The Blue Jays’ Infield Has Yet To Soar

© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

At 20-18, the Blue Jays are already eight games back in a division that they were projected to win. While they don’t lack for reasons as to why they’ve yet to take full flight, an infield that has yet to live up to high expectations is a significant factor. On the left side, Matt Chapman hasn’t found his footing since arriving from Oakland, and Bo Bichette has been in a replacement-level funk. Cavan Biggio, who was expected to platoon at second base after being bumped off third by Chapman’s arrival, has not only lost his job to Santiago Espinal (who’s been very good) but on Monday was optioned to Triple-A Buffalo after coming off the COVID-19 injured list. Even Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has yet to replicate last year’s MVP-caliber form.

Guerrero is hitting .284/.368/.470 for a 142 wRC+, which while down 24 points from last year’s AL-leading mark, is still plenty potent. Even for a team that has just three other regulars with a wRC+ of 100 or better — namely center fielder George Springer (139), catcher/DH Alejandro Kirk (100), and Espinal (125) — he’s far from the Blue Jays’ biggest problem, and in the interest of keeping this article short of a novella, we’ll save any analysis of him for another day. On the other hand, Bichette (.242/.283/.363, 86 wRC+) and Chapman (.185/.272/.362, 84 wRC+), while not the offense’s least productive regulars — Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (74 wRC+), Teoscar Hernández (61), and Raimel Tapia (53 wRC+) have been worse — were expected to rank among the majors’ best at their respective positions; the former was sixth among shortstops in our preseason positional power rankings series, the latter seventh.

Last season, a 23-year-old Bichette delivered on the promise he’d shown in late 2019 and ’20, when he played in just 75 games, 46 in the former year after a late-July call-up, but just 29 in the latter due to the pandemic and a right knee sprain. In those two stints, he hit a combined .307/.347/.549 (134 wRC+) with 16 homers and 2.2 WAR. While he didn’t show quite as much power last year, he accompanied his .298/.343/.484 (122 wRC+) line with 29 homers, 25 steals, a league-leading 191 hits, and 5.1 WAR, securing him a spot in any discussion of the game’s top young players.

Bichette collected a pair of hits in each of the Blue Jays’ first two games of this season, including a homer off the Rangers’ Dane Dunning, but he notched just three more extra-base hits for the entire month, and finished April batting .213/.237/.298 (52 wRC+) with a mere three walks and 26 strikeouts. For as bad as those numbers looked, his Statcast numbers told a very different story:

Bo Bichette Batted Ball Profile
2021 All 507 49.1% 91.4 7.3 9.9% 47.5% .298 .291 .484 .489 .354 .354
—2022 April 68 58.8% 92.2 3.9 8.8% 54.4% .213 .285 .298 .470 .239 .330
—2022 May 47 38.3% 89.9 13.5 4.3% 36.2% .286 .307 .460 .446 .357 .353
2022 All 115 50.4% 91.3 7.8 7.0% 47.0% .242 .292 .363 .458 .288 .338

There’s a cautionary tale within this about taking a single month’s batted ball splits too seriously, but you can see the outline of a story. Even without elevating the ball with much regularity in April, Bichette was making pretty hard contact, but ended up with little to show for it. By contrast, he’s put it in the air with more consistency in May, and while it’s surprising that he hasn’t produced as many barrels or hard-hit balls, he’s been closer to his expected stats. His contact numbers are still short of expectations overall, but appear to be trending in the right direction.

Still, his performance offers reasons for concern. Bichette’s 25.3% strikeout rate and 13.7% swinging strike rate are career highs, his 85.5% zone contract rate a career low, and his 43.2% chase rate one of the majors’ 10 highest. His bad-ball predilection is not paying off, as he’s hitting .132 and slugging .189 on plate appearances ending with pitches out of the zone. His big weakness has been sliders; he’s seen 63 outside the strike zone, has chased 24 (38.1%), and is 0-for-9 with six strikeouts on plate appearances ending with them. On all sliders (19% of all pitches), he’s hitting and slugging .147 in 38 PA, though his .287 xBA/.408 xSLG suggest he deserves somewhat better. He’s also swinging through a lot of fastballs from righties (26.6% whiff rate, up from last year’s 18.4%).

If we’re talking about problems with breaking balls, there’s Chapman, who since the start of last season has hit .159 and slugged .309 against them, compared to .232/.461 in his first four seasons. Those troubles have been part of a larger slide; since his 139 wRC+ in 2018, Chapman has declined annually to marks of 125, 116, 101, and now this year’s 84. If a picture is worth a thousand words — and the struggles of the 29-year-old third baseman probably merit an article of their own — then consider these:

Note the extremes in Chapman’s 37-game 2020 season, which confound the pattern a bit, but basically his slash stats have fallen off markedly since 2019 while his strikeout and walk rates have risen, though he’s cut back on the former this year. Outstanding defense has bolstered Chapman’s value, but where he was worth a combined 12 WAR in 2018-19, he’s played at roughly a four-win clip in a season and a half’s worth of games since, including 4.0 WAR last year.

