The Relative Importance of Defense, Luck, and Skill in Marco Estrada’s Minuscule 2016 BABIP

estrada pic

Credit: Winslow Townson- USA Today Sports

One of the few good stories that have risen from the ashes of this horrible April for the Toronto Blue Jays has been the continued success of Marco Estrada. So while not much good is going on, let us take a look back at the numbers of Marco “the enigma” Estrada using some neat new tools, and maybe solve a mystery in the process.

In two full seasons since coming to the Blue Jays in November of 2014, Marco Estrada’s results on the mound have been nothing short of elite. By ERA, Estrada’s mark of 3.30 over the past two seasons is ranked 20th among major league qualifiers, nestled between Jose Quintana and Corey Kluber. He’s also been dominant in the playoffs, pitching to a 2.18 ERA in 41.2 innings and saving the 2015 Blue Jays season on a couple of different occasions. All of that is fantastic in its own right, but it’s made all the more amazing when you consider that he’s done this in the American League East with a fastball that averages under 89 mph.

The borderline paradoxical difference between Estrada’s results and his style of pitching has driven the conversation around him and explains why he’s been so underrated by the league. The reluctance to buy in to what Estrada has done has stemmed mainly from his low velocity and some pedestrian peripherals. In 2015, Marco Estrada’s ERA was ranked 17th out of 73 qualifiers, but his K% and BB% of 18.1% and 7.6%, respectively, were below average. As a result, Estrada wildly outpitched his FIP (a stat that’s similar to ERA but only includes walks, strikeouts, and homeruns while excluding batted balls in play) and posted the lowest E-F (FIP subtracted from ERA) in the league at -1.27. In 2016, most of these trends remained and Estrada outpitched his FIP again. He finished with an E-F of -0.67, 8th lowest in the league.

How has Estrada allowed so few runs with such mediocre strikeout and walk percentages? The answer, of course, is BABIP. The batting average on balls put in play against Estrada was .216 in 2015 and .234 in 2016. He led the league for both years in this category. This is undoubtedly responsible for Estrada’s great run prevention over the past couple of years, but there is much confusion and disagreement around how to interpret this.

Pitcher success driven by low BABIP is not seen as valuable compared to success resulting from good strikeout and walk percentages. BABIP is viewed by many as simply a result of random luck and the quality of the defense behind a given pitcher, and therefore not as important when evaluating pitchers as other peripherals.

However, some pitchers manage to be quite good at continually suppressing their BABIP. Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta, and Hector Santiago all joined Marco Estrada as having BABIPs amongst the lowest thirteen in both 2015 and 2016. Tony Blengino of FanGraphs has written that Estrada has been elite at limiting grounders and line drives while inducing pop-ups at an incredibly high frequency. He argues that this batted ball profile is ideal for minimizing the likelihood of batted balls from turning into hits.

Therefore, we know that Estrada’s low BABIP is essential to his success and we know that BABIP is a mix of luck and defense, which Estrada can’t control, and the quality/type of contact that he surrenders, which he can control to some uncertain degree, but we don’t know the relative importance of these factors in suppressing his BABIP. For prediction purposes, it would be valuable to know how much of Estrada’s 2016 BABIP suppression was his own doing.

To do this, the relatively new expected batting average (xBA) feature on Baseball Savant will be utilized in a manner similar to how Craig Edwards used it in an earlier piece over at FanGraphs. The xBA feature predicts the expected batting average of batted balls in play based on their exit velocity and launch angle.  Looking at this will allow us to directly hone in on the quality of contact allowed by Estrada without luck and defence getting in the way.

The first step is to take all the balls in play (BIP), league wide, from the 2016 season with expected batting averages and to separate them into discrete intervals. Overall, around 105 000 of 120 000 balls in play had xBAs calculated for them on baseball savant. Displayed below are the numbers of balls in play as well as BABIPs for each group.

table 1 estrada

2016 balls in play organized into xBA groups. Data courtesy of Baseball Savant.

These results follow what one would expect to see. Balls in the below .200 group rarely fell for hits and balls in the above .600 range fell for hits over three quarters of the time. The “no xBA data” group will be ignored going forward as will the sacrifice fly group since sac flies aren’t counted as BIP on baseball savant for some reason. Next, I added the same columns but only for balls in play allowed by Marco Estrada.

estrada table 2 fixed

Balls put in play against Estrada and the whole league separated into xBA groups. Data Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Interestingly, Estrada had lower BABIPs in every group but one compared to the league. This means that even after accounting for quality of contact, Estrada still seems to have allowed fewer hits than the average pitcher would have on batted balls in all xBA groups, except for those batted balls with an xBA between .300 and .400. So, it appears that there must have been some good luck and/or good defense on Estrada’s side last season.

Given this, we now want to know how many extra outs Estrada gained for every xBA group and in total.

estrada table 3

Estrada’s extra outs gained in 2016.  Data courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Estrada gained approximately 22 outs compared to what he should have gotten with league average luck and defence. These gained outs come from all xBA groups except for the .300-.400 group where he was worse than average by about 3 outs. The group where he gained the most outs was in the .600-1.000 group. In this group, 46 of 73 balls in play landed for hits, while the average pitcher would have had 56 of those 73 fall behind them.

Some of these gained outs in the .600 and above group were probably a result of good fortune.  However, anyone who follows the Blue Jays would probably first look to their defensive star in centre field when thinking about why scorched balls found leather instead of grass (or turf).

Kevin Pillar, who became the everyday Blue Jays centre fielder around the same time that Estrada entered the Jays rotation, has been an elite defensive outfielder in the league over the past two years. In 2016, he posted an eye popping 21 DRS and 26.3 UZR/150.

Therefore, using Baseball Savant, a spray chart was generated looking at the 27 of 73 balls in play against Estrada that had an expected batting average above .600 that resulted in outs.

estrada chart 2

Balls put in play against Estrada (2016) with an xBA above .600 that resulted in outs. Chart courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Clearly, most of the outs on these hard-hit balls came in the outfield. Looking deeper, an amazing 11 of the 27 outs came via Kevin Pillar’s magic in centerfield (Pillar’s put outs are circled in red). The most memorable of these was the one with the red arrow pointing to it. I recommend that you check it out.

It appears as though Kevin Pillar’s incredible defense in centerfield and the Jays great team defence in general (they were 8th in team DRS in 2016) bought Marco Estrada a lot of extra outs on balls with a .600 or above expected batting average. It’s hard to separate good defense and luck when explaining BABIPs, but its probably fair to say that good defense played at least an equal role as good fortune in this case.

Getting back to Estrada’s’ BABIP, if we subtract those 22 gained outs, Estrada’s BABIP jumps from .234 to .281. That 47-point jump takes Estrada from having the lowest BABIP in the league to being tied with Chris Tillman for the 27th lowest BABIP among qualifiers. That is still good but not great.

The difference between the league average BABIP of .300 and Estrada’s BABIP of .234 was .066 (or 66 points). If 47 of those points came from factors outside of his control including luck and defense, then the unaccounted for 19 points of difference must have come from Estrada’s often-discussed ability to manage contact. Using our xBA groups, Estrada’s management of contact can be visualized by looking at the proportion of balls in play against him in each group and comparing to the league.

estrada table 4 (2)

Proportion of balls in play in different xBA groups against Estrada and the league. Data courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Estrada had nearly 10% more batted balls in the below .200 group compared to the average pitcher (51.8% vs. 42.3%). He also allowed a smaller proportion of batted balls in the .600 and higher group than the league (18.6% vs. 21.6%). Clearly, Estrada was able to induce more poor contact and consequently less hard contact than the average pitcher. It is this contact management ability of Estrada’s that is responsible for depressing his BABIP by that final 19-points below league average.

Overall, the relative importance of the different factors in lowering Estrada’s 2016 BABIP can be summed up like this:

estrada graph

Overall, this xBA based analysis of Estrada demonstrates that his 2016 BABIP suppression (below the league average) was, surprisingly, more so a product of luck and defense than contact management skill. Of course, these numbers aren’t perfect because many batted balls had no xBA, and organizing data into buckets can cause statistical noise. Also, this isn’t necessarily bad news for Estrada. The 2017 Jays defense isn’t too different than it was in 2016. Most importantly, Pillar is still patrolling centerfield. Therefore, if Estrada can manage contact similarly to how he did last year and if the Jays defense does its thing again, then it’s hard to see his BABIP rising more than 20 or so points even if his luck takes a hit, and that would still put his BABIP down amongst the league leaders once again. After five starts in 2017, his BABIP is up at .289 and he’s got a sparkling ERA of 2.70, but the sample size is too small to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding BABIP.

