Blue Jays’ righty-heavy lineup has possible silver lining

MLB Insider Shi Davidi joins Hazel Mae to talk about the Toronto Blue Jays signing J.P. Howell.

By now you’ve heard it a million times: One of the goals the Toronto Blue Jays expressed at the outset of the off-season was to balance their lineup with more left-handed hitting options if possible.

For the majority of 2016 the club featured just one everyday left-handed bat: Michael Saunders, who has since departed to Philadelphia. The way things stand at the moment, the Blue Jays project to have three left-handed hitting regulars in 2017: Free-agent acquisition Kendrys Morales, a switch-hitter, figures to start at designated hitter, while switch-hitting Justin Smoak will play first base and Ezequiel Carrera could see plenty of time in left field.

The latter two options are by no means ideal—the Blue Jays considered off-season additions at both positions before sticking with their existing options.

This lack of left-handed bats suggests the Blue Jays may well struggle against tough right-handed pitching this season. That’s not news. But there’s a silver lining to be found in Toronto’s lineup and that comes when looking specifically at the American League East.

The Blue Jays’ division rivals have seven left-handed starters in their projected rotations, considerably more than average. And as it happens, four of those southpaws (Chris Sale, David Price, Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez) reside on the staff of the Boston Red Sox, Toronto’s primary competition for the AL East. Facing that talented quartet often in 2017 could work in favour of the Blue Jays’ right-leaning lineup.

Elsewhere in the AL East, lefties CC Sabathia, Wade Miley and Blake Snell all project as starters. Beyond the rotation, it’s worth noting that two of the best left-handed closers in baseball, Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees and Zach Britton of the Orioles, also pitch in the division.

In 2016 left-handers started 1,306 total games, while righties started 3,550. That amounts to 26.8 per cent of MLB contests started by southpaws. The upcoming campaign could see the Blue Jays’ division rivals start 35 per cent lefties (seven of 20), numbers that play into Toronto’s hand.

The Blue Jays hit just .249 against southpaws last season, but a deeper look suggests those numbers aren’t as worrisome as they might first seem.

Looking at their wOBA (weighted on-base average), a stat that measures overall offensive value, the club’s .324 mark against lefties was tied for 10th best in all of baseball. By contrast, the Orioles were 27th with a .299 wOBA.

Last season also saw several of the Blue Jays’ vital right-handed hitters experience dips in their production versus left-handed pitching, both from career averages and their 2015 performances:

Blue Jays player Career wOBA vs. LHP 2016 wOBA vs. LHP 2015 wOBA vs. LHP
Jose Bautista 0.379 0.327 0.363
Troy Tulowitzki 0.401 0.329 0.396
Russell Martin 0.353 0.312 0.406
Josh Donaldson 0.409 0.396 0.428

Sure, it’s possible Bautista, Tulowitzki, Martin and Donaldson are declining, as all four are into their 30s. But it’s also possible that their 2016 production against lefties was a blip and could return closer to the norm this season. The long track records of those veterans certainly support that.

The Blue Jays will hope it’s the case as the club will need its unbalanced lineup to make the most of a platoon advantage and clobber lefties in what figures to be an ultra competitive AL East.