Chapman hit just .210/.314/.403 in 2021 while setting full-season highs in both walk and strikeout rates (12.9% and 32.5%, respectively). He had a strong barrel rate (not as strong as 2020’s small-sample 18%) but his increasing tendency to hit the ball in the air didn’t pay off — not surprising in a year when the projected distance of the average fly ball fell by four feet (from 322 to 318) relative to the previous season:

Matt Chapman Batted Ball Profile
Split BBE GB/FB EV LA Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2017-2020 1131 0.88 92.5 17.1 10.4% 46.7% .255 .247 .503 .471 .354 .344
2021 336 0.65 89.7 18.6 13.7% 41.7% .210 .209 .403 .424 .311 .321
2022 93 0.72 92.5 22.1 9.7% 52.7% .185 .245 .362 .497 .285 .359

This year, Chapman’s barrel rate has fallen but his average exit velocity and hard-hit rates are in the 92nd and 95th percentile, respectively. He’s hitting the ball on the ground a bit more often, and his expected stats are much improved, but his actual performance has lagged far behind; his 135-point shortfall in slugging percentage is in the 87th percentile of qualified hitters, while his 74-point shortfall in wOBA is in the 92nd percentile.

Drilling a little deeper, Chapman has been especially hosed on fly balls:

Largest Slugging Percentage Shortfalls on Fly Balls
Player Team FB EV Proj Dist AVG xBA SLG xSLG DIF wOBA xwOBA
Trey Mancini BAL 26 92.5 325 .200 .435 .520 1.295 -.775 .297 .676
Alex Verdugo BOS 30 92.3 313 .115 .320 .462 1.051 -.589 .213 .477
Rowdy Tellez MIL 35 96.2 347 .400 .509 1.229 1.815 -.586 .695 .934
José Abreu CHW 33 94.4 323 .188 .307 .531 1.095 -.564 .298 .550
Avisaíl García MIA 25 93.2 328 .240 .348 .640 1.175 -.535 .378 .612
Tim Anderson CHW 25 94.2 330 .200 .367 .720 1.242 -.522 .391 .645
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. TOR 31 92.5 308 .103 .255 .310 .821 -.511 .166 .427
Matt Chapman TOR 28 98.4 336 .222 .364 .889 1.370 -.481 .456 .729
Bobby Dalbec BOS 25 88.8 288 .167 .295 .375 .836 -.461 .222 .444
Willy Adames MIL 32 97.9 339 .313 .452 1.188 1.648 -.460 .638 .838
Austin Riley ATL 28 99.0 342 .357 .453 1.286 1.728 -.442 .699 .868
Michael A. Taylor KCR 27 92.6 325 .192 .275 .538 .949 -.411 .299 .533
Marcell Ozuna ATL 38 94.7 315 .250 .359 .861 1.268 -.407 .449 .622
Andrew McCutchen MIL 26 92.9 312 .240 .328 .560 .949 -.389 .331 .501
Christian Yelich MIL 25 97.2 339 .304 .434 1.000 1.389 -.389 .512 .678
Gary Sánchez MIN 28 94.5 317 .286 .337 .821 1.207 -.386 .473 .619
Keibert Ruiz WAS 26 91.3 324 .200 .260 .360 .744 -.384 .234 .393
Enrique Hernández BOS 27 88.7 303 .192 .294 .346 .724 -.378 .226 .408
Aaron Judge NYY 33 101.7 358 .485 .550 1.727 2.104 -.377 .942 1.058
Freddie Freeman LAD 38 94.1 321 .270 .320 .622 .996 -.374 .374 .519
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Data through May 18, minimum 25 fly balls.

What’s a guy gotta do to hit one out around here? Chapman has the major’s third-highest average exit velocity on fly balls, and he’s in the top dozen in both projected distance and xwOBA, but those shots just aren’t doing the damage that’s expected. Perhaps as temperatures rise, he’ll have better carry and better luck.

The 27-year-old Biggio, who arrived in the majors on May 24, 2019 — about a month after Guerrero and two months before Bichette — played more games at second base in his first two seasons (122) than anywhere else, and he was generally successful on both sides of the ball, hitting .240/.368/.430 for a 117 wRC+ and 3.8 WAR in 159 games. The free agent signing of Marcus Semien bumped Biggio to third base at the start of last season, but he hit just .224/.322/.356 (84 wRC+) in 79 games while missing time due to a variety of injuries, including a cervical spine ligament sprain, multiple injuries to fingers on his right hand, and a grade 1 sprain of his left UCL, the last of which limited him to just two games after August 2.

