Recent Blue Jays history a reminder that spring numbers can mislead

Jose Bautista. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Now that the Toronto Blue Jays are playing games again, baseball is officially back.

Spring training games aren’t meaningful, per se, but there is plenty at stake for the players involved: position battles must be sorted out, veterans on minor-league deals are trying to hang on and prospects are hoping to crack the big-league roster for the first time.

The resulting tiny sample sizes create some awesome (and atrocious) stat lines. In some cases, they hint at what’s to come. And in others, the numbers can be wildly misleading.

Here’s a look at a few of the best and worst Blue Jays performances from recent springs and how they translated to the regular season…

Best spring performances

Aaron Sanchez (2016): 20 innings, 2-0, 1.35 ERA, 0.900 WHIP

After spending his first two seasons primarily in a relief role, Sanchez started three of his five spring outings in 2016 and made them count.

He earned a spot in the rotation that season and has been a starter in the majors ever since. The 2010 first round pick was at his best in 2016, winning the American League ERA title (3.00 ERA) in 30 starts, to go along with the league’s lowest HR/9 rate (0.7) and a few Cy Young votes.

Jose Bautista (2017): 11 games, .414/.469/.759, 12 hits (6 XBH), 2 HR, 8 RBI

Bautista’s numbers dipped in 2016 after making the all-star team every year from 2010-15. So putting together a line like this the following spring must’ve felt good — but that feeling wouldn’t last.

Bautista’s 2017 season, his last in Toronto, was a tailspin. He posted a .674 OPS, his lowest since his 2004 rookie year, and struck out 170 times (eighth in the AL). To no one’s surprise, the team declined his $20 million mutual option that winter.

Bo Bichette (2019): 20 games, .410/.465/.795, 16 hits (7 XBH), 4 HR, 5 RBI

Last spring, while the masses were clamouring for the promotion of MLB’s top prospect, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bichette quietly made his own case to be called up.

OK, it wasn’t that quiet. But Bichette, who turned 21 last March, was not guaranteed to see MLB action in 2019. His play — first in spring training, then at triple-A Buffalo — made a compelling case.

Bichette’s brief rookie season (46 games) was well worth it for Toronto, as he posted a .311/.358/.571 slash line and set an MLB record by recording a double in nine-straight games. Not half bad.

Worst spring performances

Marco Estrada (2015): 13 2/3 innings, 1-1, 6.59 ERA, 1.460 WHIP

Estrada came to Toronto via trade in November 2014 in a one-for-one deal with the Brewers for Adam Lind. Clearly, Estrada’s first impression with the new club wasn’t great.

But the cold streak didn’t last, as 2015 actually became the best year of his career (3.13 ERA, AL-best 6.7 H/9, 3.9 bWAR). He was so good, in fact, that Toronto re-signed him to a two-year deal that off-season.

Mike Bolsinger (2017): 13 innings, 0-1, 6.23 ERA, 2.080 WHIP

Two seasons removed from a productive 1.2 bWAR year with the Dodgers, Bolsinger was flat in his first spring with the Blue Jays. That carried into his short-not-sweet 2017 season, in which he had a 6.31 ERA in 41 1/3 innings and never returned to the majors again.

Of course, his final outing with Toronto (four runs on four hits with only one out recorded versus Houston) is now infamously linked to the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Bolsinger is seeking his day in court for that one.

Josh Donaldson (2018): 13 games, .148/.303/.148, 4 hits (0 XBH), 1 RBI, 8 strikeouts

This was the beginning of the end for Donaldson in Toronto. After posting these putrid numbers, the former MVP dealt with a shoulder injury and a major calf issue, which cost him all but 52 games during the year.

The 32-year-old free-agent-to-be had a .757 OPS with the Blue Jays, who struggled without their third baseman. In August they traded him, straight up, for Julian Merryweather — a 27-year-old pitcher who hasn’t surpassed Class-A in Toronto’s farm system.

For what it’s worth, Donaldson bounced back in 2019 with 6.1 bWAR year that led to a $92 million deal with the Twins.

Wrapping up

As the Bautista example shows, a strong spring promises nothing in the regular season. As the Estrada example shows, a poor spring offers no guarantees, either. But even if pre-season stats aren’t always predictive, the Blue Jays would surely like to see their players create tough roster decisions with big spring numbers in 2020.

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