So, it seems like we may be in store for another fun season of Estrada putting up zeros and embarrassing opposing batters, but why we’re marvelling at him, let’s not forget to give the eight guys around him some appreciation too, because Estrada’s success really is a team effort.

Advertisements

Delving into the Blue Jays Offseason Part 2: It’s Actually Been Pretty Good

s-morales-swing-62015-vresize-1200-675-high-53

Orlin Wagner (AP Photo)

When this winter began, questions regarding the impending offseason for the Toronto Blue Jays were as numerous as they were diverse. What’s going to happen to Edwin and Jose? Is the front office going to take a step back? How much money is there to work with? Are the Jays willing to trade young assets or surrender draft picks to improve the team in the near term? What about the bullpen? The outfield? What’s with Justin Smoak? Is there a clear path to being competitive given how good the Red Sox are? Etc.

The widespread nature of the opinions and inquiries surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays was simply a testament to how complicated the team’s position was. They were coming off back to back ALCS appearances but were hemorrhaging a host of good to great players in free agency. This combined with a depleted farm system and a new management group plus a talented, but flawed, on field collection of players kept fans unsure of what the logical path was going forward. Everybody had guesses and opinions as to what was coming. I summarized mine in Part 1 of this piece written back in November: The Jays will almost certainly try to have their cake and eat it too. Translation: they’re going to use their payroll flexibility and existing talent core to try and stay competitive over the next three years by bringing in good players on short term deals through free agency or trade. Meanwhile, they’ll be building the farm system in the background so that they can field a very good, young team by the end of the decade when the big contracts expire. This strategy would maximize their competitive window, it would keep the fan base excited in the near term, and it would ensure that Shapiro and Atkins have a good chance of building something special of their own in the not so distant future.

Well it looks like that prediction was somewhat accurate (shameless self plug withstanding). At the cost of only cash plus one sandwich pick from this year’s draft, the Jays brought in Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, J.P. Howell, and Jose (Thank God He’s Back) Bautista. None of these players signed for more than 3 years.  In doing so, they filled vacant spots at DH and in right field, they improved their bullpen, and they greatly enhanced their first base picture by supplementing Justin Smoak with Pearce’s lefty smashing bat. All in all, that ain’t bad, especially considering how terrible this offseason has felt. The long periods of inactivity and failure to secure targeted players have made this whole winter feel unpleasant for Jays fans. However, if you analyze each move individually and objectively, there is reason to be pleased.

The most criticised move was the early November signing of Kendrys Morales. Many have argued, including Jonah Keri in a piece at CBS Sports, that Morales doesn’t offer a lot. His major lack of speed and defensive value combined with a bat that only put up a 110 wRC+ in 2016 makes one wonder how much he’ll really be able to contribute. While these points are logical, I prefer (yeah maybe because I’m biased) to feel good about some of the more positive signs. According to a post in Fangraphs by Tony Blengino, Morales’ adjusted production of 150, which is like wRC+ but includes batted ball data like exit velocities and launch angles, was ranked second best in 2016 among AL DHs to the now retired Davis Ortiz. He scalds the ball. Additionally, he spent most of his career in pitcher’s parks, including last year when he played in Kauffman stadium and still hit 30 bombs. There’s reason to be optimistic that his power will play up big time while playing half of his games at Roger’s Centre and another 30ish games at hitter friendly Fenway Park, Yankees Stadium, and Camden Yards. Plus, as a switch hitter, he offers a valuable break in the line of righties that compose the meat of the Jays lineup. There has been lots of legitimate criticism against the Jays front office for coming out strong and signing Morales to a 3 year/$33 million deal considering how much the market cratered for old, one dimensional sluggers. This criticism was intensified heavily by the Edwin saga, but hey, what’s done is done and Morales could very well be a nice addition.

As for the Steve Pearce signing, there’s not much to dislike given his positional versatility and strong bat. He SMASHED left handed pitching last year and was no slouch against righties (176 and 118 wRC+, respectively). Some people seem to project his usage a little bullishly given his injury history (no more than 102 games played in a season in his career) but that was obviously factored into his contract. He’s only being paid to be worth around 1.5 wins above replacement over the next 2 seasons. Given that he’s still rehabbing from a tendon injury in his throwing arm from last season, just keeping him at first and allowing him to play in place of the underwhelming Justin Smoak is probably the best way to use him.

As for Bautista, already much ink has been spilled about his return. So to sum it up…he’s good! He was easily the best option for the team even leaving aside the connection he has to the franchise. But he does have a pretty damn strong connection to the franchise! Much of the discourse around the left behind sluggers has had Bautista wrongly lumped in with pure home run hitters who strike out a ton and don’t walk. He easily had the highest upside of any of the remaining options and his return makes the Jays look much better from an offensive standpoint. Just take last years’ stats. If you project those numbers over 150 games, you’re looking at nearly 30 home runs with a .366 OBP and 122 wRC+. That’s great production and it doesn’t even account for the fact that Jose was playing hurt with lower half injuries for much of the year. Projection systems seem to agree that he’s due for a bounce back as Steamer has him being worth 2.6 WAR with a 130 wRC+ this season. It was a good signing.

Despite these facts, many fans will continue to think of Jose as an unfortunate consolation prize after missing out on their real target of the offseason, Edwin Encarnacion. It’s easy to see how one may feel this way given the chronology of the offseason and how crazy the Edwin contract drama ended up being. His leaving felt like a real gut punch to the city and for good reason. He went to a small market team for less than the Jays offered him…the same team that sent the Jays home in the ALCS. However, as Dave Cameron of Fangraphs argues, this might not be such a bad thing. If Edwin had taken the Jays 4 year/$80M offer and the Jays had nabbed him instead of Bautista this winter, they would have presumably then spent the money that they gave to Morales on an outfielder. For 3 years and around $33M, they likely wouldn’t have got a great player based on what outfielders have been getting paid in free agency. For example, Josh Reddick signed for over $50M on a 4 year deal. Therefore, the choice is really whether you’d rather have Bautista and Morales, or Edwin and some OKish outfielder. Well, in 2017 both options are projected to provide similar production for the same price, but the Bautista option doesn’t entail the long-term risk that the Edwin deal would have (1yr vs 4yr commitment to an old slugger). So, by that logic, Edwin’s rejection of the Blue Jays offer wasn’t so bad after all.

Lastly, the Jays signed left handed reliever J.P. Howell to a nice little 1 year/$3 million deal. Howell has had a very solid career as he’s posted a 3.79 ERA since his debut with Kansas City in 2005. This past year his numbers weren’t all that appealing as opponents slashed .277/.338/.392 against him. LHH really got to him, slashing .299/.340/.412. However, in the 3 years prior, he shut down left handed hitters, holding them to a crazy .491 OPS. In that time, his overall ERA was 2.03, facing similar numbers of both LHH and RHH. So why the drop off from elite to not good in 2016? It seemed to be mostly bad luck. His K/9, BB/9, and groundball % stayed remarkably consistent over the past 4 years. His xFIP never left the range between 3.48 and 3.59 in that span. What really jumped out in 2016 was the .370 BABIP he allowed against LHH because it never rose above .300 in the three years prior. Additionally, his HR/FB ratio rose and his strand rate dipped compared to previous years, culminating in a 4.09 ERA in 2016. Therefore, this soft tossing lefty is the textbook definition of a bounce back candidate. If he can produce anywhere close to his pre-2016 numbers, this will be a total steal for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins.

Oh, and we can’t forget about Salty (Jarrod Saltalamacchia), whom the Jays got on a minor league deal. He brings lots of experience along with some pop against right handed pitching. He should be a suitable backup to Martin.

This offseason has felt, at times, hopeless and demoralizing for many fans of the Toronto Blue Jays. Failing to get deals done with Edwin Encarnacion and Dexter Fowler followed by a month and a half of total silence from the front office left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, including the fans that are usually even-keeled and trusting of management. However, the late and surprising signing of a franchise icon, the addition of a slugger who smashes the ball like few others, the signing of a real MLB caliber left handed relief pitcher, and the clever pickup of an underrated and versatile offensive weapon have, when taken together, made the offseason defensible and even…dare I say…. pretty good. For it to be really good, more work must be done, but if there’s anything we’ve learned this winter it’s that having a little patience may pay off in the end.

