The season is past the quarter pole and the Yankees and Rays have fallen behind the high-powered Orioles and Red Sox. Meanwhile, the Toronto Blue Jays seem to be stuck in neutral near .500. In preparation for this weekend’s Red Sox-Blue Jays series, Jimmy Wulf brings us a Toronto Blue Jays quarter season review.
At the beginning of the season, SoSH.com flooded the zone with AL East previews galore. Yours truly penned a piece looking at the Blue Jays and how I thought their 2016 season might shake out. With eight weeks and 49 games in the books, and with the Red Sox headed through Customs to play a weekend series in Toronto, let’s take a peek at the Jays’ performance to-date and how it’s matched up to expectations.
It’s… not good. It’s not all bad, but it’s not good. With a win in the Bronx yesterday to take their second series in a row (good!), Toronto sits at 24-25, 6 games behind the division-leading Red Sox (bad!). When we analyzed Toronto on April 1, our breakdown of the broad strokes went like this:
In the worst case scenario, Tulo gets injured out of the gate, Colabello and Pillar turn into pumpkins, and two of Bautista/Encarnacion/Donaldson return to Hall of Very Good production level. The best case scenario for the Jays lineup is, well, 2015 happening again. The most likely way it plays out is roughly that one of the core four hitters (not to pick on Tulo, but… probably Tulo) has a down or injured season, and the surrounding pieces are a little bit worse on average then they were last year.
Probably Pretty Awesome If Healthy
Upside: 3.5 seasons worth of awesome. Downside: 2 seasons of awesome. Best guess: 2.5 seasons of awesome, 1.5 seasons of hurt or surprisingly meh.
High Regression Risks
Upside: 2 good seasons. Downside: .5 good seasons. Best guess: .5-1 good seasons.
Not Particularly Good
Upside: Find 1-2 good seasons from the last 4-5 guys in the lineup mix. Downside: no good seasons. Best guess: 1 good season.
What’s actually happened? Half of the Big Four (Bautista and Donaldson) are mostly holding up their end of the bargain, with batting averages lower than expected but solid peripherals driving OPSs around .850. Encarnacion is slowly emerging from an April-long funk (an .842 OPS in May, but mostly fueled by two huge series against the Rangers and Giants), and Tulowitzki has been an unfortunate mess at the plate.
Compounding the problems for Toronto’s lineup, all three of the starters for whom I felt there were compelling cases for not expecting a repeat of solid 2015s, have come up craps. Not-so-feel-good-story Chris Colabello has regressed as much as is literally possible, currently serving an 80-game PED suspension. We’re gonna leave the ins and outs of that one alone for now. Kevin Pillar has turned back into a pumpkin with a .633 OPS from center field, and Russell Martin is unlikely to be fully healthy at any point this year, with neck soreness which is clearly affecting his hitting. Over at second, Devon Travis has yet to seize the starting role from Ryan Goins, one of the very worst hitters in all of baseball.
Thank the baseball gods for Michael Saunders and (you may want to sit down for this one) Justin Smoak. Both were players I initially filed under the “not really good enough to merit thinking about much” category. Instead, they have become the primary reasons Toronto’s offense has remained afloat at all through the first third of the season. All Saunders (career .682 OPS) has done so far in 2016 is thrown up a slash line of .312/.379/.567, good for eighth in the league, right between Jose Altuve and Robbie Cano. Why? Because baseball is a game that makes total logical sense at all times, that’s why. Smoak has been slightly less impressive, but has somehow managed to convince pitchers to walk him about once every seven plate appearances since he took over for Colabello, and a .279 batting average is nothing to sneeze at for a guy who spent the first 2500 PAs of his career making sexy eyes at the Mendoza line.
All and all, Toronto’s lineup ends up tracking towards where we thought they’d be in a mild-negative-to-neutral outcome. The bottom half of the lineup has mostly balanced out the losses with found money, but the black hole at second base is problematic. Collectively they underscore the fact that for the Blue Jays to be as dangerous at the dish in 2016 as they were in 2015, they needed either the big four to be world-beaters instead of very good, or to get more lucky than they had a right to expect in the supporting cast. Neither has happened, leaving the Jays with a middle-of-the-pack offense, ranking 10th in the AL at 4.04 run per game and an OPS+ right around league average.