Biggio reportedly suffered another elbow sprain during the offseason, though the injury’s specifics were lost amid the lockout. By the time he debuted in the Grapefruit League, the team had traded four prospects for Chapman, pushing Biggio back to second base and into some kind of platoon with the righty-swinging Espinal, who hit an impressive .311/.376/.405 (115 wRC+) last year. Even after starting the first two games of the season at the keystone, Biggio quickly found himself nudged into a utility role, one he wasn’t opposed to given his versatility. Of the seven additional games he started, only one was at second base, with three apiece at first base and right field.

Alas, Biggio went just 1-for-23 with three walks and 10 strikeouts before landing on the COVID-19 IL on April 25. He cleared protocols on May 2 but did not begin his rehab assignment at Buffalo until May 10. While he went 5-for-13 with two doubles and three walks in six games, the Blue Jays elected to option him after his rehab stint finished. Though it may just be a matter of getting him more reps after a shortened spring, the Toronto Star’s Gregor Chisolm pointed out Biggio’s departure from two of his strengths: his plate discipline and pull hitting. While he’s never posted a batting average higher than .250, Biggio posted a .368 OBP over his first two seasons thanks to a 16.1% walk rate. Since then, he’s drawn a free pass just 12.4% of the time, and his OBP is down to .322. Meanwhile, his chase rate has increased from 15.9% in those first two seasons to 22.5%, and his pull rate has dropped from 48.5% to 35.8%.

On the latter subject, Biggio pulled 38 fly balls in 2019-20, accounting for 9.6% of his batted ball events. He managed just 10 last year and none this year; combined, that’s a drop to 5.2% of his batted balls. Those drives are important to his production, as he hit .405 and slugged 1.622 on those in 2019-20, and .600/2.000 last year.

The Jays probably wouldn’t have shuffled Biggio off to Buffalo if not for the 27-year-old Espinal, who after adding 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason is hitting the ball much harder this year:

Santiago Espinal Batted Ball Profile
Year BBE GB% EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2021 193 43.5% 84.8 1.6% 35.8% .311 .267 .405 .346 .344 .307
2022 98 37.8% 87.4 6.1% 44.9% .289 .307 .438 .451 .344 .353

Espinal’s year-over-year contact improvements are some of the majors’ largest. Through Tuesday, his 10.9-point gain in hard-hit rate was the majors’ sixth-highest among players with at least 200 PA last year and 100 this year, an eyelash behind Chapman’s 11-point gain. His 4.6-point gain in barrel rate and 2.5-mph gain in exit velocity are both the 15th-largest. His strikeout rate is up, from 12.2% to 18.5%, but it’s still just 0.4 points ahead of Guerrero, who owns the lowest strikeout rate of the Blue Jays regulars.

Espinal isn’t the type of hitter who can carry an offense, alas, and at this juncture the Blue Jays are scoring just 3.68 runs per game, the league’s sixth-lowest mark, and nearly one-third of a run lower than their 4.00 runs per game allowed. The jury is still out on the infield’s defensive impact as well. As Justin Choi illustrated last week, the Blue Jays are shifting more often than any other team by a wide margin, particularly by deploying more infield shifts against righties and more outfield shifts as well. They’re tied with the Giants for the major league lead in the team shift component of Defensive Runs Saved (16) and are tied for third in DRS (18); that’s up from 26th in the majors in shift runs (four) and 15th overall (22) last year. But while their team defensive efficiency has improved from .700 last year to .707 this year, they’ve fallen from six points above the league average last year to two below.

The Blue Jays have their work cut out for them to catch the Yankees, but the sluggish starts of teams such as the Red Sox (16-22), White Sox (19-19), and Guardians (16-19) have buffered the impact of their own woes. Their 86.9% odds of making the playoffs represents just a 2.3-point drop from Opening Day, but this is far too talented a lineup to be producing so little.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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8 months ago

The table lasts Verdugo with Toronto. Supposed to be him with wrong team or different player with Toronto?

A few weeks ago I heard that Guerrero had already had 15 balls called strikes, and Ump Scorecards has the Jays doing pretty badly in general there. How much of that could be involved? Other factors could be pressing due to injuries and slumps, and league HR suppression efforts? Are there signs people are ovwr swinging to try and make up for thr power outage? There’s a lot of reasonable explanations, though something will have to improve or it could be a disappointing season.