Delving into the Blue Jays Offseason Part 1: The Big Picture

atkins-and-shapiro

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

As the 2016 Major League Baseball offseason heats up, the Toronto Blue Jays are in a precarious place. Following back to back ALCS appearances, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, two franchise icons, are free agents. They are joined by seven other members of the 2016 Blue Jays as being free to negotiate and sign with any of the 29 other clubs. Brett Cecil and R.A. Dickey have already accepted offers to play for the Cardinals and Braves, respectively. As a result, the Jays have holes up and down their roster to fill prior to the start of the 2017 season. They’ve already filled the DH spot by signing Kendrys Morales for 3 years at $33M, but much work is still required. However, before getting into the details surrounding their other specific needs, it’s important to delve into all of the big picture factors surrounding the Jays this winter.

It goes without saying that any discussion about the offseason has to begin with payroll. It may be boring to talk about, and all anyone can do is speculate, but given the payroll commitments already in place and the many needs that this team has, payroll flexibility is obviously crucial to this offseason. Besides, it’s easier to have a discussion about potential scenarios and strategies if we have at least a rough understanding of the numbers involved. The Blue Jays are reported to have spent approximately $150M in payroll this past season. While many players are coming off the books, many others are getting raises for next season. The Jays currently have approximately $121M committed to 10 players for 2017. If you add in likely arbitration and pre-arbitration salaries, you’re looking at roughly $130M that will need to be paid to current Jays who are expected to be on the team next year. That leaves around $20M for Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins and President Mark Shapiro to spend to get up to last year’s payroll.

Of course, one would hope that the 2016 American League attendance leading Toronto Blue Jays would have a much larger payroll in 2017. One would hope that Rogers would come to the conclusion that paying more for a competitive team is an investment worth making, even for purely financial reasons. One would hope that they would want to avoid pissing away all of the immense enthusiasm that has erupted in the fan base over the past 16 months. Unfortunately, fans hopes have never seemed to sway the decision making processes of billion dollar corporations, and it would be surprising if that started now, despite some notable recent changes in the personnel of ownership. This is not to say that payroll won’t go up, it definitely can, and many believe that probably will…but likely not by a whole lot. I really hope I’m dead wrong though. So based on this, one wild/speculative guess would be that they’ve got about $25-30M to spend to fill their remaining holes. Of course, contracts can be moved at any time and these numbers may be far from exact, but this as good of a guess as any.

In addition to payroll, we have to factor in what managements’ vision for this team is going forward. Shapiro and Atkins inherited an aging yet talented team on the heels of its first post-season appearance in 22 years. There wasn’t a whole lot coming off the roster at the end of 2015 so their task then was pretty clear. They had to fill a couple holes in the bullpen and rotation with short term, relatively low cost players and go for it again in 2016. They did this to great effect in the rotation with the extension of Marco Estrada (credit for that one goes mostly to Tony LaCava) and the signing of J.A. Happ. Their offseason makeover of the bullpen wasn’t nearly as successful but clever in-season acquisitions of Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit lessened the blow (that Storen for Benoit trade does not get nearly the attention it deserves. Like that was really amazing). Anyways, they successfully lead the team to its second straight ALCS in a season that contained many remarkable moments. Shapiro and Atkins did their job well, but things won’t be as easy this time around.

As all Jays fans are sure to remember, the talent in the upper levels of the minors was all pretty much traded away or promoted to the big leagues in Alex Anthopoulos’ final two seasons. While pretty much every fan, including me, would do it all again, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard to field a competitive team without a bunch of low cost, young, controllable players all over the diamond. Just look at the Cubs and Red Sox. Premium talent just costs too much on the open market to fill very many spots that way. Unfortunately, the Jays now find themselves in a place where good players are leaving and internal replacement options are sparse. This is not to say the Jays farm system is bad. To the contrary, it has been getting much better and there is lots to be excited about. The problem is that most of the excitement emanates from the lower minors. Of the Blue Jays top 10 prospects, according to Baseball America, only Rowdy Tellez, Connor Greene and Anthony Alford are talked about as having a real chance of making big leagues this year, although you never really know with prospects. Even if one or more of these guys does make it up, it’d be surprising if any of them had a significant impact immediately. Dalton Pompey is also still around and may be able to provide some value. However, his .702 OPS from AAA Buffalo in 2016 doesn’t inspire an abundance of confidence. This puts the Jays front office in a tricky place going forward.

Some have suggested that the Jays should try and enter a soft rebuild phase where they trade some of their better players and stock pile young talent for a few years and then go for it when the big contracts subside and the younger players are ready to make to make an impact, probably around 2019-2020. The Jays front office has consistently stressed the importance of building a great farm system and it’s natural to assume that Shapiro and Atkins will follow some aspects of their Cleveland model of drafting and developing many young, athletic players. Even this year, they’ve implied that they want the team to be younger and more athletic (who doesn’t though?). Nevertheless, this rebuild argument misses a couple of key facts. First, the Jays still have *a lot* of excellent players. The whole rotation from last year is returning. The only difference is that Francisco Liriano is replacing Dickey, which is perfectly fine by me. The Jays still have a great infield consisting of Josh Donaldson, Russel Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, and Devon Travis, with Kendrys Morales DHing. Additionally they have Kevin Pillar who, despite his offensive shortcomings, has put up 8 wins above replacement over the past 2 seasons. Finally they’ve got one of the best young closers in the game in Roberto Osuna and they have Jason Grilli who’s coming off a fantastic 2016 in Toronto. Frankly, there’s just too much talent and upside to justify any kind of rebuild…even a halfhearted one. Secondly, the Jays aren’t a small market team and they’ll almost definitely have a top 10 payroll in 2017. That gives them the financial muscle to stay somewhat competitive even if they’re not drowning in young, talented pre-arb and early-arb players. This isn’t Cleveland.

What does all this boil down to? The Jays will almost certainly try to have their cake and eat it too. Translation: they’re going to use their payroll flexibility and existing talent core to try and stay competitive over the next three years by bringing in good players on short term deals through free agency or trade. Meanwhile, they’ll be building the farm system in the background so that the Jays can field a very good, young team by the end of the decade when the big contracts expire. This strategy would maximize their competitive window, it would keep the fan base excited in the near term, and it would ensure that Shapiro and Atkins have a good chance of building something special of their own in the not so distant future. These two tasks won’t exist perfectly in parallel. Keeping their eye to the future will lessen the chance that they’ll be able to trade for impact major leaguers or sign coveted free agents. Conversely, their desire to win now will put tight limits on the rate at which they can collect premium prospect capital and they may even have to trade some of it away. However, it’s the right strategy and it’s one that we all hope is successful. The hard part now is getting the pieces necessary to make the 2017 Jays contenders within this framework. There are many moves to be made this offseason and they may not all be the sexiest, but there’s no doubt it’ll be an exciting ride.

The Babcock Effect

Dan Hamilton / USA Today Sports

Dan Hamilton / USA Today Sports

– The Jays are done, now what?

– Gulp. How about the Argos?

– …I’m not familiar with the term. Can you use it in a sentence?

– Wait a second. Remember that other blue team in Toronto? What are they called again?

– OH! You mean the Leafs.

– Yeah, remember them? GOOD TIMES!

The above is a representation of the attitude of 99% of Toronto sports fans over the past week. There’s nothing like a long-term rebuild, a 1-7-2 start to the season, and a 48 year old Stanley Cup drought to get people fired up for some Leafs hockey. Ah, to be a Toronto sports fan!

With that being said, let’s turn our attention to the Leafs. It’s been about 14,000 years since we’ve written about them, so there’s a lot to say.

Despite the sarcasm-laden, passive aggressive introduction that you hopefully just read, I’m pretty happy with the way things are going right now, and there is certainly plenty of reason to be optimistic. *takes off rose-coloured glasses* No really, I think there is reason to be excited. How excited? Excited enough that I may or may not have purchased a Leafs onesie this past week. Worth it.

