The Blue Jays were supposed to have one of the best lineups in baseball in 2016, and while things have gotten better lately, we still haven't seen this unit explode on a consistent basis like they did last summer. So what's going on?
Well, a couple of years ago I created a metric called "Drag Factor" on Purple Row (the Rockies SB Nation site) which helps illustrate how ineffective hitters getting a large number of plate appearances can sink your offense as a whole. The general idea behind the metric is that limiting the amount of below average hitters (or "Drag") in your lineup is just as, if not more important than having superstar hitters in the middle of your order.
Here's the equation we use to calculate the Drag Factor scores (Don't worry, you don't have to memorize it):
Drag Factor = ((100 - wRC+) * Plate Appearances) / Team Total Non-Pitcher Plate appearances
1) An individual's Drag Factor can be calculated with the equation above.
2) A team's Drag Factor (which we'll be using here) can be calculated by adding the Drag Factors of everyone on the team together.
(If you're not familiar with wRC+, here's a link that explains the metric.)
In a nutshell, we're looking for players who have a very low wRC+ and a very high number of plate appearances. The more extreme the combination of each of these two factors are, the higher a player's Drag Factor score is going to be. The scores can go up or down within a season as a player's wRC+ rises and falls, and since it's a rate stat, you can compare numbers at different points in the season.
I've created a bunch of tables here, so let's dive right in. First up, here's the Blue Jays team Drag Factor scores over the last five seasons. This will give you a better idea of the spectrum of scores you can expect to see as well as the details of what we've seen so far this year.
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The two seasons that should jump out the most are 2015 and 2016 for their extremes. The 2015 Blue Jays did have 13 players record some kind of Drag Factor score, but only Ryan Goins had a mark higher than 0.71. This kept their team total to a remarkably low 5.41, which is why last year's offense felt like it had that bottomless quality to it. There just wasn't anybody getting consistent at bats racking up a high Drag Factor score.
This year however has been an entirely different story. The Blue Jays have six different players currently sporting a Drag Factor of 1.71 or higher, and two of them are 4.36 or higher. Let's quickly go through each:
1) Russell Martin (4.81 Drag Factor)
He's having a brutal season at the plate (although he has been better lately). This is very disappointing because this is a guy you expect to have at least a 100 wRC+ based on his last five seasons. Instead he's currently got the highest Drag Factor score of any Blue Jay over the last five seasons (and probably more).
The good news is that's it's reasonable to expect this number to go down as the season wears on. Martin's a much better hitter than this, and when he got hot last week, he really showed how much deeper he can make this lineup when he's hitting (His game tying double again Kimbrel might be the biggest hit so far this season). I don't think he can make his Drag Factor zero this year (a wRC+ of 40 in June is a huge hole to climb out of), but if he can slash this number below 1.5, it will probably come attached with a productive final four months.
2) Ryan Goins (4.36 Drag Factor)
The glove first middle infielder has gotten a ton of playing time this season and is unfortunately showing that his numbers in the second half of 2015 were a mirage. Now that Devon Travis is back and Darwin Barney is raking, Goins should start seeing significantly less playing time once Troy Tulowitzki returns. If this occurs, his Drag Factor score will start to shrink as his plate appearances will represent and smaller and smaller percentage of the team's total plate appearances.
3) Kevin Pillar (3.16 Drag Factor)
This is the highest Drag Factor of Kevin Pillar's career, and while you don't expect him to be a huge bat in the middle of the lineup, a wRC+ of 70 is disappointing when he has a career mark of 85. Still, Pillar is exactly the type of player you're willing to tolerate some "Drag" for. He literally does everything else well. He's as good of a defender as anyone in the game, he plays up the middle, and when he does get on base, he's an above average runner. With all of that said however, it would be nice if he can start hitting closer to his career wRC+ of 85 and cut that Drag Factor score in half.
4) Chris Colabello (2.15 Drag Factor)
After an outstanding 2015 at the plate, Colabello turned back into a pumpkin. He's now serving an 80 game suspension for violating MLB's performance enhancing drug policy, and it remains to be seen if he plays for this team again. If he doesn't record another plate appearance, he Drag Factor should drop to about 0.7 by year's end as he'll represent a smaller percentage of the team total plate appearances. As it stands, it's amazing he still has a Drag Factor this high. It just underscores how ineffective he was before the suspension.
5) Josh Thole (1.80 Drag Factor)
This is the one that's probably not going to get any better (and actually could get worse if Martin ever goes down). Thole's going to keep catching Dickey, and he's going to keep putting up terrible numbers at the pate. Last year Dioner Navarro was able to soak up most of the non Russell Martin games behind the plate, which helped keep the team's Drag Factor total in check, but this year the Blue Jays don't have anybody like that. Unless we see a mid season trade, expect this score to continue to be a problem.
6) Troy Tulowitzki (1.74 Drag Factor)
When I first created this metric, I never thought I'd be writing about Tulo with such a high score, but baseball is a strange, fickle game. However, even if Tulo's not the hitter he once was, I firmly believe he's not a guy who should be racking up a Drag Factor score. I think he's still got enough thunder in his bat to finish the season with a wRC+ of 100 or higher and make this score zero.
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So overall, the forecast appears brighter for the Blue Jays offense as we head into the summer months. Despite an extremely ugly team Drag Factor score of 19.42 right now, it's probably reasonable to expect the Drag Factor scores of five of their six biggest violators to shrink as we head deeper into the season, and some of them should shrink by considerable margins. There will be other scores popping up that will negate a portion of that progress, but I feel confident that they won't add up to the Drag Factor numbers likely to be shed by the others.
With these numbers in mind, let's take a look at the Drag Factor scores from the rest of the division before we wrap this up.
Their Drag Factor isn't quite as low as the 2015 Blue Jays, but it's easy to see one of the big reasons why their offense has been so good. Outside of the catching position, there's nothing holding them back here.
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This number is a little higher than I expected. A likely improvement from Adam Jones should help some, but the Orioles don't seem to have quite as much offensive depth as a team like the Red Sox. This is a very good lineup, but there's enough drag here to prevent it from being great.
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Nothing too exciting here. The most important note I'd make though is how much lower their team Drag Factor score is than than Toronto's. Tampa doesn't have the big bats in middle of the order like the Blue Jays do, but their overall team wRC+ is six notches higher (104 to 98) thanks largely to their lower Drag Factor scores.
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LOL Yankees! Like the Blue Jays, their Drag Factor score is suffocating their offense. Unlike the Blue Jays, I don't see this getting much better. They just don't have very good offensive players at this point, and perhaps the biggest tell is that the players they have making up their Drag Factor scores represent 1,445 of the team's plate appearances. The Blue Jays on the other hand have accumulated their Drag Factors score of 19.42 with just 826 plate appearances. That's been a big problem for Toronto, but at least it's more confined and fixable. When you're bleeding from as many places as this Yankees lineup is, there's probably not a cure.