Pompey will still be a rookie in 2015 and so has a very small sample to draw from. With a minor league gold glove and strong reports on his defence, I simply pegged him to deliver somewhere between above average and great defence.

UZR is not available for catchers, so Martin's data was based on defensive runs saved. Since it is not clear who the starting second baseman will be, I simply projected league average defence for the position.

Here are the results:

C: Russell Martin DRS RAA
Jays 2014 -2 -20.2
Jays 2015 Projection 9.6 15.77

1B: Justin Smoak UZR DRS
Jays 2014 -8.3 -8
Jays 2015 Projection -0.34

Jays 2014 -2.7 4
Jays 2015 Projection 0

Jays 2014 -3.2 -14
Jays 2015 Projection -6.36

3B: Donaldson UZR DRS
Jays 2014 7.3 -1
Jays 2015 Projection 12.14

LF: Saunders UZR DRS
Jays 2014 -1 -4
Jays 2015 Projection 7.2

CF: Pompey UZR DRS
Jays 2014 -3.2 -6
Jays 2015 Projection 7.5

RF: Bautista UZR DRS
Jays 2014 4.3 -5
Jays 2015 Projection 5.53

For a total of:

Jays 2015 Starters 35.27 15.77
UZR + RAA 51.04

What Can We Conclude?

Based on the projections, the Jays starters appear poised to finish approximately 51 runs above average defensively. Considering a combination of defensive runs saved and pitch framing placed the 2014 Jays around 51 below average, this is quite the dramatic improvement. No matter the defensive stat you choose, the 2015 Jays defence appears to have improved by between 78 and 102 runs. At 10 runs per win, we are looking at around an 8-10 win improvement just on defence alone. They might not quite be at the 55-60 run mark the 2014 Orioles posted, but they are pretty darn close.

It is important to note that the starters will not play all of the innings at their respective positions. Though we used UZR per 150 games to project each player's UZR, injuries do happen. If Jose Reyes were to miss time, whether the Jays use Ryan Goins or Maicer Izturis at SS could make a massive defence on the team's defensive numbers. On the bright side, the Jays should have above average to plus defenders in the minors such as Daric Barton, Ryan Goins, A.J. Jimenez and Andy Dirks. The bench should have a mix of strong and weak defenders, but it is tough to project until we know who will be making the team for sure.

The 2014 Blue Jays could hit and pitch with the Baltimore Orioles, a team that reached 96 wins. While the Orioles have had a relatively quiet offseason, the Jays have improved their defence with players such as Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders. Just like the Orioles, the Blue Jays fielders can now save their pitchers dozens of runs rather than hurting the team. The Orioles may be the AL East favourites following a 96-win season, but you better believe the Jays are in their rearview mirror. The days of losing numerous games in the field should very well be over.