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The impending regression of Chris Colabello

The Toronto Blue Jays have gotten more than they could have expected from Chris Colabello offensively so far this year. It might be time to find a replacement to avoid his impending regression and help the team's defense.

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The Toronto Blue Jays offense is the best in the game. The Jays are tied for the top spot by wRC+ with the Tigers and Dodgers at 113 but have outpaced both of those clubs in runs scored by 88 and 110 runs, respectively. Simply put, this team can do damage. If I asked you who their best offensive outfielder by wRC+ has been (min. 200 plate appearances), you would likely guess Jose Bautista. A fine guess, but you would be wrong. The correct answer is Chris Colabello. At the break Colabello has posted a 143 wRC+, matching Josh Donaldson's mark and besting Bautista's 141 by just a smidge. Colabello has 139 fewer plate appearances than Bautista, so he has not produced as much offensive value. However, on a per plate appearance basis Colabello has been better. I doubt there were many who saw this coming at the outset of the season.

Colabello's performance to date has been a serious boon for the Blue Jays, who needed someone to fill in for the injured Michael Saunders and ineffective Dalton Pompey. Colabello's current .325/.371/.500 slash line, .379 wOBA, and eight home runs are all major league career highs. For good measure, he mixed in an 18-game hit streak across May and June, a streak that is the fourth longest of 2015. Accordingly, Colabello's strong performance to date significantly outperforms his pre-season projections:

System PA HR AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Steamer - - 0.246 0.305 0.413 0.316
ZiPS 512 19 0.230 0.287 0.404 0.305
PECOTA 281 11 0.244 0.311 0.427 0.272*

* this is True Average (TAv), which is similar to wOBA but given by Baseball Prospectus

The question becomes: what is going on with Colabello this season that has prompted such drastic deviation from expectation? Turns out the answer is fairly simple: Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). Colabello leads the major leagues in BABIP (among players with at least 200 plate appearances). His .421 BABIP is comically high and almost certainly not sustainable. His distribution of soft, medium, and hard contact is essentially unchanged from 2014, so his massive jump in BABIP is not explained by more hard contact. However, it should be noted that by exit velocity he is ranked 42nd of 200+ players with at least 100 balls in play. His average exit velocity of 90.93 miles per hour puts him around players like Adam Jones, Mookie Betts, Adam Lind, and Carlos Santana. Pretty decent company if you ask me.

Colabello hitting above expectations is great for the Jays, but the better part for them is that he has been very timely with his hitting. Colabello's Baseball-Reference.com splits reveal that he has performed much better in high leverage situations relative to his overall performance, and that this is not true for medium or low leverage situations. Basically, he has been clutch. This difference is best shown with tOPS+, which I seem to be using a lot lately. For those who are not familiar with tOPS+, it allows for a comparison of a player's (or team's) OPS in the various levels of a given split (e.g., leverage situations) to their overall performance. A tOPS+ of 100 is the baseline, and then on offense higher numbers mean the player is better in the given situation, while lower numbers show that they have been worse. With splits like the leverage situation of a plate appearance there is no real reason to expect players will perform differently across the different leverage categories. Any difference is likely a result of random variation. Well, Colabello has performed to the tune of a 147 tOPS+ in high leverage situations (1.082 OPS) but only 70 tOPS+ in medium leverage (.733 OPS) and 98 tOPS+ in low leverage (865 OPS). Much like his wildly lucky BABIP, this better performance in high leverage is not likely to continue for the rest of the season. Of course it could, but it is just not likely.

None of this is meant to belittle Colabello or his performance at the plate thus far in 2015. He has done well in his opportunities so far this season and helped keep the Jays afloat in the absence of better players. Now the team needs to recognize that they have banked a good thing, but that good thing is not likely to continue. The really scary part is that all of the value that Colabello has added with his bat he has given away on defense. Of players with at least 350 innings played, he has been the second-worst outfield defender by UZR (DRS tells the same story), trailing only Hanley Ramirez. We know how well the Hanley-in-left-field experiment has gone. Colabello's defense has reduced him to the point of being a replacement level player (-0.1 fWAR). I imagine that his WAR total would be much lower if he had not been so, well, lucky at the plate over the first 85 games of the season. Then again, he may not have been allowed to awkwardly run around the outfield as much as he has if he was not hitting so well.

Regardless, regression looms for Mr. Colabello. Here are his rest of season projections:

System PA HR AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Steamer 163 7 0.256 0.312 0.441 0.326
ZiPS 209 8 0.253 0.307 0.427 0.320
PECOTA 250 10 0.258 0.323 0.447 0.277*

* again, this is True Average (TAv).

These rest-of-season projections look much like the preseason expectations, and of course they should, as these systems are not fooled by a few productive months. Together they amount to projecting something around a 101 wRC+ for Colabello, which makes him much more of an average contributor the rest of the way than the elite contributor he has been to date.

The Blue Jays current FanGraphs odds of achieving at least one of the two wild card spots are 25.6%, the second highest mark in the American League East behind the Yankees. The Jays have clear areas in need of an upgrade in their starting rotation and bullpen. While upgrading the rotation with pieces from outside the organization may allow for some in-house fixes to the bullpen, that is an article for another day. They should pursue pitching over the next couple of weeks, but, as I have outlined here, the Jays may also want to look at upgrading from Colabello in left field, who is likely to be considerably worse offensively in the second half than he was in the first. Getting the run they have from him is great, and many teams' playoff runs involve surprising over-performances from one or more players, but the Jays should now make an effort to improve their team by putting a better defender in left field.

They already have a terrifying offense, even without Colabello in the lineup. Shoring up the defense at the expense of some offensive production can provide at least similar overall value to what Colabello has given but help contribute to fixing the run prevention side of things, a clear area of need. Michael Saunders, acquired from the Mariners in an offseason trade, is still working his way back from the freak knee injury he suffered in Spring Training, and there is currently no timetable for his return. Dalton Pompey, another in-house option, is still working out his early season struggles at Double-A. So the Jays may want to look outside the organization.

For example, if the Reds decide, as they should, to tear things down and begin the rebuild, a player like Jay Bruce would be a good fit in Toronto. Bruce has 5.9 UZR and 15 DRS over the last three seasons in right field, comes with a good bat to boot, and appears to have bounced back from the injury issues that hampered his 2014 season. Of course, getting someone like Jay Bruce depends on whether Alex Anthopolous is allowed by ownership to add salary for this and next year. Because I don't know about the current status of Saunders, Pompey, or ability to add money, I won't wade any further into speculating about who the Jays could or should add. Rather, I will leave it with the suggestion that moving on from Chris Colabello looks like a course of action the team should take.

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Chris Teeter is a featured writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. He is also a contributor at BP Boston. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.