The Blue Jays Are the Right Kind of Aggressive

I’ve spent way too much time pondering how to begin this article. So instead of formulating a timely and witty introduction, I’ll be direct: The Blue Jays offense is amazing! You already know that, but it bears repeating. Together, Jays hitters have amassed the league’s second-highest wRC+ while maintaining the league’s second-lowest strikeout rate. This is scary, and this is legit.

Right now, the only team with a higher wRC+ is the Astros. The only team with a lower strikeout rate is… also the Astros. And it’s easy to explain. They don’t have the most power or the best discipline, but they do lead the league in O-Contact%. Even when would-be balls are swung at, they’re either put in play or fouled off. Couple that with a minuscule swinging-strike rate of 8.7%, and it’s a team poised to give opposing pitchers fits. Tenacity wins.

As for the Blue Jays, however, their formula isn’t immediately noticeable. Duh, they have the best hitter on the planet. I know, imaginary voice, but I’m talking about the team as a whole. A few days ago, the Jays routed the visiting Red Sox, outscoring them by eight runs. Let’s consider how the ambush unfolded. Nathan Eovaldi had managed to salvage a rough start until the fifth inning, when Teoscar Hernández unleashed his full strength against a first-pitch fastball:

Oops. Just like that, two runs were added to the scoreboard. Eovaldi had one last chance to get out of a miserable situation, but Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had other plans:

Just like that, 7-2 Jays. Exit Eovaldi, enter Hansel Robles. Would the Red Sox catch a break? Two singles and a hit-by-pitch later, George Springer broke the game wide open with a ground-rule double:

In total, the Blue Jays scored nine runs in a single, massacre-like inning. There’s nothing especially impressive about it, as worse innings have graced baseball’s long history, but it’s the how that intrigues me. You may have noticed all those hits were off first pitches. Expanding the range of counts to include 0-and-0, 0-and-1, or 1-and-0, the Blue Jays have swung 39.7% of the time. Not many teams are more enthusiastic:

So there it is. Part of what makes the Blue Jays stand out is their aggressiveness in early counts. They aren’t the only team with this trait, but at least compared to other offensive juggernauts, Toronto operates a little differently. Are there any potential drawbacks? Sure – swinging at a strike is beneficial, but chasing after a ball may lead to bad a result. That being said, all those hits were off would-be strikes, too. While keeping early counts in our denominator, let’s add in-zone pitches and see where the Jays stand:

There it really is. The Blue Jays do swing at would-be balls more often than the average team, but it’s mere residue from an otherwise excellent approach. What matters is the above graph, which illustrates they haven’t lost a grip on hittable pitches. Those early swing decisions? The vast majority of them are good from a run value perspective. This year, for example, taking the first pitch has cost hitters 0.04 runs on average, but swinging at one has cost them 0.01 runs. Both are losses, but one stings less. Isolate in-zone pitches, and hitters are much better off swinging. Intuitively, this makes sense. Taking means falling behind 0-and-1, but swinging offers a decent chance to make solid contact.

The Jays didn’t always have this identity, however. Their selective aggression is something that has evolved over time – throughout the process of rebuilding, in fact. If the ascendance of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. symbolizes the end of the Jays’ rebuild on an individual level, perhaps the change in offensive approach symbolizes it on a team-wide level:

There’s minimal movement in the line representing out-of-zone swings; by contrast, there’s clear upward growth in the line representing in-zone swings. In 2015, the Blue Jays ranked 28th in in-zone swing rate. Six years later, they’re ranked third. There’s been a massive increase in beneficial swings without a concurrent increase in harmful ones. It’s a tricky balance that could be indicative of how in sync the team’s young core and coaching staff is.

To some extent, the Blue Jays are merely catching up to the rest of the league. More and more teams have realized the value of attacking early, and this isn’t the first instance of such a turnaround. Years ago, the Red Sox went from being the most passive to one of the most aggressive teams in early counts, a phenomena Jeff Sullivan covered and that, admittedly, provided inspiration here. But it’s also a choice not every team has made. It seems like the Blue Jays have made a commitment.

What’s another benefit of swinging early? I mentioned run value, but we can think about this in simpler terms. Though pitchers have become more crafty in recent years, there’s still a tendency for them to start off with get-me-over strikes – straightforward fastballs, backup sliders, and the like. When they get ahead, however, the stuff becomes nastier. No hitter wants to defend himself against a pitcher’s best offering. Luckily for Blue Jays hitters, they’ve been in ugly counts far less often than others:

*Taps head* You can’t fall behind if you make contact early. The masterplan is to not give away strikes, taking advantage of opposing pitchers’ complacencies instead. Another way to describe this: the Blue Jays have the league’s third-lowest rate of called strikes, behind the Mets and the Braves. I find this particularly interesting because of how it juxtaposes with the Astros, who possess the league’s highest rate of called strikes. Unlike the Jays, they’re willing to pass up a hittable pitch if it means getting deeper into counts. The two best offenses adhere to opposing philosophies, and both are viable.

