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Looking back at the Blue Jays’ 2018 season

With the 2018 season now over, attention rightfully turns toward 2019 (realistically, it has been for a few months). But before fully turning to that, it’s an opportune time to look back on 2018. Every year towards the end of Spring Training, I take a “Rumfseldian” look at the uncertainties and questions facing the Blue Jays as the season approaches.

Now we can review how things played out, including the few predictions in the interests of accountability as well as what wasn’t even on the radar at time. For more on what each of these categories means, refer back to the original post.

Known knowns

  • The back-up catchers will be better.
    This section was intentionally sparse with how much uncertainty surrounded the Blue Jays going into 2018, but this was a pretty easy bet on pure regression alone after how historically bad they were in 2017. And despite Russell Martin seeing reduced playing time (just 278 PA behind the plate), as a unit Blue Jays backstops posted the 7th best fWAR total (3.0) in baseball, which doesn’t include +16 framing runs according to Baseball Prospectus. The backups weren’t merely better, they thrived. Luke Maile came back to Earth after a blistering start, but still hit more than enough for how much of a rock he is behind the plate. Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire added over 100 PA of exciting debuts.
  • The Blue Jays will once again lead the league in fewest home rainouts.
    I just had to be a smart-ass and tempt fate, huh? Though technically, ice falling from other structures and damaging the roof/creating dangerous conditions is not a rainout.

Known unknowns

  • Does Marcus Stroman establish himself as an ace?
    Nope. For 10 starts after coming off the disabled list on June 23rd until blisters derailed his season a second time, Stroman was largely as expected, posting a 3.34 ERA over 59.1 innings (77 ERA-, 78 FIP-). That’s ace level performance for that stretch, just over a third of the season. Most importantly, it’s a promising indicator that his shoulder problems at the beginning of the season were not structural.
  • Is Troy Tulowitzki done as a productive major league player? [R]ealistically, what is left of Tulo’s abilities?
    In Tulo missing the entire season, we didn’t get any concrete answers here. All we can say is that assuming Tulo is ready to go for Opening Day, it’ll have been 20 months since he played in an MLB regular season game, and that absence is bad sign.
  • How many games will the prospective starting middle infield of Tulo and Devon Travis start?
    Zero. I noted last November that they had both started just 89 of the 405 games (22%) of Blue Jays games since Tulo was acquired. That’s now down to under 16%, and given the future direction, probably not worth further tracking.
  • The starting pitching depth. Can Joe Biagini be a quality back end starter? Is Ryan Borucki poised to step up if there’s a need a couple months from now?
    The most charitable thing that can be said about the first point is that the door is firmly closed on the Joe Biagini starting experiment. On the brighter side, Borucki very ably stepped mid-season and looks like an integral piece of the rotation for years to come.
  • The injury bouncebacks
    This was mostly a disappointment. Aaron Sanchez pitched 105 innings, but was overall disappointing. Devon Travis stayed mostly healthy, but bookended three solid months in the middle of the season with a very poor start and end.
  • The Cardinal bouncebacks
    Randal Grichuk, Aledmys Diaz and Seunghwan Oh combined for 4.9 fWAR, roughly halfway between the 7.5 and 1.7 marks from 2016 and 2017. By bWAR, it was a similar story (5.9 bWAR compared to 8.9 and 0.3 in 2016/17)
  • Can Justin Smoak broadly consolidate his breakout 2017 season?
    More yes than no. He continued to be a well above average hitter. His strikeout and contacts rates regressed somewhat, especially later in the season. Some of the former was due to being more selective at the plate, which helped his walk rate.
  • What kind of season does Kevin Pillar have defensively?
    DRS had a significant decline, from +15 runs in 2017 to -2 runs. UZR had a much smaller decline, from +5 to +2 runs. I don’t buy the magnitude of the decline DRS assigns Pillar (mostly I don’t buy he was +15 in 2017), but throughout the season there were a number of balls I couldn’t help but think he would have caught in 2016-17.

Unknown unknowns

  • The broader backdrop of the AL East.
    Had the bottom not fallen out of the team, this would have been a huge X-factor. Boston, New York, Cleveland and Houston lapped the field as expected. The ability to contend was premised on the second wildcard ending up in the 85-89 win range of the past few season. Instead, Oakland won 97 games and the seventh best AL team won 89.
  • Is this the year the farm provides a significant boost?
    In one sense no, as the Jays were out of contention before the young guys came up. But a number of young players asserted themselves strongly. Borucki was mentioned above. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. surpassed my (limited) expectations. Others such as Jansen, McGuire, Rowdy Tellez tantalized in shorter looks, as did to a lesser extent Sean-Reid Foley and Thomas Pannone.
  • Which player takes an unexpected fundamental step forward, if anyone?
    There wasn’t a true breakout in 2018, with Gurriel perhaps coming closest with the offensive promise he flashed before the injury.
  • What will be the crazy injury in 2018?
    We didn’t have anything really abnormal as in the past, but Aaron Sanchez seriously injuring his finger on luggage qualifies and is the 2018 winner.

Unknowns knowns

  • Is Josh Donaldson healthy?
    It was clear in Spring Training that all was not well, given that he only had 33 PA. That became manifest obvious with his throwing on Opening Day. While that was mostly resolved with some time off, unfortunately it wasn’t close to the extent of the problems as a calf injury cost him three months in the middle of season. Without much from Donaldson, the Jays never had a chance.
  • How much rope does Kendrys Morales have?
    Morales didn’t get much regular playing time until mid-May, and then was one of the best hitters in baseball (>140 wRC+) from that point through the end of August before he slumped amid more sporadic playing time in September.
  • Is there any chance of seeing Vladdy or Bo in 2018? … Or for service time and 40-man considerations, is it essentially a complete non-starter?
    With how Vladito destroyed first AA and then AAA, it was a clearly a non-starter. It will be interesting to see whether the same thing repeats itself with Bichette next year if he repeats a very-good-given-age but not totally overwhelming performance in Buffalo over the first half of 2019.

In hindsight, what did I overlook in March? I don’t think any individual storylines were overlooked. The big story was the almost complete implosion of the starting pitching, as only J.A. Happ even came close to reasonable preseason expectations. In 2016, the rotation powered the Jays to the playoffs with a 87 ERA-/96 FIP-. That backed up in 2017, and backed up even further in 2018 to 121 ERA-/110 FIP-.

Related to that is the team’s plunge in defensive and baserunning ratings. Depending which metrics one looks at, the 2018 Blue Jays finished at or near the bottom of MLB in both aspects. I don’t think anyone had illusions the Jays would be especially good at these things in 2018, but magnitude of ineptitude was surprising.

Next, I’ll look forward to 2019 with a comprehensive breakdown of the roster as it stands before its reshaping begins this offseason.

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