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Piecing the Blue Jays Lineup Together for their Playoff Push

The Blue Jays were quiet at the trade deadline. But they are due to get a few injured starters back. Here we take a look at how the Jays can best use their resources to continue the playoff push.

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One of the surprisingly inactive teams at baseball's non-waiver trade deadline was the Toronto Blue Jays. Through Monday they are 4 games back of Baltimore in the American League East, and currently hold the second wild card spot. It is silly to think that Alex Anthopolous and company were not working behind the scenes to make something happen to improve the team; regardless, the inactivity led to grumbling from star players Jose Bautista and Casey Janssen. Following the deadline the Jays lost 3 of 4 games to a meager Astros team. Results of this sort will likely be attributed to the lack of a big splash at the deadline, but I don't think anger should be directed at the front office's decision to stand pat. If anywhere, anger could be directed at unlucky injuries and some questionable on-field management.

It is important to remind everyone that Dave Cameron at FanGraphs and Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus showed that the deadline moves did not affect teams' playoff odds all that much. Fangraphs had the Jays' odds of winning the division increasing 3.4% (largely due to their win on July 31st), and Baseball Prospectus had the Jays' odds of winning the World Series decreasing 1.4%. So while this year's deadline involved a lot of player movement, was a lot of fun and gave us lots to debate, they didn't really move the playoff odds needle too much. So standing pat is a defendable decision. The Jays need to affect their playoff odds by winning games with their current players, which will require using them in such a way that maximizes their strengths.

A critical thing for Jays fans to consider when evaluating their team's inactivity at the deadline is that they are getting three major league ready and productive players over the next couple of weeks. The even better news is that they will be arriving without the team having to give anything up to get them! I am talking about Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion. Lawrie has already returned to the team, and Lind and Encarnacion should be back in the near future. Barring any setbacks or injuries to other players, the Jays team will be closer to its original construction. So, how best to use these players? This gets us to the on-field management aspect.

Research in The Book demonstrates ways for a team to optimize their batting lineup so as to squeeze extra runs out of its available players. Aligning one's resources appropriately can lead to a real advantage. Lineup optimization is not going to add 10 wins to a team, but it is an easily adjusted aspect of the game that could add ~1 win. It is an example of good management and is worth trying to get it right. To date the Blue Jays have largely eschewed this advantage. This has partially been a result of injuries. A lineup with Dioner Navarro in the 4th spot, Nolan Reimold in the 5th spot, Danny Valencia in the 7th spot (against a right-handed pitcher; more on that later), and then Munenori Kawasaki, Anthony Gose and Ryan Goins slotted in as well, is going to struggle. But even with the full group the Jays have rarely used an optimized lineup. From my perspective when Lawrie, Lind and Encarnacion are available the Jays lineup against a right-handed starter should look like this:

Num Player Bats Pos wOBA v RHP
1 Jose Reyes S SS 0.336
2 Jose Bautista R RF 0.366
3 Melky Cabrera S LF 0.332
4 Edwin Encarnacion R DH 0.356
5 Adam Lind L 1B 0.368
6 Juan Francisco L 3B 0.348
7 Brett Lawrie R 2B 0.333
8 Colby Rasmus L CF 0.340
9 Dioner Navarro S C 0.292

*wOBA values are career numbers for the split.

The major change here is having Bautista hit 2nd. He is the best hitter on the team and there is good evidence that a team's best hitter should bat 2nd. Bautista's approach does not need to change to fit with old-school ideas (e.g., moving runners over, sacrificing). He should continue to approach his plate appearances the same way. Moving him up a spot gets him more plate appearances for the rest of the season, and takes advantage of his on-base prowess in front of Carbera, Encarnacion and Lind. The Jays have yet to use Bautista in the 2nd spot this year. This simple change could help. Setting the lineup this way leaves the Jays with Anthony Gose (bats: L, position: OF), Danny Valencia (R, IF), Nolan Reimold (R, OF), Steve Tolleson (R, IF), and Josh Thole (L, C) on the bench. Gose offers a solid late game defensive and/or speed replacement, while the others offer counter measures against left-handed relief pitching.

