Luckiest and unluckiest Blue Jays from disappointing 2017

In the baseball world, “luck” can be a loaded term. If a player is hitting .300 due to a confluence of events, he wants to savour his accomplishment, not hear about any kind of good fortune. Likewise, fans of a losing team don’t want to hear excuses about wins and losses, or why the number-four starter owns a 5.75 ERA.

No matter how much we might dislike such explanations, though, the fact remains that random variance often plays a significant role in deciding outcomes on the field. Balls can find holes in the defence, even when you’ve made a great pitch. Really positive or really negative outcomes often occur in small sample sizes, thus skewing a player’s overall numbers. And so on.

This year’s Blue Jays are no different. In an awful year that will likely go down as just the second time they’ve ever gone an entire season without climbing above .500 at least once, plenty of players have simply played poorly. But other underachievers owe their lousy results in part to ill fortune. And yes, a few players have actually overachieved during this lost season, thanks in some cases to a few breaks.

Russell Martin and Ryan Goins offer prime examples of what can happen when a player sees weird results with runners in scoring position.

Martin’s batting .223/.354/.381 this season, results that rate as two per cent better than league average per wRC+, despite that low batting average. Now the bad news: Martin has driven in just 27 runs this season in 81 games. That’s the second-lowest total of his 12-year major-league career. Moreover, Martin’s RBI total is the fifth-lowest among all American League hitters this year with 300 or more plate appearances.

Even that nugget doesn’t fully describe Martin’s RBI woes. He’s blasted 12 home runs this season, while none of the four players with weaker runs-batted-in rates has hit more than six. Moreover, while the bottom of the list is full of speedy, light-power waterbugs who either bat in the leadoff spot or the bottom of the order (Rajai Davis, Delino DeShields Jr., Cameron Maybin), all but 40 of Martin’s at-bats this season have come in the No. 2, 3, 5 or 6 spots — typically fertile sources for RBI.

The reason for Martin’s RBI drought is simple: He’s hit like a pitcher with runners in scoring position. In 72 plate appearances in that situation, Martin’s batting an anemic .161, with just one extra-base hit — “good” for a .179 slugging percentage. The veteran catcher’s best offensive skill remains his ability to draw walks. Problem is, bases on balls often don’t help much with runners in scoring position, especially when first base is open… thus making Martin’s 15 free passes with RISP less than thrilling.

Even if we grant that Martin might be a little too passive in high-leverage spots, though, we’re mostly talking about a small number of times at bat resulting in some flukishly awful numbers. Run this season back 100 times, and you might never see Martin run into that many bad results in big spots.

Goins represents the flip side of that same coin. Looking at his numbers on a broad scale, he’s been awful. His .228/.279/.337 batting line ranks third-worst in the American League on a park-adjusted basis. Goins appearing in 114 games and receiving 362 plate appearances comes down to a rash of injuries ravaging the team, and the Jays leaning on a player who’s never hit much, and doesn’t look all that good anymore by advanced defensive metrics either.

Still, Goins has won his share of backers this season for one simple reason: He’s absolutely raked with runners in scoring position, batting an off-the-charts .350/.385/.575. Those RISP numbers explain why Goins ranks an impressive fifth on the Blue Jays with 51 runs batted in, trailing only the team’s most notable power hitters — Justin Smoak, Kendrys Morales, Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista.

Goins has actually put up somewhat better numbers for his career with runners in scoring position than he has the rest of the time (even after stripping out his obscene 2017 RISP outcomes). Still, he’s never hit at this stratospheric level in any circumstance, and almost certainly won’t ever again.

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In the batted-ball section of Jays luck outcomes, consider Ezequiel Carrera and Marco Estrada.

Carrera’s good fortune has been simple to explain: He’s hitting ’em where they ain’t. Carrera’s batting average on balls in play this year checks in at .366, eighth-highest among all AL hitters with as many plate appearances.

We can’t chalk all of that up to luck. Carrera lacks power and makes up for it with a slash-the-ball-in-play approach, one that had yielded a .327 batting average on balls in play headed into this season — more than 30 points above the league-average mark during Carrera’s 377 major league games played headed into 2017.

Still, if we merely lop 39 points off Carrera’s batting average on balls in play this year, he goes from a robust .295/.368/.439 hitter to a batter who hovers around league average or slightly lower. That said, Carrera can still claim a skills uptick in one particular category for nudging the needle this year: His line-drive rate of better than 23 per cent is the second-highest of his career, up sharply from his lagging 16.6–per cent mark in 2016.

Meanwhile, Marco Estrada has borne the brunt of ill fortune on balls in play. A master of throwing pitches with high spin rate, locating them an eyelash too high in the zone for most hitters to make solid contact and thus inducing lots of weak flyouts, Estrada has seen that formula come back to bite him this year.

Hitters managed batting average on balls in play results of .216 and .234 in 2015 and 2016, both figures ranking among the lowest in the league. That figure has jumped to .307 this year, which helps explain how and why Estrada’s ERA is up nearly two full runs compared to his 2015 mark.