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Blue Jays Ex's and the "Prove It" Year

(Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

By: Ryan O'Connor

We are now two full months into the 2022 MLB season and things are beginning to take shape across the league. We’ve seen familiar faces like the Astros and the Dodgers are enjoying their annual and expected success while teams like the Mets and the Twins are fighting to retain their newfound relevancy atop the standings. One thing that’s always fun to keep an eye on during the season is how newly signed players are performing with their clubs. This past offseason could be conservatively described as “complete chaos”, as players and their agents scrambled to secure their payday leading up to the CBA deadline. This means we’ve seen an influx of familiar faces in new uniforms in 2022, possibly more than any other season in recent memory.

The Blue Jays saw lots of faces coming in and out of the organization this past offseason. This was to be expected from the club, as they were faced with numerous expiring contracts and were poised to be offseason buyers (again) as a top-tier team in the MLB. The two most significant names among the departing group were Robbie Ray and Marcus Semian, two players who enjoyed elite years with the Jays in 2021. Ray put up a 2.84 ERA over 32 starts, compiling 13 wins and 248 strikeouts on his way to winning AL Cy Young honours for his dominance. Semien put on an equally impressive show in 2021, setting the record for the most home runs by a second baseman in MLB history (!!) while finishing third in AL MVP voting in the most stacked race in recent memory. Both of these players departed Toronto within 24 hours of each other in December, however, with Ray leaving for Seattle and Semien going to Texas.

Hearing that two players of these standards are leaving your team would be a cause for panic for any front office in the MLB. After two months with their new clubs, however, the Jays should feel relieved after avoiding two potentially detrimental contracts for players who have regressed dramatically so far in 2022. Robbie Ray has been getting lit up playing for the Mariners, with a 4.92 ERA and nearly two less strikeouts per nine innings than his 2021 campaign. His velocity, spin rate, and strikeouts per nine innings are all down this season, which tells the story as to why he has experienced such a dramatic falloff. Semien, almost inconceivably, has played worse compared to Ray in 2022. He’s sporting a .196 slash line for the season with his average exit velocity, barrel rate, and balls in play percentage being significantly lower on the season. With these two players being worth a combined $290 million, we can expect to see them on some “Top 10 Terrible Contracts” lists in the future if they don’t figure something out.

But why is this happening to these players? This particular dropoff is actually more common than you’d think across all major sports. Both Ray and Semien were entering what’s known as a “prove it” year in 2021, this being the final year of a player’s contract that incentivizes increased production for their upcoming contracts. During the years prior to 2021, both Ray and Semien had nowhere near as notable production as they did in their prove it years, the closest being Semien’s 2019 All-Star campaign. Look around the league today and you might see similar performance drops from players who have opted for a change of scenery this season. Trevor Story, Javy Baez and Semien’s teammate Corey Seager are all players on new teams who have vastly underperformed in 2022. Despite this trend, teams seemingly never stop throwing huge paydays at guys who had a standout season leading up to free agency, with some of the worst contracts in MLB history belonging to guys who “proved it” before the offseason.

Some players have been able to prolong their success following a prove it season, notably the Blue Jays’ very own Kevin Gausman. Gausman was able to revive his pitching career after leaving the Orioles for the San Francisco Giants in 2021, where he worked with pitching coach Curt Young to make his splitter sharper and his fastball spin faster. The result was a stellar year prior to his free agency in 2021, and his success has carried over into 2022 so far. Gausman finds himself in the thick of the AL Cy Young race this year while leading the league in FIP, serving as a modern example of a player who has transcended their prove it years. Looking at both Ray and Gausman, there could be a number of reasons why they have seen such different results in 2022. For one, the Blue Jays have one of the most successful pitching coaches in the league in Pete Walker. Walker has worked his magic on various down-and-out pitchers in the past like J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker, players who also seemed to regress once they left Toronto. Gausman has also participated in specialized workouts during the offseason with European Olympic javelin throwers, saying in an interview that he felt as if his pitching motion has been “optimized” heading into 2022. With a frame that is perfectly built for his position, Gausman looks as natural as can be when he goes through his throwing motion. Ray, on the other hand, joins a team that is not exactly heralded for their pitching prowess in the Mariners. In fact, the only two pitchers to ever win the Cy Young award in their 45-year history were Randy Johnson in 1995 and Felix Hernandez in 2010. Since then, they have very little to show for pitching development in Seattle, which is no favour to Ray who sought help repeating his Cy Young numbers in 2022. Additionally, Ray’s pitching motion puts noticeably higher wear on his short and stocky body that is now past age 30. Add the absence of a prove it year, mediocre pitching development and an aging body that just isn’t getting the same umph on pitches and you have a player who is finessing an organization out of $115 million.

The 2021 offseason is a prime example of what a competent front office can do for the success of a team. Toronto opted to swap aces in the free agent market, going with their gut in Kevin Gausman and letting go of the less-proven Robbie Ray. The Rangers, on the other hand, felt the need to throw half a billion dollars at two players who needed to shine for the team to have any semblance of success in 2022 and beyond. The Blue Jays gave smaller contracts to more proven players like Jose Berrios and Matt Chapman in the offseason, two players who are outperforming Texas’ duo for $350 million less than their rivals down south. Seattle is now lacking the ace that they expected when they signed Ray, and the result is a hugely disappointing year lurking in the cellar with their divisional friend Texas. For now, it’s hard to say if teams will begin choosing their signings more wisely instead of jumping on a guy who decided to “prove it” for a paycheque.


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