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Analyzing the newest White Sox: Herrera and Jay

Kelvin Herrera should bring quality experience, though he’s declining. Jon Jay is a quality add, even if he’s still here mostly to lure Machado

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals
Spicy spring: With the Herrera signing, there is now a battle for the closer role for the White Sox.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Kelvin Herrera and Jon Jay are here!

Obviously, Herrera is more important get, because the White Sox had a terrible, inexperienced bullpen last season. Meanwhile, it does seem like Jon Jay was signed to sway Manny Machado, whatever GM Rick Hahn’s protestations otherwise. However, Jay is already better than a few of the outfielders the Sox already have, thus he will probably slot into either center or right field.

Though both players are past their primes, they also provide a value that few current White Sox players possess: playoff experience. Jay, a nine-year veteran, has made multiple playoff appearances: 67 playoff games total, including 13 in the World Series. That playoff experience culminated in 2011, when the St. Louis Cardinals got him a ring.

For Herrera, he made two deep playoff runs with the Kansas City Royals in 2014 and 2015, pitching 28 23 playoff innings in that time span. He too, won a World Series, in 2015 with the Royals. These guys are not exactly “rebuild-advancing” moves like Jon Lester to the Cubs, but it seems like the Sox are gearing up for winning baseball soon.

Kelvin Herrera

Since Herrera has been in the AL Central for so long, I think enough of you know his pitching arsenal, so I will ignore that for the most part.

From 2012-16, Herrera was elite. He may not have been a closer, but he had the 14th best reliever fWAR in all of baseball in that span. That was mostly because he had a great 2.97 FIP, 48.7% ground ball rate and 8.7% HR/FB rate. On top of that, Herrera’s fastball (able to hit 100 mph) was the 17th-best and his changeup sixth-best among all relievers.

However, Herrera led all relievers with 354 13 IP over those five seasons. If you include time in the minors and the postseason, Herrera pitched 401 innings in only five years. That is a lot for any reliever. Then 2017 and 2018 happened, and Herrera started to move downhill.

Herrera’s fastball velocity chart over his career.
Baseball Savant

Since 2017, Herrera’s fastball has slowed by one mph, and 2018 was the first season in which Herrera did not throw a fastball that hit the triple digits. Since 2017, Herrera is tied for 105th among all relievers in fWAR, as his FIP has increased to 4.15, ground ball rate has fallen to 42.5%, and HR/FB rate has risen to 12.6%. All of the negative regression corresponds with that vast velocity drop.

But that does not mean the White Sox overspent for Herrera. It just means that Herrera’s time in the bigs may be over in the near future.

Compared to 2017, Herrera’s 2018 season was much better. His ERA took a steep drop from 4.25 in 2017 to 2.44 in 2018 — but something is very much off about Herrera’s 2018 season. He is not a strikeout pitcher anymore, but his command in the zone is much better. The 7.71 K/9 Herrera had last season was the second-lowest of his career. However, Herrera also had a 2.03 BB/9, the second-best in his career. According to Baseball Savant, Herrera threw a career-high 50.9% of his pitches in the zone. However, with the decrease to a more hittable velocity, batters started to swing more often on Herrera in the zone as well, and more often than at any point in Herrera’s career, contact was made into the air.

The 43.2% fly ball rate that Herrera induced is far and away a new career high, and yet average exit velocity from batters, hard hit percentage allowed, and barrel percentage all decreased. What Herrera was giving up more often was what FanGraphs terms as “medium contact percentage,” as it went up almost 6%. And the batted balls must have been right at outfielders, because Herrera had a 92.1% left-on-base percentage — second-best in baseball. However, Herrera had only gotten higher than the 80% mark twice before 2018, which is why his FIP and xFIP are much higher than his 2018 ERA.

If his increase in fly balls persists, it will probably be a long summer for Herrera on the South Side, but his weird 2018 should be an outlier on both positive and negative fronts. He will not have a 2.44 ERA again, and his ground balls should increase just by the law of averages, but maybe 2018 was just the sign Herrera is officially on the down swing and just got very lucky.

On the plus side though, before his trade to the Nationals, Herrera did have a 2.69 FIP with the Royals. Then again, maybe that was more due to how bad the AL Central was, as his stats with the Royals show a lot of luck.

