Thursday, March 28, 2013

Back To The Future: 1993 vs. 2013, Part 1

It seems like a natural impulse to want to liken the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays to the 1993 incarnation of the club, a roster highlighted by names firmly ensconced into Toronto's sports hagiography.  I mean, look at all the similarities.  They're good; Dominican players abound; The year ends in "3."  Okay, sure.  But beyond these superficial parallels, how much does this this year's club really smell like the last group of Jays to hoist the Commissioner's Trophy?

Yesterday, CBC Sports published a piece providing a position-by-position comparison of the two respective Jays club, contrasting the performance of the 1993 players with the 2012 numbers from each of Toronto's putative 2013 starters.  In this series, we'll take a look at how the two teams stack up, because why not?

Catcher: Pat Borders vs. J.P. Arencibia

I suspect that Pat Borders' MVP performance in the 1992 World Series leaves most Jays fans with little but saccharine memories of the backstop.  And that's ok.  But it does little to mitigate the fact that he was a below-replacement level player in 1993.  In his age-30 season, which proved to be his final year as an everyday player, Borders posted a .254/.285/.371 line, belting nine homeruns in 520 plate appearances.  Walking in just 3.8% of his PAs, Borders' .285 OBP in 1993 represented his third consecutive campaign in which he reached base less than 30% of the time.  His .290 wOBA ranked second-last among the nine catchers to qualify for the batting title -- he finished .001 points ahead of Cincinnati's Joe Oliver -- while recording the lowest isolated power among that group, at .117.  Borders also committed 13 errors behind the plate that year, a career-high, while throwing out just 33% of prospective base-stealers, a figure three percent below the league average that year.

As deficient as Arencibia is in so many facets of the game (see: on-base ability, defense, running), his prospects for 2013 still seem brighter than Borders' 1993 campaign.  Despite missing nearly a third of 2012 due to a fractured hand, Arencibia still managed to be worth 1.2 wins above replacement, hitting for the requisite power while making strides in his defensive game.  His .202 ISO (read: meal ticket) ranked seventh among the 25 catchers with at least 350 PAs in 2012 -- Josh Thole ranked dead last, by-the-by.  And if we cherry-pick a little with our endpoints, Arencibia compiled a .294/.324/.676 over his final 22 games before hitting the disabled list, pumping seven homeruns over that span -- do with that info what you will.  But even more encouraging is the progress Arencibia made in his defensive game.  2012 saw Arencibia post above-average numbers in both Defensive Runs Saved (3) and RPP (1.9), a metric that measures a catcher's ability to block piches in the dirt translated into runs, with 0 representing league average.  He's still going to strike out a ton (career 28.2 K%) a propensity that's going to hurt his ability to reach base, but with just moderate improvements in that area and continued defensive development, he could approximate a 2-win player in 2013.

Winner: Arencibia

First base: John Olerud vs. Adam Lind

In September, I wrote a piece examining Colby Rasmus' disastrous second-half to the 2012 season, wherein I contended that Johnny O "possessed arguably the sweetest lefty swing in the history of the Blue Jays."  Nobody on the Blue Jays' roster did anything in the last month of the season to change my mind.  Olerud's smooth swing was operating at full capacity in 1993, when he was the best hitter in baseball not named Barry Bonds.  Olerud, then 24 (24!), led the league with a .363 batting average while recording a ridiculous .473 on-base percentage, walking in 16.8% of his trips of the plate; a .375 BABIP -- good for fourth among qualified hitters -- didn't hurt.  And his gaudy batting average wasn't empty, either.  Olerud's .236 ISO placed him fifth among qualified first basemen, topped only by behemoths like Frank Thomas (hey, Frank Thomas!) and Rafy Palmeiro, Fred McGriff, and Mickey Tettleton.  The svelte infielder's 24 homeruns in 1993 represent a career high.  Hell, pretty much everything for Olerud in 1993 was a career high.  He was also worth 4 Fielding Runs Above Average and hit .291/.413/.424 against lefties.  Cream.

Oh, Adam Lind.  The much maligned (and deservedly maligned) first baseman/designated hitter has seen his strock drop mightily over the past three seasons.  By now, you're surely familiar with the narrative.  He won the 2009 Silver Slugger award and has been terrible since.  Over the past three season, Lind's struggles against lefthanded pitching have become increasingly pronounced, to the point where they're almost comical.  Since 2010, he has a .186/.226/.281 line against southpaws over 390 plate appearances.  His struggles culminated in a demotion to Triple A Las Vegas last year, and he did show some signs of life upon his return; over his final 59 games, he posted an OPS north of .800 while holding his own against the lefties.  But if we look at this through a sober lens, Lind hasn't been better than a replacement level player in two of the past thee years, and, at this point, a platoon (Rajai? DeRosa?) represents the more sensible scenario.  Lind's prospects of outperforming Olerud's 1993 are about as likely as Mike Trout leading the Angels' rotation in wins in 2013.  At this point, if Lind can prove a serviceable platoon partner at 1B/DH while continuing to mash righthanded pitching, I'd be satisfied.

Winner: Olerud. Olerud also comes in second.

The series will continue tomorrow with a look at left field and closer, and maybe some others if I'm not feeling lazy.

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