The Shared, Exploitable Weakness of Toronto’s Pitching Staff

The starting pitching staff of the Toronto Blue Jays possesses an inherent advantage over the lineup of the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS, in that Indians hitters do the brunt of their damage on offspeed and breaking pitches, while Blue Jays pitchers rely on the fastball moreso than any other team, as our own Eno Sarris wrote about earlier this morning. Both teams know this, and both teams will attempt to adjust accordingly in order to maximize or limit the effect of this matchup in their favor. That’s what happens in the postseason, when every little piece of information becomes that much more valuable.

Along those same lines, but on the flip side, there’s also a weakness shared by many of those same fastballing Blue Jays pitchers that perhaps no team other than the Indians is better suited to exploit. Whatever inherent disadvantage Indians hitters may have at the plate, they may make up for on the bases.

We saw what kind of an effect controlling the running game can have in the postseason when the Royals ran wild on Jon Lester and the A’s in the Wild Card game two years ago. And while none of the Blue Jays pitchers are quite at Lester-level mediocrity in this facet of the game, only three of Kansas City’s seven stolen bases in that game came against Lester. Part of it was Lester. Part of it were the relievers who replaced Lester. Part of it was the catcher, Derek Norris.

Yes, the Blue Jays have Russell Martin behind the plate, who carries with him the reputation of having a great arm. But research suggests it’s actually the pitcher who is far more responsible for whether a steal attempt is successful, and besides, BaseballProspectus’s model for catcher defense — a model which controls for the pitcher’s ability to suppress the run game in an attempt to isolate the role of the catcher — suggests Martin’s arm suddenly deteriorated this season, for whatever reason.

Point is: the A’s, collectively, were a poor unit at controlling the run game, and the Royals — a great base-stealing team — showed how much that can mean in a single game of postseason baseball when the scouting reports mean more than ever. The Blue Jays, as an entire team, don’t appear too much different than the A’s in that Wild Card game with Lester on the mound. The Indians are a great base-stealing team. You see where this is going.

The simple numbers: runners went 84-for-104 in stolen-base attempts against the Blue Jays this year. That 81% success rate was third-worst in baseball, ahead of only the Braves and White Sox. Baseball Info Solutions calculates runs saved or lost due to stolen bases, and the Blue Jays ranked second to last, ahead of only the Braves. Also, keep in mind: these numbers include a full season of R.A. Dickey, who is one of the best pitchers in baseball at controlling the run game. Dickey is not a member of Toronto’s postseason roster, so the current iteration of the Blue Jays is likely even worse at this skill than the full-season numbers suggest.

Stolen Base Prevention, Select Blue Jays Pitchers, 2016
Player IP SB CS SBA PO SB%
Marco Estrada 176.0 12 1 13 0 92%
J.A. Happ 195.0 7 1 8 0 88%
Roberto Osuna 74.0 6 1 7 0 86%
Aaron Sanchez 192.0 12 2 14 0 86%
TOTAL 637.0 37 5 42 0 88%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Opposing runners were 37-for-42 in steal attempts against three of Toronto’s top four starters and their top relief pitcher. According to this handy guide by our own Jeff Sullivan, these four guys could combine to pitch up to two-thirds of Toronto’s innings in the ALCS, and none has shown any evidence that they can slow down the running game. None of the four starters in Toronto’s playoff rotation have picked off a batter all year.

Estrada is, by far, Toronto’s biggest offender in this regard. According to SRAA, BaseballProspectus’ stat that assigns credit to the individual for his role in the success of a steal attempt, rates Estrada 309th out of 328 pitchers with at least 50 innings thrown this year. Estrada’s problem is, more or less, the same as the rest of these Blue Jays pitchers, just exaggerated: not much of a pickoff move, slow to the plate.

See that little pause in his motion? That can be the difference between a successful steal or a caught stealing. Timing on my own, from the moment his front leg moves to the moment the ball pops Martin’s glove, Estrada is 1.80 seconds to home. That’s bad. A time of 1.50 is considered slow. Pitchers ideally want to be in the 1.30 range, with the fastest guys clocking in at 1.10-1.20.

Here’s Sanchez, who ranked 244th of 328 in SRAA, and whom I clocked at 1.65:

Happ, ranked 212th and clocked at 1.67:

And Osuna, who actually graded as above-average by SRAA, but still allowed six steals in seven attempts and clocked at 1.59 with his big leg kick:

All around, this is just a slow group of pitchers, and all around, the Indians have a fast group of hitters.

As a team, they stole more bases than any of their American League counterparts. Their stolen base runs above average ranked second in MLB. On an individual level, Rajai Davis led the AL with 43 steals, and was second to only Billy Hamilton in wSB, thanks to his elite 88% success rate. It will be fascinating to see how the Indians will use Davis, as he’d typically sit against a right-handed pitcher in favor of Coco Crisp — who isn’t the same runner he used to be — but may potentially be a sleeper pick to start against a pitcher like Estrada in an attempt to take advantage of his vulnerability. But it’s not just Davis. Jose Ramirez is 22-for-29, Francisco Lindor is 19-for-24, Jason Kipnis is 15-for-18, and even guys like Lonnie Chisenhall, Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli know when to pick their spots, going a combined 16-for-19.

The interesting thing about this collection of exploitable Toronto pitchers is that they really weren’t exploited in the way we might expect. BaseballProspectus also measures something they call Takeoff Rate Above Average (TRAA) which is exactly what it sounds like: how often runners take off on the pitcher in question. Estrada, despite the damning evidence, was ran against less than the league average. Same with Happ. Same with Sanchez. Maybe it’s got to do with Martin’s (perhaps now undeserved) reputation. Maybe it’s something else. Regardless, all the evidence suggests we ought to see that change in the ALCS. The Indians have gotten to where they are by doing the little things so well. This particular little thing might not be so little.

We hoped you liked reading The Shared, Exploitable Weakness of Toronto’s Pitching Staff by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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basscarter
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basscarter

Russell has been so banged up all year, shoulder included. The drop in arm effectiveness isn’t surprising, although his throws have looked a little better lately.