Are Forecasts Too Pessimistic About the Blue Jays’ Rotation?

Paul Sporer and I were responsible for providing the starting-rotation installments of last week’s positional power rankings, posts which you can access here and here. One of the interesting things I took from the exercise was the absence of the Toronto Blue Jays from the top 15 of those rankings.

Blue Jays starters led the American League in ERA (3.64) last season. If you prefer more advanced measures, the Blue Jays’ rotation led the AL with 15.3 WAR and finished second in FIP (4.07) to Cleveland. This season, all of Toronto’s starting pitchers of significance return save for R.A. Dickey.

But despite finishing as the AL’s most productive rotation last season and despite losing arguably its weakest link in Dickey, the Jays’ rotation appeared in last week’s positional rankings as just the eighth-best staff in the AL and the 16th-best such group in the game. FanGraphs projections have the Blue Jays staff ranked behind the Red Sox and the Yankees in the AL East, and if that holds, it could be damaging to Toronto’s postseason aspirations.

Our 2017 forecasts for the Blue Jays’ likely starting pitchers…

Aaron Sanchez   205.0 7.9 3.2 0.9 .302 73.7 % 3.69 3.86 3.4
J.A. Happ 181.0 7.8 2.8 1.2 .303 72.5 % 4.11 4.15 2.6
Marcus Stroman 169.0 7.5 2.4 0.9 .313 71.3 % 3.85 3.64 3.2
Marco Estrada 167.0 7.0 2.9 1.4 .277 71.6 % 4.31 4.62 1.9
Francisco Liriano 149.0 9.6 4.1 1.2 .310 74.3 % 4.11 4.22 1.8
Casey Lawrence 37.0 5.1 2.4 1.5 .312 67.9 % 5.20 5.04 0.2
Mat Latos 38.0 6.6 3.0 1.3 .309 70.2 % 4.77 4.69 0.3
Mike Bolsinger 9.0 8.5 3.5 1.3 .317 71.7 % 4.51 4.36 0.1
Conner Greene 9.0 5.8 4.6 1.4 .311 67.6 % 5.77 5.63 0.0
Ryan Borucki 9.0 5.8 3.8 1.6 .310 68.3 % 5.59 5.54 0.0
Total 973.0 7.7 3.0 1.1 .302 72.3 % 4.11 4.18 13.4

So what’s going on here?

The salient issue appears to be some disagreement between the fielding-independent and earned-run metrics. The majority of the Blue Jays’ top starters outpitched their FIP marks last year. Indeed, Aaron Sanchez (3.00 ERA, 3.55 FIP), J.A. Happ (3.18, 3.96), and Marco Estrada (3.48 ERA, 4.15 FIP) all beat their FIPs by a half-run or better. Among returning starting options, only Marcus Stroman appears to have suffered from some misfortune (4.37 ERA, 3.71 FIP) last season.

Another issue is depth: only Happ and Sanchez project to throw more than a 169 innings. Casey Lawrence (projected 5.20 ERA) and Mat Latos (projected 4.77 ERA), meanwhile, are projected as the top depth options on FanGraphs’ depth chart.

But I do wonder if our projections here are being too tough on the Blue Jays. Projection systems are imperfect, of course. By definition, they’re working with incomplete information.

The forecasts don’t seem to believe much in Happ’s ability to repeat his magic from the last two seasons. And on the surface, Happ isn’t missing many more bats than he did in his previous tour with the Blue Jays in 2013 and 2014. Happ generated a 20.5% strikeout rate last season, a 19.8% rate in 2014, and a 18.5% rate in 2013. Happ’s 2016 walk rate is in line with his 2014 figure. The biggest difference is seen in his BABIP, which projections perhaps figure is largely out of his control. It’s why his ERA is forecast to jump by a full run. Maybe the projections will be proven to be accurate, but there’s also something to be said of Happ’s fastball secret, which Eno Sarris explored last year. Happ traded in curveballs and changeups for more four- and two-seam fastballs, and Sarris found his two fastballs have the greatest vertical-movement differential in the game.

Said Happ:

“They are drastically different pitches, and it’s just all about feel,” he explained. “I’m trying to get that good pressure on the four-seamer and spin it for some good backspin, keep my hand on top of the ball. The sinker is a little bit different. To me it almost feels like it’s coming off just one of the fingers and the pressure is different.”

There’s reason to believe Happ’s success isn’t a total fluke and the projections are missing something.

There’s reason to believe Sanchez is going to exceed his forecasts, too, after making dramatic strides in 2016. He’s also reportedly learning a changeup from Estrada. Sanchez is far from a finished product, and he’s dripping with unrealized potential. While our projections see more of the same, some analysts see breakout potential.

Humans and computer forecasters seem to agree that we should expect more from Stroman, and his World Baseball Classic performance only increases optimism.

Estrada is an outlier with an 88 mph fastball, one who has dramatically defied expectations the last two seasons and can perhaps do so again thanks to his excellent change and high-spin, “cue-ball” fastball as he characterized the pitch in conversation with Mike Petriello. The pitch averaged 2,413 rpm last season, a higher-than-average mark that allows him to pitch up in the zone.

And we are perhaps also overlooking the Blue Jays in large part because of the annual wild card that is Liriano. The high-variance lefty was acquired in a deadline trade last summer, an addition that was thought to mostly be a salary dump by the Pirates. But Liriano pitched well following his move from the NL to the AL, and interestingly, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington thought that might happen when executing the deal.

Early last season, former FanGraphs staffer August Fagerstrom, now working in the front office of the [redacted], wrote about how to beat Liriano. The NL apparently caught on to Liriano’s approach, which is dependent upon chase pitches more than any other major-league starter.

From a post-deadline piece I wrote last year while on the Pirates beat:

Opponents are swinging at career-low rates of Liriano’s pitches (41.1 percent) and of his pitches outside the strike zone (27.9 percent), nearly a 5-percent drop from last season.

“This was not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on Francisco Liriano. This was risk tolerance: What was the upside? What was the downside? What did we feel the probabilities were?” Huntington said. “And what were our a alternatives with the money we’ve created by moving him?

“There is a very good chance Francisco Liriano gets back to the American League where hitters are unfamiliar with him, in a new environment, with new scouting reports and does very well with Toronto.”

He was also reunited with catcher Russell Martin, who has noted in the past that hitters know the Liriano slider is coming but still can’t get themselves to lay off of it. For instance, in the 2013 NL Wild Card game, when Martin caught Liriano, Liriano threw 44 sliders against the Reds in a dominant outing. But that was also Liriano’s first season in the NL.

While having the data is one thing, seeing is another. And perhaps the NL had finally had enough looks at Liriano by 2016 to figure him out. In the AL, Liriano is back to a place where he hasn’t pitched a full season since 2012. Liriano is forecast to a produce a 4.11 ERA, but he is perhaps a decent bet to beat that number if there is indeed something to Liriano benefiting from new league and in reuniting with Martin.

The Blue Jays can’t really afford to have the projections be right, not in a competitive AL East and Wild Card race. The Blue Jays cannot afford to have the AL’s 16th-ranking staff, not with what is a talented but aging core of position players. But the good news for the Jays is there are reasons to be skeptical of their projection.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Jamie Griffith
5 years ago

Must agree with everything you said. Jays staff does fly a bit under the radar since people are scared off by the tough AL East. Only concern for me is lack of SP depth. Last season they got very lucky not losing any of their starters for any significant time(Estrada mostly pitched through an injured back).