Putting Eric Sogard’s scorching start with Blue Jays into perspective

Mike Trout finished with three RBIs as the Angels topped the Blue Jays 6-3 Wednesday.

Toronto Blue Jays fans are having a love affair with their powerful new infielder. No, not the 20-year-old top prospect in baseball riding mountains of hype (though he’s nifty too). It’s the 32-year-old journeyman who’s lighting up the league.

Eric Sogard’s short tenure with the Blue Jays has been the stuff of legend. He’s batting .395, he’s rocking a .458 on-base percentage, and he’s slugging a sky-high .698. He’s launched three home runs and four doubles, knocked in nine runs, and scored eight. He’s done all that in just 11 games, all of them batting in the leadoff spot, all of them while wearing your high school vice principal’s pair of backup glasses.

The secret to Sogard’s success this season is his off-the-charts ability to hit everything thrown his way. He leads the majors in contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone, and ranks second in contact rate on pitches in the zone. His swinging strike rate is, you guessed it, the lowest in all of baseball.

Despite his reputation (and track record) as a banjo hitter, Sogard isn’t merely hitting little grounders and bloopers. His three homers have already tied a personal best for a major-league career that started back in 2010. He ranks among the league leaders in hard-contact rate, with the second-highest mark of his career (only his nine-plate appearance rookie season ranks higher). He’s also pulling the ball more often than he has for most of his career, and hitting flyballs at a rate far above his career average. After nearly a decade in the big leagues, Sogard finally looks like a threat, and a strong platoon option for a team that came into this season light on reliable hitters.

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Now comes the part where we invoke all the sample-size alerts in the universe. Sogard has played in just 11 major-league games this season. His batting average on balls in play sits at .400, a ludicrously atypical number that’s going to regress and correct as the season wears on. Even in a launch angle era that’s turned everyone from Justin Turner and Daniel Murphy to former Jays Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson into unlikely hitting stars, you shouldn’t bet the mortgage on Sogard suddenly becoming a modern-day Rogers Hornsby.

But rather than run away from Sogard’s blitz through the league because it’s only been a handful of games, let’s lean into it. I asked Baseball Reference to assemble the greatest batting lines for all Blue Jays players in their first 12 games with the team, to see what Sogard’s shooting for the next time he plays. I added the proviso that those 12 games must come after playing for at least one other club, so that we’re not just cherry-picking a bunch of hot-shot rookies from the franchise’s past.

Here are the results, as ranked by OPS (a quick-and-dirty stat that measures on-base percentage plus slugging average), with a minimum of one plate appearance per game to keep the focus on lineup regulars:

Otto Velez April 7, 1977 1.495
Billy McKinney August 18, 2018 1.241
Pat Tabler April 9, 1991 1.158
Gregg Zaun April 29, 2004 1.157
Eric Sogard April 16, 2019 1.156
Doug Ault April 7, 1977 1.138
Howie Clark May 28, 2003 1.110
Frank Menechino May 17, 2004 1.075
Alex Gonzalez April 5, 2010 1.064
Ted Cox September 9, 1981 1.054

Well, that’s something. One of Sogard’s current teammates fared even better than he did in his first 12 games with the Jays. Billy McKinney is struggling mightily so far this season as Toronto’s primary right fielder. But he was a force of nature last summer, after coming over in a deadline deal with the Yankees.

The inaugural Jays squad had two early stars in Ault and Velez, with Velez putting up eye-popping numbers that easily topped this list. Playing mostly right field in ‘77, Velez tore up the league that April, batting .442/.531/.865 for the month. He went on to post offensive numbers 24 per cent better than league average by OPS+. But he wasn’t the same player after that inferno of a start: From May 4 to the end of the season, Velez hit a far more modest .221/.334/.369.

Sogard backers can always ignore Velez and the other early standouts who turned into mere mortals later in the season. In fact, if we expand our sample to the first 13 games played by new Blue Jays transplants, Sogard’s double-play partner Freddy Galvis’ start-of-the-season performance also cracks the list. Meanwhile Troy Glaus’s 13th game as a Blue Jay in 2006 was so devastating (two homers and a double) he surged from out of the picture as a 12-gamer to the second-most potent 13-gamer in the annals of transplants-turned-Jays.

For now, the only thing that’s stopped Sogard is an illness that knocked him out of Tuesday’s game, caused him to refund his lunch, then forced him to sit out Wednesday’s game. Sogard’s manager will surely ask him Thursday which direction he’s headed, both in terms of his status for the final game of this Angels series, and for the rest of his so-far tantalizing season. Ever the optimist, the Jays’ bespectacled new star will have a simple answer: Up, Chuck.

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