Ground ball pitchers would allow Blue Jays’ infield defence to shine

Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. (Matt Slocum/AP)

More often than not building a baseball team is about acquiring the best pieces available. Fitting them together is usually a secondary consideration.

Last year the Toronto Blue Jays put an increased emphasis on character and clubhouse presence, but no matter how you slice it that’s not priority number one. A team starting nine Munenori Kawasakis would lose a historic number of ball games no matter how joyous the clubhouse was.

Baseball’s structure allows teams to pursue offensive talent uninterrupted by worries about how a player fits. There is no system or scheme to which hitters must conform. Jose Bautista doesn’t need to “play well” with Edwin Encarnacion, he just needs to crush baseballs when it’s his turn.

There are, however, a few ways teams can find players that are particularly valuable to them. This often revolves around the ballpark they play in. The New York Yankees tend to stockpile left-handed hitters who can take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch while the Boston Red Sox like to have more right-handed bats to bang doubles off the Green Monster. In recent seasons the Kansas City Royals have used rangy athletes like Lorenzo Cain to swallow up extra-base hits in the massive Kauffman Stadium outfield.

Another way teams can find extra value in players is by looking closely at the interplay between pitching and defence. While the Royals may have excellent defenders at virtually every position, most teams have a wide range of skill level from position to position.

Interestingly, the Toronto Blue Jays have a divide in their defence that’s both simple and general: their infield is excellent and their outfield is poor despite Kevin Pillar’s amazing season with the glove. Here’s a look at the difference between the two units in 2015.

Unit Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR)
Infield +22 +23.1
Outfield -7 -22.1
Total +15 +1.0

Even with Pillar the Blue Jays’ outfield cost the team a significant amount of runs last season, according to these metrics. The outlook for 2016 isn’t much better. Bautista just turned 35 and while his arm should rebound next year, his range is diminishing. Ben Revere has been a defensive negative by DRS for UZR for three consecutive years and continually takes questionable routes. Michael Saunders and Dalton Pompey are more promising with the glove but it’s unclear how much either will play.

In terms of the infield, the Blue Jays only stand to improve with more Troy Tulowitzki, no Jose Reyes and Ryan Goins poised to start the season as a regular. Even the solid Justin Smoak is returning to swallow up errant throws.

As the Blue Jays fill out their bullpen and find more rotation depth it would be wise to put a higher premium on ground-ball pitchers who will put the ball in the hands of their excellent infield more frequently. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t an obvious strategy for any team as chasing ground balls for the sake of ground balls is a questionable practice. But given the way the Blue Jays defence is shaping up it could keep runs off the board.

So far the team has not gone this direction, acquiring three pitchers with below-average ground ball rates in Jesse Chavez, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ. It will be interesting to see if they continue to pass up on ground ball pitchers or change course.

Talent may always trump “fit” in baseball, but teams can still find players who interact with the rest of the roster in an advantageous way. The Blue Jays still have a number of holes to fill on their pitching staff and they’d be well served filling them with pitchers who can bring out the best in their defence.

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