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2020 Non-tender candidate: Derek Law

The Jays fought the Law and...well, the Law didn’t really win

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Monday, December 2nd is the deadline for MLB teams to tender 2020 contracts to players under team control. After trimming non-tender candidates Devon Travis, Ryan Tepera and Tim Mayza over the last month, the Blue Jays have six remaining arbitration-eligible players. Ken Giles is the only lock to be tendered a contract, so we’ll look at the cases of the other five leading into the deadline.

Previous profiles: Anthony Bass, Brandon Drury, Luke Maile

Background: Acquired in April 2019 trade for Kevin Pillar; career 0.9 fWAR / 1.2 bWAR in 166.1 innings over four seasons.

2019 production: 0.0 fWAR / 0.1 bWAR in 60.2 innings, 4.90 ERA / 4.85 FIP

2020 Steamer projection: 4.50 ERA and 4.59 FIP in 65 innings

Status: 2.126 years of service, age 29, unknown platform year salary but renewed so likely under $600,000, out-of-options

2020 MLBTR Salary Projection: $1.3-million

Estimated likelihood of tender: 25%

At the outset, I’ll note that I intended to do this series in alphabetically order (which also happened to alternate pitchers and position players), but at some point in the last 48 hours it escaped me that “L” comes before “M” in the alphabet. So we come to Law today rather thanyesterday.

That Law finds himself on the non-tender bubble is perhaps surprising given his highly effective and promising 2016 debut with San Francisco. In 55 innings, he posted a 2.13 ERA with 50 strikeouts against just nine free passes and three home runs. That resulted in a rock solid 2.53 FIP, which suggested it wasn’t a big fluke, though some regression in home runs was probably due (7% HR/FB, 3.12 xFIP). He looked like a mainstay in the bullpen for years to come.

That hasn’t come to pass, as his performance went backwards ans resulted in him bouncing up and down before being sent outright in February. With none of the other 29 teams willing to invest $50,000 for his rights, he was included in the Pillar deal and had a five month run in the Toronto bullpen.

All told, in 111.1 MLB innings over the last three years, Law’s pitched to a 5.25 ERA and 4.72 FIP, good for -0.1 fWAR and -0.3 bWAR. His 122 ERA- ranks around the 10th percentile of 452 pitchers with at least 100 innings in that time (alongside old friend Joe Biagini). In other words, the very definition of replacement level.

How did things get to this point? The obvious culprit that stands out is his walk rate, rising from 4% to 8% to 12% and finally to an eyewatering 14% last year, when he walked 40 in those 61 innings. That’s driven by the twin factors of him throwing fewer strikes (Zone% down from high-40s to around 40%) and batters chasing less often outside the zone. His strikeout rate fell in 2017-18, but rebounded in 2019 to a solid 23.5%, in line with 2016. Finally, his home run rate has normalized (13.2% HR/FB). To add some final insult to injury, his BABIP swung from .270 to .332 over the last three years.

Law has been fundamentally the same pitcher over the period, with a mid-90s four seam fastball and two breaking balls that are essentially hard and soft versions of a slurve. There was a noticeable difference in usage in 2019 however, suggesting some tinkering to find a more effective mix. After consistently using his fastball just over 50% of the time in each of his first three years, that fell about 37%. His breaking ball usage rose from about 40% to 50%, and he also expanded his change-up usage by about 5% to 13%, including 20% against lefties.

A much heavier reliance on offspeed pitches is increasingly a feature of today’s game, so it’s not surprising to see that the Blue Jays and/or Law tried a different approach. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have increased his overall effectiveness. It likely explains the increased strikeout rate (more movement is harder to hit) and lower zone rate (more movement is harder to harness).

$1.3-million would not make much difference to the budget, but the bigger issue that Law has been replacement level for three years, without much to suggest a return to his 2016 effectiveness. Moreover, if tendered and lacking remaining options, he’d join Anthony Bass (if tendered), Wilmer Font and nominally Ken Giles in being relievers necessarily having to stick to the major league roster. And then there’s the 40-man spot, and the Jays will need a few of those at some point. The Jays appeared to have tried a reclamation project, and there was no great harm in doing so, but at this point I don’t expect Law will be tendered a 2020 contract.

Stats from FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Brooks Baseball


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