The Babcock Effect

Like pretty much every Leaf fan, when Babcock was hired, my mix of emotions included optimism, confusion, disbelief, optimism, excitement, and optimism. I am of the firm belief that sometimes the impact of coaches in the NHL is overblown. When a team plays badly, people tend to attack the coach, rather than the goaltending, the scoring, or what have you. Same often goes for the case of a team performing well. The fact is, no matter how good a coach is, no team with a first-line featuring Leo Komarov is going to do exceptionally well…sorry Leo. But that wasn’t the goal for this season, and probably won’t be the goal for next season either. This season is about finding a way to not get blown out of the water on a nightly basis while biding time for the young guns as they continue to develop, whether that be in the CHL, AHL, in Europe or with the Leafs. Whatever happens with this rather crappy lineup will happen. This may mean a low finish and a high draft pick, which would be just fine with me. But it’s plausible that the Leafs could end up in a higher position than most would have expected (whether you take this as good news or bad news is up to you).

It turns out Babcock is doing a pretty good job with this team so far. Despite their record, the Leafs have only been outscored 21-18 at even-strength, despite a cripplingly low shooting percentage of 6.45%, which is bound to improve. They have also generally dominated even-strength possession, something that Leaf fans are not used to seeing, especially coming out of the Carlilian era. The below chart illustrates this turnaround. (CF% refers to the percentage of total shot attempts that were by your team, as opposed to the other team).

Season CF% CF% Ranking
2010-11 47.8% 25th
2011-12 48.9% 19th
2012-13 44.1% 30th
2013-14 42.8% 30th
2014-15 46.4% 27th
2015-16 (through 11 games) 53.7% 6th

Data from war-on-ice.com

It’s very early so take this with a grain of salt for now, but Babcock’s teams have historically achieved success by controlling the puck. And interestingly enough, to start this season, the Red Wings’ possession numbers have taken a plunge with Babcock no longer at the helm.

Season CF% CF% Ranking
2010-11 53.3% 1st
2011-12 55.0% 2nd 
2012-13 52.6% 6th 
2013-14 51.4% 9th
2014-15 53.2% 3rd
2015-16 (through 11 games) 46.0% 29th

Data from war-on-ice.com

Almost a mirror image of the Leafs. Can you say #BABCOCKED?

Again, this is an incredibly small sample size, but if this trend can continue, and the Leafs can continue to control the puck effectively, this will mark an important step in the long-term success of the Leafs. This style of play does pay off.

Traditionalists may argue “so what, just because a team has high possession doesn’t necessarily mean they’re actually playing well.” The fact is, there has proven to be a correlation. Possession drives scoring chances, which drive goals. It’s pretty simple. Sure, luck may win out at times, especially given a small sample size (as we saw with the Leafs in the lockout shortened season of 2012-13), but in the long run, possession is a true indicator of success. In the below chart, I have shown the correlation between high possession numbers and team points using aggregate data from the previous three seasons.

Data from stats.hockeyanalysis.com

Data from stats.hockeyanalysis.com

Moving beyond possession, the problem for the Leafs so far has been goaltending and special teams. The extent of the awfulness in both of these categories would appear to be unsustainable. Bernier’s .899 save percentage through the first 7 games this season is well below his .915 career save percentage. Aside from the 4 games he played in the 2007-08 season, this is his worst season so far in his entire career. For Reimer, the start to his season has been especially rough. In his 4 games this season, he has achieved a save percentage of .876, as compared to his .912 career mark. The likelihood of both of these guys having career-low seasons during their prime years is very low. If they both performed just at their career averages, a very reasonable target, the Leafs would have already allowed about 6.5 less goals against this season. Considering the season is only eleven games old, this is a pretty substantial difference.

The special teams is particularly puzzling, especially given the relative success that the Leafs have experienced to this point at even-strength. To this point the Power Play has converted at a rate of 7.4%, and the Penalty Kill has been successful only 73.4% of the time. If you go back to the 2005-06 season, the first season after the infamous lock-out of 2004-05, no team has ever had a Penalty Kill worse than the 2012-13 Florida Panthers, who had a rate of 74.2%. The Leafs are pretty bad, but they probably aren’t that bad. Looking at the Power Play, the worst percentage in this same time period, by a landslide, belongs to the 2013-14 Florida Panthers, at 10.0%. So what’s the conclusion? Well first, the Panthers were embarrassingly bad at hockey. But beyond that, none of these special teams numbers are even close to being sustainable for the Leafs going forward. They won’t be at the top of the league, and they could even be right at the bottom, but it won’t be this bad. It may just be a matter of adapting to the new systems being implemented by Babcock and his new coaching staff.

If the Leafs can continue playing the way they have at even strength, and if their goaltending and special teams can improve just a little bit, we may well just see the Leafs climb in the standings.

You might be thinking this is way too optimistic a stance to take right now. But in the early going, the Babcock Effect appears to be real. Going into this season with basically no expectations, I have been pleasantly surprised. Maybe I’m just an idiot, but if the Leafs continue to play this way, even if the wins don’t come immediately, I see it as a positive step in their long-term success. As they rebuild over the coming years, and as the roster becomes less trash, it will be interesting to see the results. There is reason for optimism, Leaf fans. And with guys like Nylander, Marner, Kapanen, Brown, and Johnson on the way, there will be more reason to cheer soon.

Anyways, happy belated Halloween from one Leafs fan to another. And even though Phil isn’t technically on the Leafs anymore, I think you need this picture in your life.

phil

The 2015 Blue Jays Season: Let’s Not Forget the Early Days

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images/AFP)

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images/AFP)

2015 for the Toronto Blue Jays will go down as one of the most incredible seasons in franchise history. So whether you’re a die-hard fan who watched them since April or somebody who hopped on the wild ride in the summer months, there’s something to gain by looking back at the season that was for your Toronto Blue Jays. While this season will be remembered for the explosive mid season trades and the dominant sprint into October, we should not forget the 4 months that lead up those moments. They too were filled with many incredible moments and it was the events of these first 100 games that set the stage for the most exciting end to a season since Carter touched ’em all. So how about we take some time and look back on April to July of the Toronto Blue Jays 2015 season.

It seems like a decade ago, but it all started rather routinely. The off season got fans a little excited with the acquisitions of superstars Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin. Other additions including Michael Saunders, Marco Estrada, Devon Travis, and Justin Smoak also added some intrigue, as did the six rookies who would be breaking camp with the team. Expectations were lowered though after fluke injuries to Marcus Stroman and Michael Saunders. The season began in the Bronx on April 6 with a win highlighted by a strong start by Drew Hutchison and a Devon Travis home run. However, the Jays pushed through the first two months of the season with middling results as they bobbed over and under the .500 mark (usually under) in a fashion that we were all too familiar with. In the early going, the Blue Jays offence was looking special with a middle of the order that seemed video game-like. With help from a few unexpected sources of offence like Devon Travis and Chris Colabello, the Jays scored a lot of runs.

However, as has been the case too often for this franchise, when one part of the team is strong, the others are anything but. In this case, pitching was the problem. Dickey began the season slow as he has every year as a Blue Jay. Mark Buehrle was getting hit all over the place leading some to question whether he was finished. Sanchez was having trouble finding the strike zone and Norris was constantly walking a tight rope and struggling to get past the fifth inning. Drew Hutchison was pitching alright at home but was absolutely terrible on the road. All of this was in the shadow of what “appeared” to be a season ending injury to Marcus Stroman in spring training. However, despite this, the bullpen may have been an equally big problem. Cecil and Loup were not getting the job done and Castro’s coronation as the king of pitching was demonstrated to have been a little premature. It didn’t take very long for rookie Roberto Osuna to emerge as not just a huge part of the bullpen, but really he was the whole bullpen for a stretch.

Though, there were some highlights from the early months that shouldn’t be forgotten. There were a couple of glorious walk off home runs from Josh Donaldson. Devon Travis, a prospect with mixed reviews, came in and outperformed all the superstars around him. Chris Colabello, an independent ball veteran, made it seem possible to never find a glove with a batted ball. Kevin Pillar was producing a weekly 5 minute highlight reel by himself (not much of an exaggeration). Oh, and Jose Bautista had another couple anger fueled home runs off of Orioles pitchers. Despite all this, the early part of the season didn’t leave a good taste in the mouths of players and fans alike. At one point, Josh Donaldson famously said “This isn’t the try league. It’s the Get-it-done league”.

