The Toronto Blue Jays go into the 2019 season battered, bereft of several of the “name” position players who were on the club last year, and not expected to do much of anything in the standings. But that’s not to say that there isn’t going to be interest and intrigue in the ballclub. Here is the fourth of five storylines to watch in the first month or so of the season.
4. Getting on Base
Let’s face it. The Blue Jays have not been great at getting on base recently. Last year, their cumulative on-base percentage (OBP) was a measly .312, ranking them 11th of the 15 American League teams. Ok, .312 is only six points below the AL average of .318 but well behind the best in the league, the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, who got on base at a .339 clip. The big question going into the first month of the 2019 season is whether they stand to improve that standing or not.
In the grand scheme of things, one problem with the construction of the 2019 lineup (at least to start the season) is that they’re not really poised to take steps forward in the OBP category. Much of their lineup is made up of players who were on the club last year and did not really have great numbers when it came to getting on base. Their leadoff man, Brandon Drury, has a career .314 OBP with a career high of .329 in his first year as a regular with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016. He followed that with a .317 mark in 2017 and struggled last year in what limited playing time he had due to injuries.
Randal Grichuk, who has been hitting second, had a .301 mark last year and has a measly .297 career OBP. Kevin Pillar‘s high-water mark was in 2015 at .314 and his OBP has been in decline ever since, finishing at a measly .282 last year. To complete the outfield, Teoscar Hernandez is not know for taking walks and last year, his first full season in the major leagues, he had a .302 OBP. Lourdes Gurriel, another player getting his first significant chance in the majors last year, had just a .309 OBP in 65 games.
Justin Smoak has a career OBP of .321 but, his past two seasons with the Blue Jays make him an outlier with the current club: he’s had OBPs of .355 and .350 the past two seasons since his breakout in 2017, making him probably the best guy in the lineup at getting on base. Luke Maile, in 68 games, had a career year from an offensive standpoint, getting on base 1/3 of the time (.333 OBP) although his career rate languishes at .263.
And then, there’s the only outside acquisition among the starting hitters. Freddy Galvis is known more for his defense and owns a .289 lifetime OBP over seven previous seasons, including a career high of .309.
The rest of the Blue Jays’ lineup is made up of rookies and near-rookies. Danny Jansen has a strong record of good OBPs in the minor leagues and had a .347 OBP in his first taste of the major leagues. Richard Urena had a .340 OBP last year, but that was likely inflated thanks to an unsustainable .424 BABIP that gave him a .293 batting average. Urena’s lifetime minor league OBP is a more reasonable .311 and it would be fair to expect that kind of result in 2019.
Rowdy Tellez is another player we can expect to have a decent OBP. He had a .329 OBP in his 23 games in Toronto last year and had a .340 OBP in Buffalo. He has a career .345 OBP in his minor league career which bodes well for a solid figure in the majors. Billy McKinney is another player whose minor league OBP bodes well for the future. He has a .348 career mark in the minors while his last full season in Double-A and Triple-A, 2017, he had a .338 mark although that fell below .300 in Triple-A last year. In the majors, McKinney had a .320 OBP with the Blue Jays (and it was .250 in two games with the Yankees).
So what does this mean for the Blue Jays’ lineup in April? I have a feeling that the club is hoping for internal improvement. They hope that Randal Grichuk can put up the numbers that are more similar to what he did after returning from injury last year (a .271/.319/.553 slash line from June 1). They’re hoping that Teoscar Hernandez can still improve, hopefully pushing his OBP to league average levels. They’re hoping that Brandon Drury can get back to the hitter he was in 2016 and 2017 and maybe push that OBP a little higher.
I think the club expects what we’ve seen already from established major leaguers Kevin Pillar, Justin Smoak, Freddy Galvis and Luke Maile.
But the improvement with the younger players is really what the Jays are looking to as the first month of the season unfolds. Can Danny Jansen keep doing what he did last year? Can Lourdes Gurriel improve and, while he’s never really shown a penchant for walks in his pro career, can he bring those numbers up? Can Richard Urena hit the way he did last year? Can Billy McKinney sustain that .320 OBP he had with the Jays? Is there room for improvement?
Obviously, the club OBP stands to get a boost when Vladimir Guerrero arrives but until then, are the Jays going to get on base enough to score some runs for a pitching staff that, through two games, is off to a great start? I know I’ll be watching.
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