Chris Colabello Makes His Case, But It Is Not Enough
By this point, most people who follow the Blue Jays or Major League Baseball in general with regularity are familiar with the story of Chris Colabello. A long-time independent league player of the Can-Am League, Colabello was ‘found’ by the Minnesota Twins before the 2012 season and quickly rose to the Major Leagues, debuting in 2013 after crushing the minors.
Last season with Minnesota, Colabello got off to a very fast start but soon faded and was demoted after posting an 85 wRC+ over 220 PA. A lack of defensive skills left him with -0.9 WAR in 2014, pushing his career total further under to -1.1. Colabello later identified a thumb injury as the source of his late-April collapse at the plate. Desperate to keep playing everyday, he was silent about the injury’s pain and tried to play through it, to poor result. The Twins chose not to see if a healthy Colabello could re-ignite his early 2014 play as they exposed him to waivers in December, when Toronto picked him up.
At the triple-A level, he’s a career .322/.396/.571 hitter over 724 plate appearances; it is clear that he has mastered the minor leagues. However, his advanced age means that it’s hard to put that much stock in those seasons. Crushing triple-A as a 21-year-old is something that is significant from a statistical perspective. Many ~30 year olds have mastered minor league pitching yet have have no place in the Majors. This is likely due to the fact that almost all Major League pitchers are better than almost all triple-A pitchers. They have distinctly different levels of talent, something that is not true when comparing minor league levels to each other. For instance, there is a wide overlap when it comes to the talent levels of pitchers in high-A and low-A.
That is who Chris Colabello was, entering what was supposed to be a brief look with the big club on May 5th. A no-pedigree bat-only player whose bat had underwhelmed in the Major Leagues. On May 5th, Danny Valencia had a day-to-day injury and Toronto wanted to temporarily add another corner bat to the fold. But Colabello went 2-4 that day, 4-4 the next, and has remained in the lineup pretty much every day since.
Through Monday, he is hitting .337/.378/.503 for a very healthy 146 wRC+. Clearly, he has performed much better than the Blue Jays could have asked and at a level that is well above his talent level. Oft-mentioned is the sky-high BABIP which currently sits at .437. Nobody has a true-talent .437 BABIP so heavy regression will come for Colabello on balls falling in. At the the same time, he doesn’t need to produce as he has so far in order to be productive. Breaking Blue’s new xwOBA metric indicates that, based on batted ball and plate discipline peripherals, Chris Colabello has been hitting like a .338 wOBA hitter this season. That actually a pretty decent mark; a fair bit above average. Even with Colabello’s limited defensive utility, if he can continue to be a ~.338 wOBA hitter going forward, he’ll be a useful major leaguer.
Colabello has indeed been a truly awful outfielder for both his career and in 2015. His career UZR/150 as an outfielder is -42.3, in a 533 inning sample and he has compiled -19 defensive runs saved (DRS). Defensive numbers take multiple seasons to stabilize to a level at which we can reasonably assess true-talent, but his numbers are so poor that we can say with confidence he is a well-below-average defensive outfielder. At first base, he has actually posted pretty neutral stats for his career in 459 innings. He should be limited to playing first base and designated hitter in the future.
Not being able to play the outfield limits his usefulness, as Justin Smoak and Dioner Navarro also take up 1B/DH plate appearances and the team likes to use Danny Valencia as a DH/3B against lefties (when at third, Josh Donaldson can slide into DH as he did on Tuesday). Justin Smoak projects by Fangraphs Depth Charts (which aggregate Steamer and ZiPS) for a 101 wRC+, meaning he should produce one percent better than league-average. Navarro is at 94, although the fact that Russell Martin needs breaks means that he will play somewhat often regardless of his bat. Smoak and Colabello have been similar defensively at first for their careers.
So Chris Colabello pretty much needs to be a markedly above-average hitter in order to stand out. He probably isn’t. ZiPS projects him to hit .253/.307/.426 (101 wRC+) rest-of-season and Steamer comes in at .257/.312/.440 (105 wRC+). Neither are particularly better than what Justin Smoak is expected to produce and Danny Valencia and Dioner Navarro will grab some playing time no matter what. Colabello’s .338 xwOBA is nice, but it’s not an argument for him to play over Smoak, who has a .353 xwOBA and has good real surface stats too (113 wRC+).
Chris Colabello is a fine player to use part-time in the Majors, cycling through triple-A a few times each season. He doesn’t provide enough value to demand a sizable chunk of playing time with the Blue Jays going forward. Even with his massive half-season at the plate, Colabello’s seasonal WAR sits at 0.4. His defensive numbers will regress positively at a rate similar to that of his offensive numbers heading negatively, sure. His bat has Major League utility. Nine MLB teams this season are shouldering below-average production at first base. Many of those teams could use Chris Colabello right now. But he’s not really an upgrade over the other players the Blue Jays have. Justin Smoak has been sitting frequently due to Colabello’s presence, and there’s no great reason why.
(Title photo courtesy of Rob Lockhart, https://www.flickr.com/photos/robthetog/)