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Three Thoughts on Thursday

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

As has been typical this winter, it’s All Quiet on the Blue Jays front, so in lieu of actual news to discuss I’ve got three thoughts that have crossed my mind in the last month that relate to current Blue Jays.

1)The grass isn’t always greener on the other side

Let’s compare two players through similar points in their careers. One is current Blue Jays starter, the other is a former Blue Jay, although he only joined the Jays later in his career after the below phase of his career captured below:

Pillar white

The current Blue Jay, I would think pretty obviously, is Kevin Pillar and his career to date, through his age-28 as he turns 29 today.

The former Blue Jay is remarkably similar to Pillar, although it’s only through his age-27 season. He had played a little more (four full seasons), but was similarly valuable and with a very similar profile of below average hitting but terrific defensively in the field, also in CF.

Then Devon White was traded to the Blue Jays. Over the next eight years, Devo was one of the best players in baseball, totalling 4,525 plate appearances with a 102 wRC+ and over 100 defensive runs above average, around 30 WAR.

To be entirely clear, I’m not suggesting Pillar is the second coming of Devo. But for a while, and increasingly, I see this narrative that the Jays should or have to move Pillar in the near future before an inevitable imminent defensive decline. And it’s starting to drive me crazy.

Yes, players decline as they age, especially on the other side of 30. But there’s no reason to think Pillar is on the precipice of a cliff. White continued to be a defensive standout through his age 30 or 31 season, and was a good defender through his mid-30s. Pillar probably isn’t going to have the offensive outbreak White had, but it’s not out of the question either that he could improve some either, as he’s shown flashes.

In other words, there’s no reason he can’t be a solid starter for the foreseeable future. The Jays have some promising outfield prospects, with impact level talent. The reality of the odds are, each would be fortunate to have the career Pillar has already had. In general, people are too quick to focus on Pillar’s flaws and what he can’t do, than the pretty incredible reality of what he is. The 979th North American player selected in 2011 is already, on his 29th birthday, one of the 1,500 best players to ever play in Major League Baseball.

2) Roberto Osuna and the future

Roberto Osuna’s birthday is just over a month away, as he’ll begin his 4th major league season at the tender age of 23. Very few players have three full major league seasons at his age, much less at the level of excellence he’s demonstrated. That severely limits comparisons to other players, but below is one from this decade that I keep coming back to:


Osuna has more innings, as the other player didn’t even log a season and a half in the bullpen prior to turning 23. But they were similarly dominant, whether it’s looking at ERA, FIP or strikeouts. After his 23rd birthday, he was moved to the starting rotation and has since posted 1230 innings with a 3.01 ERA. Yes, it’s Chris Sale.

This comparison is not to say that Roberto Osuna would be Chris Sale in the rotation, or even anywhere near him - though there are some similarities such as rocketing to the majors with very little time in the minors, and immediately being impact major leaguers. But given that Osuna has three pitches, there’s good reason to believe he could be at least an above average starter, and even an average starter is more valuable than a 60-70 inning relief ace.

Indeed, looking at post-WWII players who mostly relieved through age-22 has some potential cautionary tales such as Neftali Feliz and Joba Chamberlain (as well as purer closers such as Francisco Rodriguez and Huston Street).

But if there was even a chance of Osuna having frontline potential in the rotation, is it not worth exploring? If the Jays fall on their face again in 2018 and are out of it early, I really hope they commit to stretching him out and seeing what he can do as a starter. If it doesn’t stick, he can always go back to the bullpen in 2019.

3) Marco, Marcus, and Run Prevention

In 2016, Marco Estrada pitched to a 3.48 ERA, and Marcus Stroman pitched to a 4.37 ERA. That’s a difference of 0.89 in favour of Estrada, or one run every 10 innings.

In 2017, Stroman pitched to a 3.09 ERA, whereas Estrada ended up with a 4.98 ERA. That’s a difference of 1.89 in favour of Stroman (on an RA/9 basis, the difference is a more modest 1.36), and representing a swing from 2016 of an incredible 2.78 runs per nine innings.

This swing is emblematic of why there are other metrics to look through some of the noise in results. By FIP, Stroman actually measured out worse in 2017 at 3.90 vs. 3.71, though most of that is due to league wide increases in home runs and run scoring as his adjusted-FIP was little changed at 88 compared to 86. Estrada likewise saw his FIP rise from 4.15 to 4.61, and from 97 to 104 on an adjusted basis.

So the 2017 Stroman/Estrada difference of 1.89 in ERA shrinks to 1.36 in actual runs allowed, to 0.71 in terms of FIP. But it actually gets closer even than that.

FIP does not include pop-ups, but FanGraphs includes them as equivalent to strikeouts in calculating their FIP based WAR. Stroman, as an extreme ground ball pitcher, only had 5 pop-ups last year, which is only a 3% bump to his 164 strikeouts in terms of total automatic outs. Estrada, an extreme fly ball pitcher, had 46 pop-ups, a 26% bump to his 176 strikeouts.

Since they factor pop-ups into WAR, I really wish FanGraphs would at least publish the pop-up adjusted FIP somewhere. That said, not hard to calculate, and including pop-ups Estrada’s FIP drops to 4.31 (99 FIP-) whereas Stroman increases to 4.05 (93 FIP-).

In other words, Stroman and Estrada were a lot closer in 2017 to each other based on the outcomes over which they have the most control than what most people probably think. Absent significant changes in underlying skills, I’d both are pretty significant regression candidates in 2018.