What I penned about the Toronto starters in March:
Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez absolutely [need to] deliver the goods. Both of these starters have ace-level stuff and showed signs of breaking out last year, having all the attendant spring training buzz to go along with it. Certainly Sanchez and possibly Stroman will be on an innings limit that may cause a move to the bullpen down the stretch, but if those two can combine to contribute around 300 innings of top-tier starting pitching, Toronto has an excellent chance of still being the monster team from last August and September.
High Regression Risks
R.A. Dickey (maybe)
Have Stroman and Sanchez delivered the goods? Boy, have they.
So far, the pair have racked up a combined 9-2 record while logging 128 innings, Sanchez getting four wins from a sparkling 3.20 ERA and 7.9 K/9, and Stroman sitting pretty at 5-1 behind his 3.89 ERA and stingy 1.168 WHIP. About the only negative thing one can say is you’d like Stroman, with his still-electric stuff, to improve on the 6.0 K/9 he’s put up since returning from Tommy John surgery late last year. It may be the new normal given his increased reliance on a nasty sinker, but that one blemish is the sole reason FIP currently rates the quality of his season as just a tick behind Sanchez’s. The Red Sox will face both these buzzsaws over the weekend, followed by Dickey’s knuckleball.
The two young aces-in-training have also nearly been matched start for start by Marco Estrada, who looked to be at the beginning of his decline at 30 in Milwaukee, but went to Toronto and uncovered a new hit-suppression ability, allowing 6.5 hits per 9 innings since the start of 2015 after averaging 8.2 over seven years for the Brewers. He has even brought his strikeouts back up to above-average so far in 2016 after years of trending down. Although Saunders has been hot as hell hitting, Estrada is the one player I’d take a mulligan on being too dismissive of in my initial preview. 31 is absolutely not too old for a pitcher to figure something out and make a material step forward. The early returns say Estrada really has, and I didn’t see it.
R.A. Dickey may have been usurped as the preeminent knuckleball pitcher in the AL East, but he’s still reliably eating innings at a slightly below-league-average rate, true to the over-40-knuckler tradition. Even J.A. Happ has been a tick above his usual cromulent self, posting 57 2/3 innings of 119 ERA+ in his first nine starts. All in all, the starting rotation has been the unquestioned bright spot of the Jays’ 2016 season so far, leading the way for a pitching staff which holds the AL’s 3rd best ERA at 3.68. Roberto Osuna has been lights-out in the closer role, and former starter Gavin Floyd has taken to the bullpen like a true pro. The bullpen is a little grim after that, with Brett Cecil battling injury and poor, poor, poor Drew Storen posting a 7.80 ERA as he continues to wrestle with losing two different closer jobs last year for little cause. Other than second base, getting Osuna and Floyd reinforcements is the biggest addressable need for the Jays front office to attack as we prepare to turn the page into trade season.
I projected The Jays staff as a coin flip to be just above-average enough to let the offense carry it to the playoffs. Instead, the stellar pitching has kept Toronto from losing the AL East pennant in the first two months of the season. While all of Stroman, Sanchez, and Happ are likely to have a few more bumps over the final four months than they have to date, there’s plenty to make one feel confident that the pitching staff can maintain something close to this level of overall performance. Especially if they’re aggressive about adding a trustworthy bullpen arm. Certainly, it feels like there’s more chance of positive regression in the lineup from here on out than there is negative regression from the pitching.
The question that remains is whether the positive regression will be enough to put Toronto in position to contend for the playoffs. It’s hard to see – even if it’s enough to catch Baltimore, there’s still a glut of teams to get through (the Rangers or Mariners and the entire AL Central sans the Twinkies) to grab a wild card slot, and even if the offense goes all Katniss and catches fire again in a true carbon-copy of last year, it would need to be matched by particularly bad luck with regression on the side of the Red Sox for me to re-think Toronto’s chances of taking the division. Backed by their two best pitchers and coming off a couple of series wins, however, the Jays are showing signs of regaining some swagger. It’s a safe bet John Gibbons will have the team treating this series with a playoff fervor in an attempt to get back into the race in one big rush. The Sox have been enjoying their run as the debutantes of a two-team ball at the top of the AL East so far, but if their bats get confiscated at the border this weekend, the tenor of the division could change in a flash.
Follow Jimmy on Twitter @JimBoSox9.