Around the end of May, things started feeling a little bit better though. The pitchers began to progress towards their career marks and swingman Marco Estrada was giving the Jays a fighting chance in games he started with his dynamic changeup. Bautista was returning to the field after DHing for 6 weeks following an ill-advised, heat of the moment throw during the big brush up with the Orioles in late April. The significance of this couldn’t be overstated. Bautista’s injury contributed to the reason that infielders like Colabello and Valencia were in the outfield, it meant that Justin Smoak’s bat was stuck glued to the bench, and it meant Edwin had to play first base every day and accentuate his nagging injuries. Additionally, Navarro and Reyes (yeah, remember him?) were coming off the DL. It felt like the Jays were going to go on a run. Then they went to Washington and barely lost game one of a double header. Game 2 that night was between Max Scherzer and Marco Estrada and a very bad day seemed to be a real possibility for the Jays. Then, Kevin Pillar hit two home runs off Scherzer and the Jays won game 2. Other than reminding everybody why they watch baseball, that performance seemed to jump start the Jays and they went on to win 10 more right after.

This 11 game win streak showed everyone that there really was legitimate talent on the Blue Jays roster, so when they went on to play sub .500 baseball between the streak and the all-star break, rather than throwing in the towel and saying that the team just wasn’t good, most fans pushed for specific moves to address specific holes. They had faith in the core. People understood that they needed a good starting pitcher to take the spot in the rotation that was possessed by Felix Doubront. Also, they needed bullpen arms. Other issues included shortstop and left field defense. All of this was apparent based on how the Jays were losing games. Aaron Sanchez got hurt just as he was becoming a dependable starting pitcher causing the Jays front office to throw Scott Copeland, Matt Boyd and Felix Doubront at the wall to see what sticks…nothing did. Also, misplays in left field and at shortstop were continually and frustratingly costing the Jays one or two run games. Jose Reyes was becoming a particularly strong lightning rod among the Jays fan base, especially after Blue Jays long time radio play by play announcer, Jerry Howarth, called him out for his misplays and even implied that he wasn’t serious enough on the field. Finally, no Jays fan felt at ease when a relief pitcher that could legally drink in the US was on the mound. Due to these factors, an offence that was heads and tails better than anybody else was behind in the standings to the light hitting rays and the retirement home Yankees.

But then, after another heart breaking loss to the Mariners in late July in which Ezequiel Carrera hit a home run, robbed a home run, and was tripled off all in one game, deadline week began and all hell broke loose. The events of the week that followed would set the stage for one of the greatest runs in Blue Jays history and it would ignite a fan base that had not had anything to cheer about in decades.

Decision Time: What Should the Jays do Before the Deadline?

As we enter into the final week of play before the MLB non-waiver trade deadline, the baseball world is completely awash with rumors (of varying accuracy) and opinions concerning where certain players may be heading. All of this dizzying banter can only be deciphered by spending a couple hours a day checking out twitter or more quickly at mlbtraderumors.com. After an unexpectedly lengthy period of stagnancy in the trade market, the dominoes finally began to fall on Thursday when Scott Kazmir was dealt by Oakland to Houston in a classic rental for prospects type deal. Since then, the Mets added Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson from the Braves to inject some badly needed offence into their roster and the cardinals picked up reliever Steve Cishek to help bolster their first place team for another deep playoff run. Oh and the Royals got Cueto.

Throughout all of this action, the Blue Jays have been front and centre despite not yet making any moves. There has been a polarizing month long debate within the fan base and media about what Alex Anthopoulos should do prior to the July 31st trade deadline. Many factors have been key in determining whether the Jays should buy, buy big, sell, or stand pat. The team is currently only at .500, but they’re just 5.5 games back of the Yankees (who are much shittier than they’ve been letting on), and just 3 games back of Paul Molitor’s surprising Twins for the second wild card spot. Followers of the team seem split between either holding onto their elite pitching prospects or making a big splash for a huge addition.

The “let’s not do anything camp” has a few solid points. The Jays have battled to be a .500 team all year despite limited injury setbacks (compared to previous years). Also, there is a widely held belief that strong starting pitching is an essential component of good playoff teams but the Jay’s rotation has much to be desired and they lack a prototypical ace. Most importantly, this viewpoint is built upon unconditional love for the young starting pitching prospects that the Jays have collected over Anthopoulos’ tenure. After so many years of watching teams with good young starters like Tampa Bay and St. Louis win so many games so easily while the Jays have struggled so much to develop young starters…Romero Anyone?…the thought of having Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Jeff Hoffman, Drew Hutchison (let’s hope he gets better on the road), and Roberto Osuna as Blue Jays over the next few years seems to tantalizing of a possibility to ignore or throw away unless the Jays were a first place team with the .500 mark well in the rear view mirror.

Though the thing is that this reasonable sounding position is narrow minded and it ignores some important facts and possibilities that can’t afford to be brushed aside. First of all, the Jays have an incredible offense. They have scored 80!!! more runs than any other team and are tops in the MLB in slugging percentage and are a close second in on base percentage and home runs. This amazingness being delivered nightly…well almost nightly…by the hitters ensures that the pitching only needs to be OKish for this team to be very good. They don’t need a rotation ERA of 3.00 to have a shot at contention. Also, there is no guarantee that this will repeat itself next year. Another advantage that the Jays have this year that they may not next year is that they play in an AL East that isn’t very good. The whole division is around or well below the .500 mark except for the Yankees who many believe are destined to come down to Earth. But next year, anything could happen, especially with the budgets of the Yankees and Red Sox, so waiting until next year might be a very poor idea for that reason. Another reason that the Jays should add at the deadline is because there is a specific area that has a ton of room for improvement. We can all agree that the Stroman-less rotation has been pretty rough this year and that it is the reason why this team, that seemingly scores at will, has such an unspectacular record. Hell…Felix Doubront is in this rotation!! Having such a weak area is a bad thing but it allows a single addition to have a maximally significant impact. This differs from last year, when there were numerous injuries and no single obvious area where the Jays were in desperate need of help. Finally, let’s be real, we are all sick of hearing about the two decade long playoff drought…longest in North American pro sports…yada yada. It’s just stupid and terrible and let’s just make the damn playoffs already. It would be awesome…so yeah. Oh and also prospects have high failure rates and reports indicate that AA goes out the door if there’s no October baseball gracing the Roger’s Centre etc etc. See I can go on and on but put simply: The Blue Jays should ADD at least one starting pitcher before the deadline. It’s the right move both emotionally and logically and it’s the most realistic outcome as well.

So now the question becomes: who should the Jays go after and how much should they give up? Well, despite my emphatic whining in the last paragraph, I don’t think the Jays should go all in and sell the whole farm for this year. Rather, I’d like to see a bold move pulled off that boosts the 2015 roster while keeping an eye to 2016 and beyond. The best case scenario would be to trade for a good starting pitcher under at least 1.5 years of control. This would give a boost to the current team as they head down the stretch but it would also bring some stability to a rotation that will likely lose Mark Burhle, Marco Estrada, and R.A. Dickey to free agency. That’s a lot of innings to be covered by young pitchers that notoriously have trouble staying healthy and commanding their pitches. In other words, we need an arm this year and next year so let’s get a guy now with some control. Also, it would be a lot easier giving up a top pitching prospect if we knew that we would be getting back meaningful term in return. Anthopoulos has already stated that control is what he’d like to go after and his trade history shows that he usually only gives up top prospect capital for multiple years of control with Josh Johnson being the lone major exception. The tough part though is that the second wildcard spot and overall league parity make teams reluctant to weaken themselves past the current season which drives up the already high prices for controllable arms. Still, reports have indicated that the Jays really are going in this direction. Ken Rosenthal of Fox sports already reported that the Jays made a push for Carlos Carrasco that didn’t get done and they have also been linked to Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, Mike Fiers and more. I think it’s obvious that this is the Blue Jays best case scenario but it will be tough to accomplish.

Next come the rentals. Anthopoulos has already stated that trading for guys who will be free agents after this year is his last resort. However, there are quite a few rentals out there and the Jays have been linked to many, notably Price and Samardzija. Buster Olney of ESPN linked them to Scott Kazmir before he was traded but supposedly the cost was too high and there were similar reports regarding Cueto. From all of this, it seems that the Jays are more willing to grab a rental than previously thought but they’ll of course be trying to serve up a prospect package that’s light in blue-chip pitching prospects. They do have Dalton Pompey, Matt Boyd, and Max Pentecost in the upper minors and their lower minors have some intriguing prospects as well like Anthony Alford that can be dealt. If Alex can manage to haul in a solid rental without the cost being excruciating, it’s certainly worth doing. However, it seems that at least some pain would have to be suffered to make a deal for one. Then again, pain is temporary and flags fly forever…so I know where I stand and I have a feeling that Alex agrees. Get something done soon.

