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Looking back on 2017

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With the 2017 season now over, attention is already rightfully turning toward 2018. But before fully turning to that, it's an opportune time to look back on 2017. In the middle of Spring Training, I previewed some of the questions facing the Blue Jays in 2017, organized into four categories of uncertainty according to a framework popularized by Don Rumsfeld.

Now we can assess how things played out, including the few predictions in the interests of accountability. For more on what each of these categories means, refer back to the original post.

Known knowns

  • The starting rotation will not be as durable
    This did come to pass, though perhaps not as badly as one might think. The forecast opening day rotation made 117 starts, compared with 152 last year. Full seasons from Stroman and Estrada, and Francisco Liriano didn't miss any time missed three weeks before being traded which artificially depresses the total (though acquiring Liriano did the same to 2016's total). J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez essentially combined for one full season. Perhaps a little short of what was expected in March, but within norms given the rates at which pitchers break.
  • The starting rotation will not be as effective at run prevention
    I was surprised by the pushback to this assertion at the time, given the tendency for regression and the likelihood of poorer health outcomes resulting in more starts by lesser pitchers. After the 2016 starters ranked 2nd in adjusted ERA with an 85 ERA-, in 2017 they fell to 14th with a 103 ERA-. Likewise, by adjusted FIP they fell from 5th with a 95 FIP- to 15th with a 102 FIP-. Even backing out all filler - the most flattering comparison possible - the Opening Day rotation posted a 94 ERA- and 97 FIP- in their 117 starts. Very good, but nonetheless a significant step backward.
  • Kevin Pillar will not walk at a league average rate (or anything close to it). Superman is not going to be confused with an on base machine anytime soon. And that's just fine.
    Pillar walked in 5.2% of his plate appearances, a little above the level of his previous two years but still 40% below the 8.7% walk rate posted by all non-pitchers. His .300 OBP ranked 12th worst of 144 qualified hitters, so he certainly wasn't an on base machine. And yet, despite early season defensive struggles and a run of bad luck in the middle that drove a career low BABIP, he still ended up just fine (1.9 fWAR, 2.8 bWAR).
  • Josh Donaldson will bring a lot of rain
    Not quite as much as expected, especially during the two months from when he returned from the DL to the trade deadline. But when it rained, it poured, as Donaldson hit 24 home runs with a 185 wRC+ from July 23rd onwards.

Known unknowns

  • Who is going to be the primary starting pitching depth?
    It ended up as Joe Biagini, who ended up making 18 ultimately inconsistent starts (and four more in Buffalo). Otherwise, it was pretty much as expected, with the first leading internal options (Latos, Lawrence, Bolsinger) and then a second wave (Rowley, Tepesch) combining for 20 starts and just 96 innings, with the cumulative ERA and FIP both north of 6.00. That doesn't include Brett Anderson's seven starts, which came after the season was lost, and which were more successful. If the Jays are to contend in 2018, this must be a focal point of improvement.
  • What's the answer in left field?
    In the end, 10 different players appeared in left field in 2017. After a brutal debut, Steve Pearce had a really nice two month run in the summer, but it's apparent he's not really an outfielder even though there's no other place for him at this point for 2018. The other player to get significant playing time was Ezequiel Carrera, who was surprisingly effective at the plate (if only there).
  • How bad are injuries going to hit?
    Swearing is not permitted, so this will be the extent of my commentary on the matter.
  • Will the underbelly of the bullpen hold up?
    The definite highlight of the season. Joe Smith replaced Jason Grilli as set-up man when he struggled, but the triumvirate of Dominic Leone, Danny Barnes and Ryan Tepera stepped up and were a quality bridge in the middle innings.
  • Can Russell Martin rebound offensively?
    He did shave 5% off his strikeout rate, which put him more broadly in line with his career average before 2016. His overall production ended up bang in line with 2016, at an even 100 wRC+ in both years, his BABIP falling to offset the lower strikeout rate.
  • Can Bautista stay healthy in the outfield, while seeing his productivity rebound?
    It's a cruel irony that in the year his offensive production cratered, he appeared in a career high 156 games and 684 plate appearances (edging out 2014 and 2010 respectively). At least outwardly, he was healthy, we don't know what he played through.
  • Does Pillar have a little more in the tank offensively?
    Pillar did post a career high .148 ISO, though that didn't happen in a vacuum with power up across the game. He may yet have a career year in him where he posts above average offensive production, but just as he is what he is in terms of approach, 85-90 wRC+ is probably the extent of his expected output.
  • Does the aggressive pursuit of Kendrys Morales end up as Happ 2.0 or a bad overpay?
    This best thing I can say is that this is no longer an unknown. Enough said.
  • Has Tulo settled in as a solid-average player, or does he have a star level season left in him?
    Ha. Sigh. [Sobs]. It seems it was longer than seven months ago when this was a credible question. Now we only hope for a rebound to the solid-average level.
  • Is this the year Stroman really puts it together?
    By results, yes, with a spectacular 3.09 ERA and 70 ERA-. By process, pretty much the same, an extreme ground ball pitcher with unremarkable strikeout and walk rates. Overall, I'd still have him as a good #2 rather than a true ace (top 10-15 pitchers in the game)

Unknown unknowns

  • How long does Justin Smoak stick around? Assuming he doesn't suddenly figure it out...
    He figured it out. Hallelujah for that extension which keeps him around another two years.
  • Will the Jays receive unexpected help from the farm?
    Essentially no. Chris Rowley was a nice story for a week, and Carlos Ramirez emerged as a credible relief option, but most of the upper level prospects who were positioned to make the jump to the majors with steps forward in 2017 performed poorly and/or took steps backwards.
  • Who will take an unexpected fundamental step forward, if anyone?
    Smoak had one of the biggest single season turnarounds in contact rate on record, allowing his elite batted ball outcomes to play.
  • What will be this year's crazy injury?
    Aaron Sanchez missing most of the year due to blisters is pretty crazy, albeit not unprecedented. Anthony Alford has a strong case, breaking his hamate bone on a swing where he didn't even make contact. And in other years, that might take the cake. But the pole position has to belong to Darrell Ceciliani, separating his shoulder and eventually requiring season ending sugery in the course of hitting a home run.

Unknowns knowns

  • Will Rogers permit a rebuild/reload? Would the new front office pull the trigger on dealing significant prospects for rentals?
    Circumstances were such that we still don't know the answers to these questions.
  • Is there a longer term aim to try Osuna as a starter?
    For better or worse, it appears the door is probably closed on this. If there were ever a time to have attempted such a transition, it would have been midseason once it was clear they were sellers.

So overall, a season of more disappointments than not that is mercifully in the rear view mirror. What did I overlook back in March? The biggest thing would probably be the lack of quality backup catching options., though it was a well discussed topic of conversation in the offseason Tomorrow, I'll look ahead to 2018 with the breakdown of the roster as it stands before it begins to be reshaped in the offseason.