What Did the Blue Jays Do to Ezequiel Carrera?

Not too long ago, I wrote about how the Blue Jays have gotten back to hitting the snot out of the ball. That shouldn’t be too surprising — a year ago, the Blue Jays hit the snot out of the ball. There was something in there, though, I’ve had trouble shaking. I included it as just a throwaway remark, but with Jose Bautista sidelined for the past few weeks, Ezequiel Carrera has gotten regular playing time. And even Ezequiel Carrera has hit.

Odds are, you don’t care. At least, you don’t care much. Several of you might not have ever heard of Carrera before. He’s 29 and he’s made the rounds, and, well, low-profile players can get on good runs. Numbers like Carrera’s could be easy to ignore, but I’ve known of Carrera for years, and I dug in. Carrera has started to show something. Somethings, more like. He’s got a good batting line for the first time in his career. The Blue Jays, as an organization, seem to know something about hitting, and I’m wondering now if even Carrera is reaping the benefits.

Two things. One, I know Carrera has been a role player. He’s been a fourth or fifth outfielder, and these guys don’t often get front-page treatment. But here, I’m sufficiently interested, and plus, the deadline is coming up, and the Jays have to figure out whether they want to trade for a hitter. I don’t think they have to. Two, I remember that, last summer, I wrote about a suddenly productive Ryan Goins. He’s not productive these days. Histories do matter. But every player is different, and Carrera’s steps seem more legitimate. Maybe they’re not! I’m still not going to stop writing this, though.

Carrera has a 111 wRC+. That’s what got my attention. Over his career through last season, he had an 83 wRC+. A little over a week ago, he did this:

How do you examine whether a hitter’s improved? One thing we can do now is turn to Statcast, via Baseball Savant. So let me tell you one thing I did. I looked at average exit velocities, and I included only balls hit with a launch angle over zero. That’s where strength really starts to matter; batters don’t want to make solid contact down into the ground. I found the players who had at least 50 such batted balls in both 2015 and 2016. To find differences, I subtracted the former average from the latter. Here is the current top 10:

Batted-Ball Improvers
Player 2015 2016 Change
Danny Espinosa 87.2 93.5 6.3
Matt Holliday 90.6 96.4 5.8
Matt Joyce 85.3 91.0 5.7
Tyler Flowers 91.0 96.5 5.5
Chris Young 86.2 91.3 5.1
Sean Rodriguez 89.0 94.0 5.0
Jake Lamb 91.4 96.3 4.9
Ezequiel Carrera 86.6 91.4 4.8
Victor Martinez 88.8 93.6 4.8
Kevin Pillar 86.5 91.2 4.7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Average exit velocities shown. Only includes batted balls with positive launch angles.

The player sample numbers 284. Ezequiel Carrera ranks eighth, in terms of making the biggest gain. You see Kevin Pillar in tenth — August just wrote a little something on that. Carrera has done the same thing, and it’s interesting that his gain is similar in magnitude to that of breakout hitter Jake Lamb. Lamb, of course, hits the ball harder than Carrera does, but improvement is improvement. In this stat last year, Carrera ranked in the 12th percentile. This year he’s in the 55th.

Some alternate numbers: Last year, Carrera’s median qualifying batted ball went 90.2 miles per hour. This year, the median is 94.4. Where, last year, Carrera hit 10 qualifying batted balls at least 100 miles per hour, this year he’s up to 23. The case is made: If Carrera hasn’t hit the ball harder, he’s at least hit the ball hard more consistently. And that’s not it! Carrera also has a revamped approach.

You know all about O-Swing%, and you know all about Z-Swing%. As a combination, I like to subtract O-Swing% from Z-Swing%, kind of like the K-BB% pitcher statistic. Most hitters want to swing at more strikes and offer at fewer balls. Pretty fundamental. So I looked at changes in that statistic as well, comparing 2015 to 2016. Here is the current top 10:

Plate-Discipline Improvers
Player 2015 2016 Difference
C.J. Cron 24.9% 35.7% 10.8%
Chris Owings 30.2% 40.3% 10.1%
Wilmer Flores 36.3% 45.6% 9.3%
Ezequiel Carrera 28.0% 37.1% 9.1%
Jarrod Dyson 36.6% 45.5% 8.9%
Logan Forsythe 29.9% 38.3% 8.4%
Miguel Montero 35.7% 43.9% 8.2%
Nick Markakis 29.4% 37.2% 7.8%
Austin Jackson 30.6% 38.3% 7.7%
Leonys Martin 28.9% 35.9% 7.0%
The statistic in question is O-Swing%, subtracted from Z-Swing%.

The player sample numbers 257, this time. Carrera ranks fourth. So to make it all clear: His discipline has been a lot better, and his contact has also been a lot better. Those are two big pluses. You can see him becoming patient, here:


While Carrera hasn’t been swinging at way more strikes, he has been laying off way more balls. So this plot is better than that last one:


Contact is better. Strikeouts are under control. Walks are up. All signs are good, and it’s plain to see how Carrera has so significantly blown his season projections away. He’s just better across the board, and so he’s been a reasonable fill-in during Bautista’s extended absence.

I don’t know what the Blue Jays have done — I didn’t find much at all in the background research phase. I can at least offer some sort of guess, even if it’s potentially indirect. Here’s another table! For each year, you see Carrera’s swing rate at fastballs. You also see his swing rate at non-fastballs. Then you see the difference.

Ezequiel Carrera’s Swing Rates
Season Fastball Swing% Other Swing% Difference
2011 44% 44% -1%
2012 43% 41% 2%
2013 40% 39% 1%
2014 46% 51% -5%
2015 45% 42% 4%
2016 48% 32% 16%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

This year pretty clearly stands out. Carrera has been a little more aggressive against heaters, while he’s taken a ton of secondary stuff. This would help to explain the elevated walks, and the reduced swings at pitches out of the zone — usually, it’s secondary stuff that’s leaving the zone. So either Carrera is mostly sitting fastball, or the Blue Jays have made some little tweak such that Carrera can better recognize pitches on the way. It’s not all about eyesight; swing mechanics also play a role, and this is what it might look like if Carrera gained himself a few more split-seconds of decision-making.

This really is a long article about Ezequiel Carrera. I’m almost as surprised as you are, but at least now we’re about done. It’s plain to see that Carrera has performed like a much improved baseball player. That suggests he should continue to perform like that, to at least some extent. And if Carrera is really more disciplined, and if he really makes better contact — well, he can do a lot, between hitting and running and covering center field. Not that the Blue Jays presently lack a center fielder, but Carrera could fill in a lot of gaps. Which means no deal would need to be made. At least not on the offensive side of things.

I don’t know what the Blue Jays have done. I don’t know how they seem to know so much about hitting. As much as I’d like to know, there are probably a few baseball teams who’d like to know more.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Weirdest thing about Ezequiel Carerra is his big reverse platoon split, both for this season and his career:


I’m sure there’s more to this than meets the eye (maybe he platooned enough to avoid all but the weakest lefties), but it seems reasonable to conclude that he’s not the type of lefty that you have to automatically bench against LHP.

Which makes him a potentially awesome fourth OF.