Russell Martin: Is His Offense Really this Good?

Getty Images

Getty Images

The Toronto Blue Jays surprised many of their fans in November by signing Russell Martin to a mammoth contract for $82 Million over five years. It was unexpected given that the Blue Jays seemed to have many more pressing holes to fill at the time including left field, centre field, and second base as well as the bullpen. Catching seemed stable in the near term as Dioner Navarro provided a surprisingly solid 2014 season where he hit .274 with 69 RBIs in 139 games. Granted, his defence and game calling skills weren’t that good, but overall he performed as at least an average catcher. Opinions of him were pushed even higher by the nightmare season had by his predecessor in 2013 (we all know who I’m talking about), by his ability to get “clutch hits” (although many baseball fans cast aside clutch hitting as a matter of luck, it seems that they still judge players on this metric even if its subconscious), and by the sheer joy of watching him run the bases.

dioner-navarro-stole-2nd-on-the-astros-b

Important: This is not in slow motion

So when Martin came to town, the main aspects of his play that justified his contract were the skills that he had shown behind the plate in his career: His ability to handle young pitching staffs and mold them into playoff caliber squads, to keep balls in front of him, to control the running game, and to steal strikes through pitch framing. His offensive side was more of an afterthought other than the obligatory “He’ll probably get on base and hit some homers.” A big reason for this viewpoint was that Martin’s career numbers were hard to interpret and therefore it was hard to know what to expect from him. Also, the Jays have their share of elite hitters that stole the spotlight whenever the conversation turned to offense.

Year BA OBP SLG OPS
2006 0.282 0.355 0.436 0.792
2007 0.293 0.374 0.469 0.843
2008 0.280 0.385 0.396 0.781
2009 0.250 0.352 0.329 0.680
2010 0.248 0.347 0.332 0.679
2011 0.237 0.324 0.408 0.732
2012 0.211 0.311 0.403 0.713
2013 0.226 0.327 0.377 0.703
2014 0.290 0.402 0.430 0.832

Russell Martin’s numbers over his big league career, via baseballreference.com

Clearly, last season, Martin had some pretty attractive numbers. He had career highs in average and OBP while having his highest slugging percentage since his 2007 season. His wRC+ was a beautiful 140. All of his numbers seem to have dipped after his first couple years and bounce around a bit with no real trends until his big 2014 season. So let’s dig a little deeper.

His BABIP for 2014 was .336. His BABIPs for the previous 4 years were 0.287, 0.252, 0.222, and 0.266. This may make it seem as though Martin’s 2014 was helped by some good fortune. Citing his inflated BABIP, many projections (including Steamer) had him regressing to having a wRC+ of 110.

It didn’t start well this year for Martin as he stumbled out of the gate and some fans who still haven’t heard of sample size dubbed him Russell Clarkson ( a reference to the giant disaster that was the David Clarkson signing by the leafs). Well… joke’s on them. Martin picked it up and currently has a big time wRC+ of 137 with 7 home runs after just 46 games. Here’s how he ranks among catchers in some key categories (min. 100 PAs)

OBP: 7th

HR: T-4th

wRC+: 3rd

WAR: 2nd

Now that his nice offensive numbers have spread into this season, we are left wondering whether last year’s success might have been the start of an important new trend rather than just a lucky blip. Because that would be awesome and it would have major positive implications on the Blue Jays offense until 2019.

Last year, David Schoenfield of ESPN wrote about how Martin said that he had changed his two strike approach to become a tougher out. The new approach was borrowed from fellow Canadian Joey Votto, who is arguably the best on base guy in baseball. Martin began shortening up and trying to make contact above all else in two strike situations. As a result, he hit .229/.337/.276 with 2 strikes in 2014 as opposed to .137/.250/.288 in 2012 and .129/.241/.219 in 2013. It’s certainly possible that this increase in production with two strikes was to some degree, a consequence of his new approach. His numbers with two strikes this year indicate that this is somewhat continuing and again contributing to his offensive success. His BABIP for two strike counts are .333 for 3-2, .304 for 2-2, .321 for 1-2, and .412 for 0-2. That .412 average on 0-2 counts is Martin’s highest for any count other than 3-0 counts which is pretty unexpected. Compared with pre-2014 splits, Martin is getting more done with two strikes. Although luck may be partly responsible for his high BABIP (.327) again this year, his two strike approach may have elevated his true normal BABIP compared to where it’s been in the past.

Will Russell Martin’s awesome offensive production over the past 200 games continue going forward? Well he probably won’t be quite this good forever, but his improved approach at the plate means that perhaps he won’t be as far off as most predicted.

P.S. It’s unrelated, but Josh Donaldson is God.

Should They Stay or Should They Go: The Phil Kessel Edition

Well, Babcock is in, and the city of Toronto is buzzing. And with good reason. Obviously, a good coach is a crucial component of any winning franchise. But at the end of the day, it is the players that will determine just how successful the Leafs will be. Babcock’s arrival does not change the fact that a complete rebuild is the necessary next step in creating a franchise that will compete for years to come. So even with the new coach, the question remains, what will be done with the current Leaf roster? Who fits into the long-term plans? Who should stay and who should go?

I wrote about Tyler Bozak last week, and came to the unsurprising conclusion that he should indeed be moved this off-season. This was hardly a controversial stance to take, and nor should it be. 

In that piece, much of the discussion regarding Bozak necessarily involved his line mate and good buddy, the King of the Dad Bod, Phil Kessel. This guy has to be one of the most polarizing players ever in Toronto sports. He is certainly one of the most gifted and productive players to ever put on the Leaf uniform, but even as a Kessel fan, there are downfalls that must be acknowledged. Many questions linger this off-season as to whether Kessel should continue to be a part of the Leaf roster, and I would like to try and tackle this issue head on. In making this assessment, it is important to evaluate not only Kessel’s value as a player, but the current situation of the Leaf franchise.

Nobody can deny Kessel’s offensive ability. The guy racks up points at a pace that I think many Leaf fans fail to fully appreciate. Sure, he had a bit of an “off year” this season, but realistically, putting up 61 points in today’s low scoring NHL isn’t actually that terrible, especially when you consider his supporting cast. Even with that off year, here is the list of NHL players with more points than Phil over the last four seasons:

  • Claude Giroux (300)
  • Evgeni Malkin (284)
  • Alexander Ovechkin (281)
  • Sidney Crosby (281)
  • John Tavares (280)

That’s it. Obviously that’s some good company to be in. Now, if we take a look at the quality of the teammates (TMCF%, i.e. teammate Corsi percentage) and the quality of the competition (OppCF%, i.e. opponent Corsi percentage) that these guys face at 5v5 over this same period, and rank them based on this data, this is what you get:

Quality of Competition Quality of Teammates
C. Giroux (50.2%) S. Crosby (51.0%)
S. Crosby (50.2%) E. Malkin (50.6%)
J. Tavares (50.2%) C. Giroux (49.3%)
P. Kessel (50.1%) A. Ovechkin (49.1%)
E. Malkin (50.0%) J. Tavares (48.3%)
A. Ovechkin (50.0%) P. Kessel (44.4%)

*Data collected from Puckalytics.com

In essence, the level of competition that Kessel has faced over his five year career with the Leafs has been pretty comparable to other elite scorers in the NHL, while at the same time, he has had far less help from his teammates. This makes his offensive output over the last few years all the more impressive. He has carried the team, offensively, for his entire stint with the Leafs.

And yet, even with his elite offensive talent, he is often criticized, in large part because his defense is poor. Yes, his defense is bad. I don’t care how much of a Kessel fan you are, this can’t really be argued. Over his last five seasons with the Leafs, his CF% of 46.4% (according to Puckalytics.com) has consistently ranked among the lowest in the NHL. This weakness has been all the more exposed given that he has played most of his time with other poor defensive players, like Bozak, JVR, and Lupul.

But is it fair to direct so much hate toward him for his defense? Guys like Crosby, Datsyuk, Toews, and the Sedins who score at an elite level but also play great defense are few and far between. Obviously, in an ideal world, Kessel plays great defense in addition to his elite offence. But can we not just appreciate him for what he is: an elite offensive force. Look at guys like Kane, Johansen, St. Louis, and Stamkos. None of them are strong defensive players, and yet people seem to be just fine with how they play. I, too, wish Kessel could step up his defensive game, I wish he back-checked harder and won more puck battles, but there is still a lot that we can appreciate about him.

