The Blue Jays Made Baseball’s Best Free Agent Acquisitions

On Tuesday, Justin Choi took a look at the Blue Jays’ offense, observing that Toronto is succeeding by attacking in-zone pitches early in the count. It’s a strategy that has proven successful before: As Justin noted, you don’t want to give away a get-me-over strike. Falling behind 0–1 is too high of a price to pay if the first pitch is in the strike zone. No one exemplified this strategy more than George Springer, who had the majors’ highest differential between Z-Swing% and O-Swing% on the first pitch in 2020. Maybe that is why Springer was the Jays’ big free-agent splash last offseason: Not only is he a great player, but he also fits with that organizational philosophy that Justin outlined.

There’s more to be said about the impact that Springer has had on the Jays, however. It did take some time for him to settle into his new home, as he missed the beginning of the season due to an oblique strain, returned on April 28 to play four games as the team’s DH, then strained his right quad and found himself back on the IL until June 22. After the second return, though, he has been a mainstay in the lineup, and he’s quickly making a case as the most impactful-free agent acquisition of the 2020–21 offseason, even in spite of the comparatively lower volume.

Through Wednesday, Springer is hitting .285/.371/.645 with 16 home runs and a 170 wRC+ in 198 plate appearances across 46 games. The batting average and on-base percentage are roughly in line with his career marks, at 15 and 10 points above his career-average performance in each stat, respectively. It’s the .645 slugging percentage that sticks out like a sore thumb. Springer has never been a .300 ISO player, let alone a .360 ISO player. It’s been four years since Springer had an ISO this high in any 46-game stretch:

Springer has been the beneficiary of some good luck, but his barrel rate is a career-high, and it’s not even close. His average exit velocity, meanwhile, has ticked up by 2 mph year-over-year, getting above 90 mph for the first time in his career, and his sweet-spot rate — the percentage of batted balls between 8–32 degrees — is also at new heights. This has led to the best expected wOBAcon of Springer’s career, at .469. Other underlying numbers, like xwOBA, have been less favorable to his performance. (This is due at least in part to the highest strikeout rate of his career.) But the top line production is currently there, and even if regression does come, he’ll still be the George Springer the Jays were looking for when they signed him.

In fact, Springer is already the second-most valuable free-agent acquisition among position players. How exactly did I define this? It’s simple: I scraped all position player free-agent signings, eliminated the players who re-signed with their 2020 teams, and sorted by WAR. Springer is right there at the top … just behind another Toronto add, Marcus Semien:

Best Position Player Free Agent Acquisitions By WAR
Player Previous Team Signing Team Years Salary WAR
Marcus Semien OAK TOR 1 $18,000,000 4.9
George Springer HOU TOR 6 $150,000,000 1.9
Kolten Wong STL MIL 2 $18,000,000 1.9
Robbie Grossman OAK DET 2 $10,000,000 1.9
Kyle Schwarber CHC WSN 1 $10,000,000 1.7
Adam Duvall ATL MIA 1 $5,000,000 1.5
Freddy Galvis CIN BAL 1 $1,750,000 1.5
Hunter Renfroe TBR BOS 1 $3,100,000 1.5
Jed Lowrie NYM OAK 1 $1,500,000 1.5
C.J. Cron DET COL 1 $1,000,000 1.3
Defined as players who changed teams during the 2020-21 offseason.

Between Springer and Semien, the Blue Jays have received a combined 6.8 WAR from those two signings alone. The latter, who bet on himself following a down year in the pandemic-shorted 2020 season, has been the second-most valuable position player in baseball, behind yet another Blue Jay in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and has slashed .277/.342/.532 in 500 plate appearances while providing top-of-the-league-level defense at second base. On just a one-year, $18 million deal, the Blue Jays struck gold.

In total, the Jays have amassed 7.4 WAR from their offseason additions. The lion’s share of that total is thanks to Springer and Semien, but for posterity’s sake, it should be noted that David Phelps, Tommy Milone, and Tyler Chatwood make up the rest. Unsurprisingly, the Blue Jays have added the most WAR from players who changed teams over the offseason:

If we expand our definition to include all free-agent signings, the story is similar, though notably different in some ways. Toronto again finds itself near the top but has traded places with the Giants, whose re-signing of Kevin Gausman, who has been worth 3.7 WAR in total (pitching + position player), catapults San Francisco to No. 1. By WAR, Gausman is having the second-best season of any player who was on the market, behind only Semien:

The difference between the two charts does create for some interesting analysis. The Phillies, for example, signed eight free agents who were not on the team in 2020, who have amassed -1.2 WAR. The team’s re-signings, however — particularly bringing back J.T. Realmuto — moved Philadelphia into positive territory among all free-agent transactions. It may be easier to acquire positive contributors when you already know what they’re capable of, like Realmuto, than it is to roll the dice with new talent.

A lot of this depends on the quality of talent that you’re acquiring in the first place, which brings us to a third chart: WAR produced over 2021 projection. Since there’s still six weeks left to go in the season, most teams are in the negative compared to their full-season projections. To account for this, I prorated the projections based on the calendar: There are 183 days in the regular season, and through games played on August 11, there are 50 days left. This isn’t the best way to prorate, as every team has played a different number of games, but this feels like a fair way to account for things.

This method really likes the Mets, in part because this approach appreciates value-adds that have worked out in the team’s favor; for New York, that includes Aaron Loup, Jonathan Villar, and Brandon Drury, none of whom were splashy signings but who have made meaningful contributions nonetheless. With that said, this method can be spun as well. Certain players may have produced more WAR not necessarily because of better performance, but rather because of larger than expected volume. Villar, for example, has made 57 starts at third base this season, because of injuries to J.D. Davis and Jeff McNeil, both of whom were ahead of him on the depth chart in our pre-season positional power rankings. That’s no knock on Villar, but it’s a testament to an addition being more impactful than expected due to injuries or other types of in-season player movement. As for the Blue Jays, they’re hurt by the signing of Springer because his injury has him more than a full win behind his prorated pace at this point.

If the Blue Jays do miss the postseason by a game or two, we might just be left wondering what could’ve been had Springer not missed two months. In a vacuum, Toronto has done well, but compared to the projections, only Semien sticks out as a phenomenal value-add. Springer — great on rates, with low volume — is still far below his expected pace given his two significant injuries.

So did the Blue Jays make baseball’s best free-agent acquisitions? I’m inclined to say yes. Springer is in Toronto for five more years after this, and it’s clear that he’s exactly the elite player that they signed. As for Semien, bringing him back should be a top priority for the front office. If it’s not this year, the Blue Jays could fly to the top of the AL East at some point soon, thanks (particularly if Semien is kept around for 2022 and beyond) to their two fantastic free-agent signings.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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2 years ago

My biggest concern, as a Blue Jays fan, is keeping Semien and Ray. Maybe they age poorly but they’ve been perfect for the team. Semien, in particular, is also the best infield defender they have.

2 years ago
Reply to  CoryMC

certainly gonna be tough when both are 30 or younger and they could probably move to lock up young guys to long term deals.