Against a left-handed starter there should be changes to take advantage of players' ability to hit left-handed pitching. I would align things like this:

Num Player Bats Pos wOBA vs LHP
1 Jose Reyes S SS 0.341
2 Jose Bautista R RF 0.384
3 Melky Cabrera S LF 0.327
4 Edwin Encarnacion R 1B 0.38
5 Danny Valencia R 3B 0.379
6 Dioner Navarro S C 0.331
7 Brett Lawrie R 2B 0.313
8 Colby Rasmus L CF 0.286
9 Steve Tolleson R DH 0.369

The top of the order remains the same, but now at the bottom of the order we see some of those lefty mashers get their time to shine. Valencia assumes his role in the 3b platoon (with Juan Francisco) and Steve Tolleson slots in as the DH. His wOBA against LHP is an impressive 0.369 but that is in only 175 PAs so some caution needs to be exerted with having him as the regular DH in this configuration. Reimold is another option. On the bench, Gose represents a late game defensive and/or speed replacement, leaving Lind and Francisco as solid pinch-hit options.

Josh Thole should be slotted at the bottom of the order (regardless of the handedness of the opposing starter) on days when R.A. Dickey pitches. It will be best for the Jays if Dickey's starts are not opposite a lefty as Thole's 0.243 wOBA really leaves something to be desired. His .300 wOBA against righties is more attractive.

It should be clear from my suggested lineups that Ryan Goins and Munenori Kawasaki return to AAA Buffalo. There is some excitement on Toronto radio and television about Goins' latest stint in the majors, but he is not the answer for the rest of the season. In this second stint (49 PA), he has yet to take a walk, is striking out 20% of the time, and has been somewhat fortunate when making contact (.350 BABIP). I am not convinced that he has figured it out at the plate. Kawasaki is similar. While he brings a lot of fun to the clubhouse and demonstrates his hustle and heart by diving for balls that are already three feet past him, he just does not provide a skill that makes him a necessary component for the rest of the season. ZiPS and Steamer project both players as replacement level for the rest of the season.

Just as the Blue Jays need to deploy their offense in such a way that takes advantage of platoon splits, they must do so with their pitching. For example, Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil should be limited to use against lefties. John Gibbons brought Loup into the 8th inning of the August 1st game against the Astros. The game was tied 1-1. Yes, this is a high leverage situation and Loup is one of the Jays better relievers. But the handedness of the batters that Loup was likely to face went R, R, L, R, R, R. Loup's career wOBA-against for right-handed batters is 0.314, for left-handed batters it is 0.222. While the 0.314 is not terrible, the Jays had better right-handed options (e.g., Dustin McGowan, Casey Janssen). So this is not really an effective use of Loup. He gave up 2 runs and the Jays lost 3-1. This is a slightly cherry-picked example, but these are the strategy mistakes that need to be avoided if the Jays are going to make the playoffs. Ideally things will get a bit easier for John Gibbons if Brandon Morrow gets healthy, Steve Delabar reclaims his 2013 All Star form, and Sergio Santos learns to command his pitches. But that is a great deal of uncertainty and the Jays need to be focused on winning now with the arms they have available.

Nothing that I have stated here about lineup optimization, platoon splits, or bullpen use is new. Some of it may even be obvious to readers. Nevertheless the ideas are important and should be implemented. The Jays not making a big deadline move is defendable. The Jays using the group of players they have decided to move forward with sub-optimally is not. They have 49 games left to make up ground on the Orioles. Small lineup adjustments and consistent, accurate use of players can help the Jays gain the few extra runs (scored or saved) and wins needed for making the playoffs for the first time in 20 years.

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Chris Teeter is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.