Besides defense, people hate on Kessel for a litany of reasons. First, he doesn’t skate much in the off-season, according to the man himself. Sure, maybe you would expect NHL players to skate more in the off-season, but unless there has been some revelation that I haven’t heard about (and please let me know if that is the case), nobody really knows exactly what his off-season training entails. What we do know is that he hasn’t missed a game since 2009. And what has been reported is that Kessel came into camp last season as one of the top three fittest players, along with prospect Connor Brown, and other guy Cody Donaghy. So he’s doing something right with his training, is he not? Admittedly, I haven’t played hockey at an elite level, but it doesn’t make sense to me that people automatically equate not skating much in the off-season to not training much in the off-season. There is most definitely a difference. Yeah, he has an impressive cookie gut, but it’s working for him.

Then there’s his personality. No, he’s not exactly a vibrant character, nor does he seem like the sharpest tool in the shed. He says “right” way too often during his interviews, and overall, he doesn’t handle media very well. He doesn’t fight (for the most part), and doesn’t make big hits or get in the middle of scrums. He’s an introvert, and in the overbearing and intense Toronto hockey market, that type personality certainly isn’t the best fit, and it often gets mistaken for a lack of passion. Toronto sports fans tend to love guys with a more colourful personality, both on and off the ice: think guys like Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, Wendel Clark, and Doug Gilmour. Sure, it’s entertaining to have those types of players. But is the fact that he doesn’t fit this mold a good reason to not like him? I would say no. He brings his own elite skill set to the table. At the end of the day, he produces more than almost anyone in the league, and I think that’s what he should be judged on, more than his personality. No, he probably won’t be the captain of any teams during his career, but if he keeps producing at the rate that he has, I’m fine with that.

And yeah, he looks creepy in an elf costume. But you know what, he’s our creepy elf who racks up points like it’s nobody’s business.

So, obviously, I do like Kessel. There are things he could certainly improve on, but all in all, he’s a fantastic player. I believe that much of the hate for him in this city is unwarranted. And if the Leafs were a contending team, or on the verge of being one, they would be crazy to move him. However, given the current Leaf situation, I think that it would benefit both the team and Kessel to trade him away. Not because he’s poor defensively, not because he doesn’t skate a lot in the off-season, and not because of his personality, but instead, simply because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep him around, given the current state of the franchise. He’s 27 now, and it will be quite a while before the Leafs are good again, unfortunately. This has only been reaffirmed by recent comments from Shanahan and Babcock, speaking to the long road ahead for Leaf fans. Keeping Kessel around during these lean years would not be beneficial to him or the Leafs, in the long term. Yes, he might move them up a couple spots in the standings, but at this stage, I don’t think that’s what Leaf fans really want, nor is it what is needed. By the time the Leafs are ready to contend again, Kessel may be well past his prime. If a true rebuild is going to take place, Kessel will have to be moved soon, whether that means this off-season, or another time in the near future. It makes sense to maximize the return for him while you can.

While nobody, including me, can possibly know how Kessel will play in the coming years, I’m aware that some people are in favour of keeping Kessel around temporarily, because of the worry that they might be selling low on him after one “bad” season. Personally, I don’t think this past season brought his stock down much at all. A 61 point season on such an awful team, and during such a low scoring season in the NHL, is far from terrible. Most GMs are smarter than they get credit for, and I would be willing to bet that at least a few will be salivating over the idea of attaining an elite offensive player, like Kessel, for their top line. Judging from some of the reports out there, Kessel could fetch a very intriguing package of young assets and draft picks that could make a major contribution to the Leaf rebuild. Yes, his $8 million cap hit may reduce the amount of teams able to pursue him, but his contract isn’t actually as terrible as it’s made out to be. While it’s difficult to know for certain until a deal has been made, I am as close to certain as you can be that there will be significant interest in him. For the Leafs, it makes sense to bottom out over the next couple of years. And getting rid of Kessel is a good way of doing that. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to assessing how well Kessel will play next year, and well into the future. The fact is, nobody knows. Whether the hiring of Babcock changes anything regarding Kessel is certainly up for debate. Damien Cox, among others, has argued that the Leafs should keep Kessel around and let Babcock turn him into a better asset. Realistically though, we don’t know what kind of impact, if any, Babcock will have on him. There’s no guarantee, at all, that Kessel will be much better than he was last season. While some definitely disagree, Kessel has high value right now, even after a disappointing season, and it would be a shame to throw away a potentially game-changing trade package for the sake of a few more years of Kessel while the Leafs sit near the bottom of the standings. I don’t think the hiring of a new coach should alter the path that needs to be taken by the Leafs in order to achieve long-term success.

And for Kessel, he deserves better. Toronto has heaped too much pressure on Kessel from day one. He’s an elite scorer, but he isn’t a franchise player like Crosby, Toews, Doughty, Price, Lundqvist, Karlsson and others. He needs to play on a team where he isn’t expected to be the franchise player, because he simply isn’t built to take on that role. He was expected to carry this team on his own, and when he didn’t do that, people turned on him. Kessel would benefit greatly from joining a good team where he doesn’t have to be the number one guy all the time, and where he doesn’t have the media constantly breathing down his neck. I truly think that he could put a lot of teams over the top to the level where they can compete for a Stanley Cup.

As I’ve said, I like him, and think he gets a really bad rap in Toronto. I have a feeling that Leaf fans won’t fully appreciate what they had until he’s gone. But for the sake of the Leafs rebuild, and for the sake of Kessel, I hope the Leafs move him this off-season, and I hope Kessel gets to continue his career in a hockey market that he is better suited to play in.

 

Just Have a Little Faith – The Jays Rotation Will Get Better

GENE J. PUSKAR / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

GENE J. PUSKAR / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Wow. Finally. It took a while, but for the first time this season, the Blue Jays starting pitching put together a few good starts in a row. For a short while, the seemingly chronic spectacles of relief arms warming in the fifth inning and of offensive outbursts going to waste have been replaced by the type of pitching that is actually enjoyable to watch (only when your team does it of course).

Coming off of a lousy 3-7 road trip through Tampa Bay *cringes face*, Boston, and Cleveland, anybody who knows anything would have told you the reason why the Jays were 12-14 on the year was their starting pitching. They would have been right. For April, the Jays possessed a vomit inducing 4.78 ERA placing them second last in the league (only the Red Sox were worse). With that kind of pitching, all a good offense can do is keep you alive but there’s no way that long win streaks can be forged. This is what the Jays offense was doing.  Being two games below .500 in the weak AL East after a mere 26 games certainly isn’t terrible but if not for the bats, their record would have been similar to that of the Indians. The offense has faced some criticism after being Jekyll and Hyde earlier in the season where it seemed like they either scored 12 runs or got a run on three hits. But…consider that for April, the Jays were first in all of baseball in runs scored with 122 and that this happened with Bautista and Encarnacion both not yet producing nearly to their expected levels and with dynamic leadoff man Jose Reyes sidelined with [BREAKING NEWS] an injury. Also, the bullpen, despite all the raging by the fan base, hasn’t been that bad. They really haven’t blown very many games when you look back. No, the problem has been the starting pitching.

I’m kind of going off on a tangent here… but most experts, coaches, and broadcasters agree that starting pitching is the foundation of a good team and my time as a fan has given me no reason to argue. The Jays seem like they’ve had good lineups for a while and it never seems to get them anywhere while the Rays have been sporting a lineup consisting of: who’s that, he’s terrible, isn’t he retired, and Evan Longoria for years yet they’ve been a force to be reckoned with for the better part of a decade. Even this year, the Jays 1-6 record against the Rays has provided more evidence to the old adage “Good pitching beats good hitting.”

Anyway back to topic at hand, after that road trip the Jays came home to take on the Yankees and Red Sox. They went 4-1 in the first 5 of these six games. How was their starting pitching? Well in those five starts, the Jays rotation allowed more than one run just once. Other than in Marco Estrada’s start, the Jays rotation shut down the high powered Red Sox offense and the surprisingly not awful offense of the Yankees. There was a little bit of everything. Sanchez pitched into the EIGHTH inning. Mark Buehrle picked up a win against the Yankees for the first time since Roy Halladay was a rising star and R.A. Dickey finally had a dominant start even though he didn’t strike out anyone. On top of all that, Hutchison managed to not get lit up when staked with a commanding lead. An ERA of 2.12 through that last turn of the rotation was clearly far better than their overall ERA of 5.07 and the record reflects that. Now the question is whether this was an anomaly or a turning point. I think it’s the latter.

