Davidi: Where are Blue Jays weakest on defence?

J.P. Arencibia, Adam Lind, and Melky Cabrera have had their fair share of defensive issues in 2013.

TORONTO — The defensive deficiencies on the Toronto Blue Jays have been glaringly obvious to anyone who’s watched them play extensively during the 2013 season, and general manager Alex Anthopoulos has repeatedly identified his club’s fielding as an area in need of improvement.

That’s a no-brainer.

Isolating the where and settling on the how is a more complicated task, particularly in delving beyond a basic eye test to really evaluate just how well or poorly the Blue Jays have played at the nine spots around the diamond.

The general consensus is that the Blue Jays need better fielding at second base, left field and catcher in 2014 and there’s little debate about that. But has it been as bad as we think, and are those the positions in the most dire straits?

Judging defence remains a very subjective task, with significant flaws in even the most respected objective metrics publicly available. Simply, there are too many immeasurable factors that make isolating and quantifying defence for definitive comparative purposes nearly impossible (the Blue Jays, like most teams, have their own proprietary defensive stat for evaluation).

Yet some available measures still have value if taken as a snapshot that combined with visual evaluation, can contribute to a fuller picture. Those caveats in place, sportsnet.ca asked Baseball Information Solutions for help in identifying the Blue Jays’ most troublesome spots, and two measures, Plus/Minus rating plus Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), were enlisted for the task.

Plus/Minus gauges how many a plays a fielder makes in comparison relative to his peers, while DRS combines Plus/Minus with a series of other measures, including outfield arm, turning double plays, preventing stolen bases, etc., into one number that attempts to provide an overall assessment of a defender’s effectiveness.

In both measures, the Blue Jays’ worst position on the field was first base (-19 in Plus/Minus, -14 in DRS), followed by shortstop (-12 in Plus/Minus, -12 in DRS). Collectively, their DRS of nine ranked 15th in the majors while their Plus/Minus of -20 was 19th.

Shortstop shouldn’t be surprising, given how Jose Reyes’ range has been limited since returning from his ankle injury and the volume of games at the position played by Munenori Kawasaki and Maicer Izturis (his -7 DRS is tied for worst on the team, and his -15 Plus/Minus is by far the lowest). But for first base to rate so poorly is somewhat unexpected.
“We haven’t been as good at first base this year, I think that’s fair,” says general manager Alex Anthopoulos. “But from a range standpoint, you get way fewer balls at first base than you do anywhere else.”

Worth considering, too, is that the numbers at second base and left field have both been skewed by the recent play of Ryan Goins (tied with Colby Rasmus at a team-high DRS of eight) and Kevin Pillar (tied for fourth on the team with a DRS of five).

Goins, in particular, has been a difference-maker with his glove, and while there’s some debate over whether he can sustain his current level of play, the plays he’s made since his call up last month has impressed upon the Blue Jays that they should place defence well before offence at the spot.

“Yes, no doubt,” says Anthopoulos. “Especially with this turf and how quickly it plays, we have (pitchers) who get a lot of ground balls, as well, I definitely think defence is going to be a priority for us. You’re definitely going to see us, going forward, making defence a priority in the infield. If you get a really special bat, there’s always a tradeoff, but for the most part, we would definitely go defence first.”

The offence provided at first base by the combination of Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind (team high collective OPS of .869) would qualify in that regard, but the Blue Jays could also tighten up their infield by making Encarnacion the primary DH and upgrading first base with a strong glove man like pending free agent James Loney.

Opening 2014 with a much better defensive right side of the infield and a healthy left side would surely aid a starting the rotation that at times deserved better from those playing behind them. As manager John Gibbons often noted, it’s the makeable plays not made that often hurt most.

The flip side is in risking too stark a cut in offence, although given that at .556 the Blue Jays have the worst OPS in the majors at second base, and probably can’t do much worse with the bat than they did this year. Another factor is that with the rest of the lineup they project to have, they can carry a light bat.

