Through August 13th, the Toronto Blue Jays’ rotation has performed at a high level, ranking 1st in innings pitched, 5th in groundball percentage, 3rd in GB/FB ratio, 4th in ERA, 12th in FIP, 9th in xFIP, and 5th in WAR. The collective of Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and J.A. Happ have even done this while posting league-average K% and BB% and laboring through innings (only the Reds and Orioles throw more than Toronto’s 17.1 pitches per inning). They also go after hitters at a league-average rate (i.e., they throw an average number of strikes), and yet they have the second lowest BABIP in the league at .273. What about Toronto’s rotation makes their results so special, when their peripherals seem so average? The short answer is their individual fastballs.
The Blue Jays Have Among the Most Valuable Set of Fastballs
The Blue Jays starter’s draw a very high amount of value from their fastballs, of each the four-seam, two-seam, and cut varieties. Despite only 4 teams using four-seams less than the Blue Jays, they are second only to the Nationals in total value from the four-seam. In other words, Toronto uses the four-seam sparingly, but derive immense value from it. Unsurprisingly, per 100 pitches, their PITCHf/x values rank 1st, 3rd, and 6th for the four-seam, two-seam, and cut fastballs, respectively. Their four-seams have far below average velocity (likely due to Dickey’s 82mph fastball), but their two-seams rank 4th in the MLB at 93.2mph. But what is particularly impressive about their fastballs is the uniquely extreme movement each starter generates.
Toronto’s Rotation Generates Extreme Levels of Fastball Movement (or Lack Thereof)
So far in 2016, there have been 271 pitchers that have started a game. Of these 271, 263 throw a four-seam fastball, 174 throw a two-seam fastball, and only 95 throw a cutter. Below is a chart highlighting some of the extreme rankings the Blue Jays’s starters have relative to the rest of the league. When looking at horizontal movement, the rankings are relative to the handedness of the pitcher (Happ is the only lefty). When looking at vertical movement, it is relative to movement up (i.e. a higher ranking means less downward movement and vice versa).
As above, each pitcher ranks in a fairly extreme position (either high amounts of movement or little amounts of movement) in one of the varieties of fastball. Stroman in particular generates very little movement (horizontal or vertical) on any of his fastballs, relative to the league. Dickey’s four-seam moves (far) away from righties, while not sinking much at all. Sanchez generates a fair amount of movement away from righties on both his four-seam and two-seam, with Happ having his respective pitches do the same to lefties.
Marco Estrada’s “Cue Ball” Fastball Has Special Movement
Estrada, however, is the pitcher with the most interesting profile. As detailed here by MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, both Estrada’s four-seam and cutter generate very little downward vertical movement, and almost seemingly (and impossibly) have a rising effect. Estrada himself has deemed this effect the “cue ball”, as he feels that “[i]t’s just a perfect white ball. I notice my four-seamers are straight right up and down”.
It’s also interesting to note that Estrada has generally fallen in the rotation immediately after Dickey and/or Stroman, who generate the most vertical movement downward. Of the three, only Estrada generates higher than average numbers of strikeouts. But, both Dickey and Estrada generate lots of soft contact, and have low BABIP to show for it. Of the 160 starters with at least 50 IP, Estrada is 1st in the league at .217 and Dickey is 32nd at .270 (for good measure, Happ is 31st, also at .270, and Sanchez is 46th at .278). It’s interesting to wonder if each of their individual successes has something to do with the vastly different movement their fastballs display, and if this affects their opponents day-to-day timing. If a batter faces Dickey’s low sinking fastball in the first game of a series, and then Estrada’s cue ball the next day, would their timing be thrown off, even slightly?
Blue Jays Starters Hammer the Zone with Fastballs
Further adding to this possibility is the fact that all Toronto starters use their fastballs similarly. The MLB average heatmap for fastballs looks like this (courtesy of Fangraphs). Each of Stroman, Dickey, Estrada, Sanchez, and Happ hammer the zone with their fastball at an above-average rate. These graphs also support the charts above, where Stroman and Dickey keep fastballs down in the zone, Estrada leaves his higher, and Sanchez and Happ pitch inside to same-handed batters.
The Blue Jays starters all get similar, stellar results, even though their peripheral stats may not suggest it. They do this by collectively using a wide range of movement on their fastballs, and attacking the zone with them. This has helped them maintain one of the lowest BABIPs in the league, and generate the highest values on their fastballs both individually, and as a group. Marco Estrada in particular has generated a prolifically low BABIP, and should he continue this level of performance, it would not be shocking to see him garner AL Cy Young votes. While their success has not been heavily covered this year, the Toronto Blue Jays rotation is poised to help them make a deep playoff run this MLB Postseason.
Readers, what do you think? Does the Blue Jays’s rotation deserve more recognition? What do you think is the key component to their success? Which starters, if any, deserve discussion for the AL Cy Young Award? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @SaberBallBlog. Don’t forget to subscribe to SaberBallBlog by clicking the green “Follow” button in the menu, and follow on Twitter for all of the latest updates on the MLB!