Toronto has yet to bring in a major bat outside of George Springer, but he was the perfect fit. It’s obvious why: He’s a fantastic hitter who could fill a hole in center. Having gone over the Blue Jays’ offensive overhaul, though, we can appreciate another dimension of that signing. Last season, when Springer saw a would-be strike as his first pitch, he swung 61.5% of the time. When he saw a would-be ball, though? That rate plummeted to just 7.0%. His elite discipline produced the largest gap between a hitter’s in- and out-of-zone swing rate on first pitches:

Best Selective Aggressors, 2020
Player Z-Swing% O-Swing% Diff.
George Springer 61.5% 7.0% 54.5%
Corey Seager 71.2% 22.4% 48.8%
Fernando Tatis Jr. 57.1% 12.0% 45.1%
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 60.9% 16.7% 44.2%
Eloy Jiménez 62.6% 19.8% 42.8%
Brandon Lowe 58.5% 16.0% 42.5%

There’s a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum to consider here, though. Did Springer already fit into the team’s changing offensive approach, or did his arrival accelerate that process? Judging from the earlier graph, which showed a gradual, rather than sudden rise in early aggression, the first answer makes the most sense. But still, it’s an aspect to consider. In the future, do the Blue Jays pursue hitters with approaches similar to that of Springer, such as Corey Seager? Or will they convince experienced hitters to change their ways?

Whatever the case, the bottom line is that the modern Blue Jays are unlike past iterations. It befits a lineup of young, energetic hitters to be aggressive. But they’re doing so with deliberation, ignoring bad pitches while punishing good ones, attacking early instead of late, which has spelled the demise of countless pitchers. Overall, this is a team on the rise. As Mike Petriello pointed out, much-needed help from the pitching side has enabled the Jays to outscore their opponents. As it is, that process happens very fast. At a Blue Jays game, never look away from a seemingly innocent first pitch. You might miss all the action.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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J. T.
2 years ago

I’m confused…you’re surprised the team with the 2nd highest wRC+ also happens to have the 2nd lowest K-rate? Don’t those two go together? Avoiding Ks usually leads to good offense.

2 years ago
Reply to  J. T.

Swinging hard usually increases power and strikeouts. A lineup of Joey Gallos will score more runs than a lineup of Placido Polancos. Guys who can hit for power and not strikeout are rare

2 years ago
Reply to  joewho112

Toronto is #8 in ISO and Houston #24 in 2021. Doesn’t this indicate that power isn’t that important relative to avoiding K? Going back to 2010 the only team with an above average K% and an above 100 wRC+ was Tampa Bay. ISO is somewhat all over the place but also depends more on Park Effects I’d think.

2 years ago
Reply to  Justin Choi

If there’s little correlation why does K% matter? Is the “amazing” part important to future strategies or just interesting trivia?

Smiling Politelymember
2 years ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Yeah, this was in the back of my head the whole time, too. There’s no data to suggest that this has been an organizational approach as much as a lot of guys having great years at the same time being the thing that separates them from the Braves/Royals. I think this is really interesting and the low bad swing rate piece is a huge deal…but the larger argument seems very #Narrative driven rather than data-based.

2 years ago

I upvoted just because your handle is awesome

2 years ago

I think that this is mostly due to them deciding to draft Bo Bichette and them having Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk drop into their laps (and Randal Grichuk being good, which seems unlikely to hold). I don’t necessarily think that they went out to acquire these guys, it’s more like every other team knows that this type of player is scary and wants to avoid them.

Interesting to note that Springer and Vlad Jr do not exactly fit that mold, though.

Smiling Politelymember
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah. Is this a bunch of high variance guys all hitting at the same time or this a sustainable approach? I agree with Justin that this is remarkable; I’m just not sure this is intentional, designed, or repeatable. But it’ll be fun to track and find out!

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It didn’t hold, Randal’s regressed down to below average since early June. It’s now a down year for him.

The bigger struggles is from Gurriel Jr. The Jays currently have Gurriel Jr, Grichuk and Dickerson fighting for the slot, and getting a lot of DH time.

Meanwhile they also have 22 year old Kirk sitting there as the backup catcher with 120 wRC+ (132 through 98 PA career) with what looks like a well rounded game.