Whatever the case may be, Herrera will be one of the top options out of the bullpen for the White Sox in 2019.

Jon Jay

First Hamilton, then Burr, now Jon Jay. We have the makings of a nice 1800 brunch.

But this Jon Jay is here for his ability on the diamond and leadership in the clubhouse (and yeah, Manny Machado, even if Hahn protests otherwise), not the bench. The lefty will be 34 by the time of the regular season, and barring a Midwinter Night’s Machado and Harper, seems slated to be a starter in the 2019 White Sox outfield.

Jay can play all three outfield positions, but going by defensive runs saved, right field seems to be his best option, as he had a 6 DRS there last season. An Avi replacement has finally arrived, albeit on a one-year contract.

First off let’s get to know Jay as a player. He has really always been a slappy hitter who gets on base. He is a high-BABIP guy, with an career average at .340, because he is not and never has been a home run hitter.

Over the past four seasons, Jay has only barreled up the baseball 1.3% of the time, far below the league average of 6.1%. If there are not a lot of barrels, that also means a low exit velocity (Jay’s is about 3% below average) and a low hard-hit percentage (11% below average). Over his career, Jay has the 10th-highest GB/FB rate in baseball at 2.51, which is not necessarily a bad thing, it just is further proof Jay has no interest in any sort of power game.

So yeah, Jay is the actual definition of the scrappy hitter (and probably why Charlie Tilson was DFA’ed to make room for him). However, Jay still has a career batting average at .285 and a career wRC+ at 103, without really hitting the ball all that well.

Here’s why:

Jon Jay’s spray chart over his career.

What a B-E-A-utiful spray chart. Over his career, Jay has put the ball wherever he wants, whenever he wants, just without much power. Jay averages just about one-third of his batted balls to each zone (left, center, right), which is why a hitter who does not get great contact can still have a career batting average of .285. Also, to Ricky Renteria’s delight and probably the fan’s chagrin, Jay is tied for the 37th in bunt hits over his career time span!

Now with a spray chart like the above, I hope most of you are thinking hmm, is this lefty hitter just accomplishing these results against righties? Well, like any batter, there will be a split, but for Jay, it is not obvious. There is only an 8 wRC+ difference for him between left-handed (97) and right-handed (105) pitchers. The main differences in the pitcher hand splits are the plate approach and the power. Obviously, any hitter against the opposite pitching arm will have more power, and that is even true with Jay, as his ISO is almost twice as high vs. righties (.104) as lefties (.056). Yes, I know, it’s still not high. However, Jay is actually a more disciplined hitter against lefites. His walk rate is 2.4% higher against left-handers, and he goes to the opposite field more often.

Now, Jay is not the player he once was when he broke in with the Cardinals, but, he is not a player as bad as Deadspin wants you to believe. He was not even that bad in 2018. From the start of the season until the end of August, Jay had a 95 wRC+ with a slash line of .279/.344/.362, mostly bolstered by a fantastic May (130 wRC+). However, something happened (if anybody knows, fill me in) in September. In that month, he had a wRC+ of 15, that’s fifteen, 15! That led to a grand ol’ slash line of .172/.213/.224. So Jay went from having just about the same offensive impact as Yoan Moncada (97 wRC+) to Patrick Corbin (14 wRC+) ... yeah, Patrick Corbin the pitcher.

Whether there was an injury or off-the-field issue that made Jay, the average hitter, become Jay, the one of the better hitting pitchers, I do not know. However, he seemed to go out of his normal element in September. He swung about 4.5% more often on pitches outside the zone and made almost 11% less contact with those swings. Meanwhile, he was also swinging at more pitches inside the zone, about 2% more often, but he was making about 4% less contact on his swings inside the zone. In total, Jay’s contact percentage fell from 82.5% from March to August, all the way down to 73.8% in September. He was just plain missing the ball, at a rate that was not akin to him.

Hopefully that last month of the year is not the new Jay, or his contract will turn out to be $4 million more that should have gone into the Machado offer. But his most of Jay’s 2018, sans September, is very similar to 2017. Jay is a contact hitter who gets on base, without much power at all, and plays good defense at all three outfield positions.

Which Jay will the Sox get? Hopefully the guy Jay has been for most of his career.