“The reason we could is because normally, you’re not getting the production out of shortstop (Jose Reyes offers),” says Anthopoulos. “An example I use is when the Phillies were running (Placido) Polanco out of third and (Chase) Utley out of second, people would say Polanco doesn’t profile for third, but Utley doesn’t necessarily profile for second because he’s a middle of the order, 30 home run bat you normally look for at third. At shortstop, teams are happy with a .600 OPS and good defence, and you normally have more of an offensive player at second base, so I think you have to look at it as a whole.
“If Encarnacion is playing first or DH, you’ve got Lawrie and you’ve got Reyes, plus (Jose) Bautista and Colby and so on … I think you can (carry a light-hitting defensive whiz at second).”

The Blue Jays starting outfield of Rasmus, Bautista and Melky Cabrera combined for DRS score of seven, a number hampered by Cabrera’s -5. His Plus/Minus of -6 was also worst among the club’s outfielders although the assessment of his play has changed significantly in the front office since the recent discovery and removal of a benign tumour from his spine that ate away at his mobility.

There’s reason to think Cabrera won’t look like he’s running with a piano strapped to his back next year, but the Blue Jays still can’t be completely certain about what they have in him.

“It affected his entire lower half,” says Anthopoulos. “The doctors were surprised he played as long as he did, and he just grinded through it. They said it would definitely compromise his legs, no doubt about it, not even a debate. They expect a full recovery and we expect him to be significantly better.

“We’ll know more as we go through the off-season, Melky will be re-evaluated in two weeks, but as we sit here today, we expect him to recover and be good.”

The catching position is more complicated, as Plus/Minus isn’t measured behind the plate, while the collective DRS for the Blue Jays ranked 21st in the majors at -4. The knuckleball of R.A. Dickey and the resulting seven wild pitches and 19 passed balls certainly pushes the numbers down, but so too does their caught-stealing rate of 25 per cent.

J.P. Arencibia has been a lightning rod while doing the bulk of the work, but the reality is that if his OPS wasn’t .622, his defence wouldn’t be as much of an issue. There are those who believe he can still be an elite offensive player, and the Blue Jays must ask themselves whether they can afford to again risk getting less defensively behind the plate in the hopes they can unlock his bat.

Another internal debate the Blue Jays must have is on what kind of internal improvements they can reasonably expect in their defensive play next season.

How much of a difference will a full season of Lawrie-Reyes make on the left side of the infield? Has Izturis declined to the extent the numbers suggest, or can he be a better defender off the bench in a more limited role? Can Cabrera return to previous form? Does Rasmus have more room to grow?

Are there other ways to make gains?
“We made a lot of careless errors,” says third base coach Luis Rivera, who’s in charge of the infield. “I think we have to be a little more into the game, concentration has to be the key. We have good defenders, Lawrie, Reyes, now we have Goins, even though Izturis is hurt, I think he’s a good defender, he has good hands, his range might be a little limited, but I trust all those guys on the field.

“But at the end of the day, sometimes you watch and there’s an error over here, an error over there and wonder how we continue to make those errors when these guys are good enough not to make them? Maybe it has to do with concentration, maybe it has to do with going in and out of AstroTurf, quick infields to slow infields, there might be a lot of things that are part of that.”

The primary question in the outfield is about Cabrera and what kind of defence he can offer. First base coach Dwayne Murphy, who’s in charge of the outfielders, placed more responsibility in the hands of Rasmus this season to position himself and his corner guys, and was rewarded with his improved play.

“The biggest thing that’s been helpful for Colby is being able to move around to the pitching, being in the right spots, and moving the corners. That’s been a big plus for him, controlling the outfield, instead of the computer says this guy should stand here,” says Murphy. “It puts the defensive guy in the game. The reason I think defence is getting poorer is because guys are being told where to stand on everybody, that’s what I think personally. (The scouting report) doesn’t take into account a pitcher’s velocity, his location, whether he’s got it today, whether his breaking ball is on. It just says you should stand right here.”

Defence is never that clear cut, but the Blue Jays outfield knows they shouldn’t simply stand here, and front office understands it simply can’t stand pat.

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