Although the starting pitching wasn’t going to be the strength of this team, we all know it’s far better than its looked so far. Hutchison is simply not a guy whose ERA is going to be around 7. There are lots of thoughts about why his start has been so slow including his relative inexperience and his fastball or slider. No matter what the reason, it’s important to realize that he does have a solid track record of 50 major league starts that indicate he will improve. Speaking of track records…Mark Buehrle…That is all. Dickey has had historically slow starts and there’s no reason to think this is any different. As for Sanchez, there isn’t a track record to fall back on but if you’ve been watching him, it’s clear that he’s making gains in every start and learning how to overcome his control issues bit by bit. There is reason to think he’ll improve.

All in all, the Jays rotation has not been good this year but the last time through was great and if you care to use a little logic, you’ll come to the inescapable conclusion that it’s probably going to get better from here.

Should They Stay or Should They Go: The Tyler Bozak Edition

So, the GM is gone, all of the coaches are gone, and most of the scouting staff is gone. Shanahan burned it all down. Luckily, SportsFromTheSix was able to dig up some exclusive footage showing how it all happened. Has anyone seen Carleton the Bear lately? Hopefully he (or she?) is still employed.

While most fans would agree that these actions needed to be taken, the big remaining question is: what should happen to the roster? The Leafs are in a rather unusual position. On the one hand, they are awful at hockey, in the same league as the Sabres, Coyotes, and Hurricanes (I leave Edmonton off of this list because McDavid). On the other hand, though, the Leafs possess some major assets, current roster players who are coveted by other NHL teams. I know a lot of people like to say that guys like Phaneuf and Kessel are untradeable, but frankly, I think that’s a load of crap. And while I acknowledge I may have a homer bias, I truly think that these players are valuable on good teams, even with their current contracts. I thought it would make sense to more thoroughly assess who on the current roster should go, and who should stay. The next few posts will address individual players, beginning in this post with Tyler Bozak.

Tyler Bozak:

He should go. It’s not that I don’t like Bozak, but he just isn’t a first liner, and probably not even a second liner on most good teams. At this point, at age 29, what you see is what you get with Bozak. He’s good on face-offs, he’s a decent penalty killer, and he had some nice flow back in 2013, but he can’t play defence for beans and his offense is mediocre.

For some weird reason, a lot of people have this view of Bozak as some sort of defensive stalwart. But like…no…he’s just not. If advanced statistics are your cup of tea, look no further than FF% (Fenwick For Percentage) at even strength, which measures the percentage of shot attempts (shots + missed shots) that are taken by a player’s team while he is on the ice, in relation to shots taken by the opposing team. According to hockey-reference.com, he has a career FF% of 46.0%, with his only season above 50% being his rookie season back in 2009-2010. This means that for his whole career, the opposing team has consistently gotten more shot attempts than the Leafs while he was on the ice. Yes, the Leafs are a bad possession team as a whole, but with a career relative Fenwick percentage of -1.8%, Bozak’s possession stats are bad even in comparison to his teammates.

But possession is overrated, right? What matters is just that you score more than the other team. Right? Oh, I forgot to mention, opponents have typically outscored the Leafs while Bozak has been on the ice. According to BehindTheNet.ca, just this past season he was outscored by 1.69 goals per 60 minutes at even strength. When he wasn’t on the ice, the team was outscored by only 0.09 per 60 minutes at even strength. While this was his worst season in that regard, opposing teams have outscored the Leafs at even strength with Bozak on the ice for four out of six of his NHL seasons. 

Now, I am fully aware that there are major issues associated with looking at plus/minus. Of course, it is important here to recognize the context of these statistics.

Bozak’s poor stats couldn’t be a reflection of his play, could they? Perhaps it’s because he plays against the other team’s top players? But while Bozak has had some tough opponent matchups, the GF% of opposition players at even-strength when they are not playing against him has fallen between 49.9% and 50.9% during each of his seasons in the NHL. In other words, his opposition has basically allowed the same amount of goals as they have scored against other league match-ups. They have not dominated their other opponents. 

Okay then, Kessel’s bad defence must be dragging Bozak down, right? Au contraire. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case. According to Puckalytics.com, without Kessel, he really is not a major threat to opponents. Between 2010 and 2015, when Bozak played with Kessel, their GF% (goals for percentage) at even-strength was 47.1%, meaning they were slightly outscored. Without Kessel, though, there is a major drop-off, as Bozak’s GF% then falls all the way to 33.8%. Two-thirds of the goals scored while he was on the ice without Kessel were by the other team. Interestingly enough, Kessel does not rely on Bozak in the same way, as his GF% without Bozak between 2010 and 2015 was 48.7%, a slight improvement from when he played with Bozak. This same trend applies when you look at the Corsi possession numbers. Bozak’s CF% (Corsi For Percentage) without Kessel is far below what it is with Kessel, while Kessel’s remains mostly static whether or not he is with Bozak. (Note that the only difference between Fenwick and Corsi is that Corsi counts blocked shots as shot attempts, while Fenwick only uses shots and missed shots). As bad as Phil Kessel is defensively, you can easily argue that Bozak is even worse. People just like to rip extra hard on Kessel because he has a chubby face, a funny accent, and doesn’t handle media well.

How about JVR? Is he having a detrimental impact on Bozak’s play? This may be a more legitimate question. Bozak still has a lower GF% and CF% when playing without JVR than he does playing with him, although it should be noted, JVR’s is also lower when he doesn’t play with Bozak and Kessel (JVR will be covered in detail in a future blog post).

Offensively, Bozak has put up decent point totals, but that’s to be expected when playing most time on a line with Kessel and JVR. Compared to other first line centres in the league, though, he hasn’t had much success at all. He has yet to put up a 50 point season, with a career 232 points in 378 games with the Leafs, for an average of 0.61 points per game. For a comparison, Kessel has 394 points in 446 games with the Leafs (0.88 points per game), and JVR has 149 points in 210 games with the Leafs (0.71 points per game). The fact is though, no matter what stats you look at, Bozak isn’t a number one centre by any stretch, he isn’t an elite scorer, and he doesn’t play good defence.

One would hope that the Leafs can draft a future #1 centre in the upcoming draft, like Strome or Marner (if he is able to play centre). But even if they don’t, I take Kadri over Bozak in the first-line role any day of the week. He’s younger, more gifted offensively, and he plays defence. According to HockeyAnalysis.com, over the past three seasons, Kadri’s points per 60 minutes of 2.02 has ranked only behind Kessel at 2.13, and well ahead of Bozak at 1.67, despite usually having far less gifted linemates.  How many points would he rack up on a line with Kessel and JVR? Who knows, but it’s safe to say a fair bit more. I’ll talk about him in more detail in a separate blog post, but there is no logical argument to be made for Bozak being better than Kadri, and I just can’t see him fitting in with the Leafs going forward.

After the 2012-2013 season, Bozak was rewarded with a 5 year, $4.2 million contract, in part of a string of awful decisions made by Dave Nonis that also saw MacArthur get let go for nothing, Grabovski bought out, and Clarkson signed to a ridiculous contract. Even with the steadily increasing salary cap and the inflation of contracts, he’s a little overpaid, seeing as he is probably a third line centre. But with that being said, it’s not so bad that it will make it impossible to deal him. Heck, apparently no contract is that bad. Even Clarkson got traded. For teams that already have a solid #1 centre and a little bit of cap space, Bozak could be a useful depth piece who can kill some penalties, win some face-offs, and chip in some secondary scoring. As much as I have spent much of the last few paragraphs ripping on the guy, he does still have some value. And who knows, there may well be a GM out there that overvalues Bozak (Nonis, where are you?). The fact is, though, he isn’t a number one centre, he doesn’t fit with the Leafs going forward, and it makes much more sense to get something for him while they can. Even if you love the way he plays, he’s 29 now, and by the time the Leafs are good again, he’ll probably be 32 or 33, with his best playing days behind him. He shouldn’t be a part of the long term plan. I’m no expert, but if I were a betting man, I would guess that he could fetch something along the lines of a 2nd round pick, and maybe another small piece. At a return like that, I definitely make the deal.

Sorry for offending the Bozak fan club.

Over the next few weeks, I will continue to write similar features on different players in the Leafs lineup to assess whether or not they should continue to be on the roster. Next up, Phil Kessel.