How the Blue Jays’ analytics department impacts off-season plans

Toronto Blue Jays rookie Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

TORONTO — Ask Joe Sheehan who on the Toronto Blue Jays has exceeded internal projections this year and his answer comes quickly.

Lourdes Gurriel is probably the one,” says Sheehan, assistant general manager and overseer of the club’s analytics department.    

There was a paucity of information on Gurriel at this point last year, leaving the Blue Jays with little to evaluate. Injuries limited the Cuban infielder to just 64 minor-league games in 2017, his first campaign after signing with the organization as an international free agent.

This season, though, Gurriel has served the club considerably more food for thought. He tallied 116 games across three levels, including 65 in the majors. The 24-year-old showed tremendous promise in the big-leagues, both defensively and at the plate, illustrated by his .834 OPS since July 11.

“If you think about it, we had three months last year, now we have six months of data [this year],” says Sheehan. “We have nine months total and two-thirds of it is this season. So, two-thirds of what we know about him is based on 2018.”

That type of information collection will guide the Blue Jays’ seven-man analytics department as it enters a critical stage in the baseball calendar. The advent of the off-season requires the club to take comprehensive stock of what exists inside the organization, at both the major- and minor-league level, then forecast a roadmap for the winter.

Members of the front office met in Florida recently and there will be scouting meetings to follow in the coming weeks. The analytics department factors in both and there’s a lot to accomplish. The Blue Jays will need to make decisions on who should be tendered contracts, identify potential free agent and trade candidates, and also firm up projections and metrics on players.

“The challenge is managing the time,” says Sheehan. “The off-season [officially] starts right after the World Series. We have to have a plan to execute at that point. From our department, specifically, it’s managing that time, trying to have a good balance of evaluating major-league players and making sure that our projections are tight and we’re right as we can be. Balancing that versus, for example, research on some type of new way to measure defence or way to measure stress or way to measure prospect value.”

One of the important forks in the off-season road is the Rule 5 Draft in December. Before then, the Blue Jays will need to confront a 40-man roster crunch and decide which players to protect and which to expose.

This year, in particular, will present quite the challenge as the club could realistically lose promising, young players.

“It’s a good position to be in,” says Sanjay Choudhury, manager of baseball analytics. “We have a very strong farm system at the moment and that’s what’s creating that crunch. We have so many people who are worthy of protection and there’s probably going to be somebody who, in past years, we might have protected but won’t this year, because we just have that depth of talent now.

“In a certain sense it’s a good problem to have. In another, it’s going to be a little stress-inducing.”

The wave of callups in September offered the Blue Jays front office a first-hand look at some players who’ll be at the centre of decisions. The task now is weighing vision against research.

“On one hand, you don’t want to be blind about what your eyes are telling you,” says Choudhury. “On the other, you have to recognize in yourself the tendency to be emotional and sometimes overreact. If a guy hits a walk-off bomb last night, it doesn’t mean he’s Babe Ruth. It means he hit a walk-off bomb and we should feel great about that.”

Choudhury and Co. rely on constant communication — “It’s probably the most underrated skill in our department,” says Sheehan — both in-season and during the winter. Whether it’s calls, e-mails or group chats, the analytics department is in frequent contact with a wide range of organizational staff, ranging from Gil Kim, director of player development, to pitching coach Pete Walker.

It’s something Choudhury, who joined the Blue Jays in 2016, has excelled at.

“When we interviewed him, part of what stood out was the ability to, we felt, communicate,” says Sheehan. “Whether that’s written or verbal or however that happens, the communication and building those relationships is important.”

The exchange flows both ways, too. At times Choudhury or Jeremy Reesor, manager of baseball research, will provide a coach with insight. Other times, that coach will do the same, like a scouting report on outfielder Jonathan Davis, who made his major-league debut in September.

“It would be fair to say he’s a guy who hasn’t had a ton of prospect hype, historically,” says Choudhury. “But I know there’s a lot of conviction in his makeup and work ethic and quality of teammate he is. Seeing him play really well and contribute defensively and contribute on the basepaths and become a guy who [in September was] on our major-league team is really rewarding on a human level.”

The 26-year-old Davis doesn’t carry the same pedigree as, say, Gurriel, but during his brief time with the Blue Jays, the outfielder has yielded solid evidence to evaluate and, perhaps, altered a few internal projections. As well, he underlined a lesson for the analytics department.

“You keep an open mind on these guys — they get better,” says Sheehan. “They are allowed to be better than their projections. There is still growth or decline. If you’re looking at amateur players or guys in the minors or someone like Gurriel, who is a younger major leaguer, they’re allowed to get better. [You have] your baseline, but going above that is going to happen.”

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