Blue Jays’ Colabello needs to stay unpredictable to produce in 2016

Toronto Blue Jays' Chris Colabello. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Even though the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t make a big free-agent splash, it’s not a stretch to call them a contender as they approach Spring Training. It’s also clear they aren’t the dominant outfit that laid waste to the American League from late July through the end of last season.

The most common reasoning for this conclusion is that the team has a David Price-sized hole on the roster. Although that’s a significant loss, it shouldn’t be the primary cause of concern for the 2016 Blue Jays. The importance of a staff ace can be overstated, especially for a team with such a dynamic offence.

Instead, Blue Jays fans should be more worried about whether the players they retained can replicate their 2015 production. They are looking for the likes of Josh Donaldson, Marco Estrada, Kevin Pillar and Chris Colabello to build on career years while Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin continue to defy father time.

This puts the team in a tricky position. Most of the players listed above broke out for tangible reasons in 2015, and betting on repeats could pay off. However, for one player in particular it almost certainly won’t. That player is Colabello.

The 32-year-old stands out as a regression candidate because of how well he hit last season. Among players with 350 or more plate appearances he ranked fourth in batting average, 19th slugging percentage and 14th in wRC+, perhaps baseball’s most accurate catch-all offensive statistic.

Unfortunately for Colabello, his combination of a low contact rate and a high batting average is borderline impossible to sustain over a full season. Since 1900, only 113 batters have posted as high a strikeout rate as Colabello did last year (26.7 percent) with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Not one batted above .300.

Colabello maintained such gaudy offensive numbers with so much swing-and-miss in his game because his batting average on balls in play was .411, the highest number in baseball by a fair margin and way above the league average of .299. Since that’s a number he can’t repeat, it’s not fair to expect him to be a .321 hitter in 2016. The pertinent question isn’t whether he’ll slide, but how far.

More often than not BABIP is considered to be product of luck, but that oversimplifies the issue. Where and how you hit the ball matters, and there’s reason to believe Colabello has a skillset that translates to a sustainable, higher-than-average BABIP.

Players with certain batted-ball tendencies consistently maintain higher-than-average BABIPs. The formula is simple: hit line drives, keep fly balls to a relative minimum and spray the ball. Colabello’s numbers last year match this profile and look similar to some of the better-known hitters of this type.

Player Line Drive% Ground Ball% Fly Ball% Pull% Centre-Field% Opposite- Field% 2015 BABIP Career BABIP
Chris Colabello 25.20% 47.90% 26.90% 34.50% 39.10% 26.50% 0.411 0.347
Miguel Cabrera 25.20% 42.10% 32.70% 35.80% 30.70% 33.50% 0.384 0.348
Joey Votto 25.00% 42.20% 32.80% 37.10% 36.90% 26.00% 0.371 0.357
Howie Kendrick 24.50% 58.70% 16.70% 27.30% 40.60% 32.00% 0.342 0.344
Joe Mauer 24.10% 55.70% 20.20% 30.50% 37.50% 32.10% 0.309 0.341

These players see more balls off their bats fall for hits because they’re impossible to shift against and rarely deposit lazy fly balls into the mitts of opposing outfielders.

Colabello fit the mold last year, and his aggressive style at the plate also helped contribute to more fruitful batted balls. The first baseman was an ambush hitter in 2015. He swung for 45.5 percent of first pitches and racked up 29 hits with a .537 average, primarily on hits up the middle or the opposite way:

Chris Colabello

Even if that’s not a number he can replicate, the approach can pay dividends. The first pitch in an at-bat is often the juiciest offering with BABIP increasing by about 15 points on those pitches.

Because Colabello exceeded offensive expectations by so much last season, it’s hard to know exactly how to project him for 2016. He has problems with both contact and discipline, but those issues are offset to some degree by his power. However, in order to be an offensive asset at first base or designated hitter he’ll likely need to maintain an above-average BABIP as well.

The sample size is relatively small, and he hasn’t avoided pop-ups as well as guys like Votto and Mauer, but his unpredictability and penchant for first-pitch hitting give him a solid chance to keep hittin’ em where they ain’t.

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