Gregor Chisholm: Blue Jays punished for not showing discipline at the plate

The Blue Jays season feels like it is just getting started and yet 15 per cent of the schedule has been completed. Time flies when teams are operating under condensed workloads.

Toronto played its ninth game of the season Wednesday night in Atlanta. Under normal circumstances, a nine-game stretch would barely register in a world of 162. People would rightfully claim it’s early and caution against reading into small sample sizes because results will even out over time.

That’s not necessarily the case in 2020. With the season reduced to 60 games, every week is crucial. One streak — good or bad — will likely determine a team’s shot at the post-season. Small samples might become outliers over time, but what’s more important is the present. Who’s hot and who’s cold?

The Blue Jays’ lineup falls into the latter category. A two-week training camp, instead of six, played a role in offence being down across the league. Teams averaged 4.51 runs over the first 274 games of this season vs. 4.83 runs in 2019. If that wasn’t enough, Toronto’s recent four-day layoff made things even more challenging.

“Hopefully when we start playing games regularly, you’ll see the timing, and everything get better,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said Wednesday afternoon. “I think our guys are going to hit so when that starts happening, we start playing games every day, we’re going to start swinging the bats for sure and our approaches, everything will get better.”

Toronto entered play on Wednesday averaging 3.25 runs per game, more than a full run below the MLB average. The Blue Jays also found themselves ranked in the bottom third of almost every major category. The club ranked 19th in average (.227), 24th in on-base percentage (.283), 22nd in weighted runs created plus (89) and 22nd in fWAR (0.5).

The troubling part is those numbers are in line with what the club produced throughout 2019. Last year, the Jays averaged 0.3 runs per game less than the league average. Toronto ranked 30th in average (.236), 27th in OBP (.305), 20th in wRC+ (92) and 20th in fWAR (11.5).

The Blue Jays are known as a team on the rise, but they’ve reached that status despite their plate discipline, not because of it. Last year, Toronto batters swung at 46.6 per cent of all pitches, which ranked eighth out of 30 teams, and 31.8 per cent of pitches outside the zone. The numbers this season are similar. As Toronto prepared to face Atlanta, its hitters were swinging at 32 per cent of pitches outside the zone and 47.5 per cent of all pitches, both ranked ninth highest.

Not surprisingly, Toronto strikes out more than most teams and walks far less. The Jays sit 23rd with a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 0.33 this season. Last year, they ranked 23rd at 0.34. After an off-season when pitching was prioritized and swapping out Justin Smoak for Travis Shaw was one of the only adjustments to the lineup, not much has changed.

Even when the Blue Jays make contact, they haven’t been doing enough damage. In the modern game, bat speed, launch angle and power trump everything else. Contact hitters still exist, but home runs and liners to the gaps are what clubs crave more. The Blue Jays hit a lot of homers, but what they do in between hasn’t been up to par. The Blue Jays rank 23rd in MLB with a 1.00 groundball-to-fly ball ratio, which is comparable to last year’s 29th-place finish of 1.01.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been one of the biggest culprits. Last year there was talk about how he needed to hit fewer ground balls and put the ball in the air. The Dominican wasn’t generating enough loft to benefit from his natural power and it’s one of the reasons he finished with a somewhat disappointing 15-homer campaign.

In 2020, the small sample size has not been kind to the young star. Last year, Guerrero’s ground ball to fly ball ratio was 1.50, it now sits at 3.00. More than 72 per cent of the balls he put into play were on the ground and only four per cent were line drives. His walk to strikeout ratio sits at a paltry 0.29.

Bo Bichette has struggled in an even smaller sample size, thanks to a recent hamstring injury. Bichette also has a 3.00 GB/FB ratio but he’s generating more power with 33 per cent of his contact being considered liners. Bichette’s more pressing concern has been a plate discipline by swinging at 48.4 per cent of pitches outside the zone and 60.2 per cent of all pitches.

The two stars aren’t alone. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has yet to draw a walk and has swung at 52.9 per cent of pitches. Teoscar Hernandez, despite a strong start, has a BB/K ratio of just 0.22 and he swings at 47.9 per cent of the time. Rowdy Tellez hacks at 55.1 per cent of all offerings. By comparison, Cavan Biggio swung just 35.9 per cent of the time last year and 35.6 this season.

The Blue Jays coaching staff has been preaching plate discipline for well over a year but it’s a difficult skill set to teach. Guys who start out as free swingers often remain that way for their entire careers.

“You don’t want to take a player’s aggressiveness away from him,” Montoyo said. “You want them to be selective but stay aggressive. You don’t want them to go the other way, taking (too many) pitches. That’s not what we want. Being selective around the zone is what we’re trying to preach.”

With most of Toronto’s core in place, the question becomes, how do the Blue Jays improve? For the organization to succeed, it will need more from Guerrero. For a lot of the other hitters, though, what you see is what you get, which means additional help will be required.

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The good news for the Jays is plate discipline and seeing pitches is the specialty of recent top pick Austin Martin. His ability to draw walks and put the ball in play should help offset the aggressive approaches taken by others. Martin might arrive at some point in 2021, but he can’t be the only tweak.

It’s early and the Blue Jays lineup is going to improve, but based on previous trends, the overall style is unlikely to change. There’s a lot of upside, but after watching the first-pitch swings, it’s easy to identify the downsides too.

Gregor Chisholm