Blue Jays' re-worked outfield fulfilling promise in crucial late-season stretch

The Blue Jays made a major stylistic overhaul to their outfield in the offseason that hasn't always been popular, but it's bearing fruit now.

Blue Jays outfielders Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier have generated more value than their predecessors in 2023. (Joe Puetz/Getty Images)
Blue Jays outfielders Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier have generated more value than their predecessors in 2023. (Joe Puetz/Getty Images)

Many explanations have been given for the 2023 Toronto Blue Jays' failure to meet expectations, but a common refrain is the offence was defanged by a shuffle that sent Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. packing in favour of Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier.

There is no doubt that the swap lessened Toronto's ability to score runs, but that was by design. Both Varsho and Kiermaier are elite defenders while Hernández and Gurriel were decidedly bat-first players.

Even so, Varsho has fallen well short of projections this season, Hernández would be leading the Blue Jays in home runs if he were still on the team, and Gurriel made an appearance at the All-Star Game. Add in the loss of top prospect Gabriel Moreno to onboard Varsho, and it's easy to see the outfield remix as a loss.

It may still be depending on what Moreno becomes and how Varsho produces over the next few years, but as far as 2023 goes, Toronto seems to be in better shape with its new outfielders than its old ones.

Here's a comparison between the Varsho/Kiermaier and Hernández/Gurriel duos this season:

Via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference
Via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

The new guys bring significantly less power, but that's compensated for by the value they bring on the bases and in the field — particularly in centre. The Blue Jays are getting +26 DRS from their centre fielders, which is not only first among MLB teams but twice the second-place squad's total (the Philadelphia Phillies at +13).

FanGraphs has been tracking that defensive metric since 2003, and Toronto's +26 is already the eighth-best mark in that time with 36 games remaining. Statcast's Outs Above Average also has Toronto as MLB's top team in centre (+16) with the next-best club well behind (+12).

Although George Springer played centre competently in his first two years with the Blue Jays, those kind of numbers would've been impossible as long as he held down that position. Creating a scenario where he could move to a corner was worth sacrificing some offence for. A Blue Jays pitching staff that has the best ERA in the majors (3.64) is certainly thankful.

Things get even more interesting when we look at recent data as Varsho is in the midst of his best stretch of the season. Since the beginning of August he's hit .281/.349/.579 — good for a 152 wRC+.

That's a big step forward for a guy who hasn't topped a 107 wRC+ in any other month this season. Varsho is tough to trust at the plate based on all the ups and downs he's experienced this season, but his recent work is compelling — and all six of FanGraphs' projection systems see him as an above-average hitter from here on out.

While two games isn't a meaningful sample, since Kiermaier's return to from the IL the Blue Jays' primary outfield trio has hit three home runs and two doubles, while drawing four walks and stealing a base. Zooming out to all of August, the three have a collective .293/.352/.510 line to their names.

They aren't always going to be driving this offence, but showing they can for even a little bit is an encouraging sign for a group that already provides so much value in the field.

There are a number of problems that have prevented the 2023 Blue Jays from reaching their potential, from the underperformance of Alek Manoah and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to the horrific results the team managed with runners in scoring position for much of the season. Despite Varsho's unimpressive campaign at the plate, moving away from the status quo in the outfield has not been a determining factor.

If the former Arizona Diamondback can build on his recent success, the Blue Jays outfield will be a major asset rather than fodder for debate. Discussion about the Varsho-Moreno deal may continue for years to come, but at least in this moment Toronto is seeing its vision realized.