Boston Red Sox @ Toronto Blue Jays
April 8th – April 10th
Major League Baseball is back in Toronto and being played on Canadian soil for the first time since October of last year. If this wasn’t enough to get Blue Jays fans keyed up for Toronto’s opening weekend festivities, the division rival Boston Red Sox are in town for a battle between what many prognosticators deem the two best clubs in the AL East. The curious decision to have the Red Sox open the season in Cleveland (MLB knows there are teams that play in warmer weather right?) means that the Sox have already had two games postponed this week and are either very rusty or very well rested. While the division won’t be won or lost this weekend, the series does offer the Blue Jays their first look at what may be a drastically improved Red Sox team. The series also provides Blue Jays fans their first opportunity to come out to support the defense of a division championship for the first time in over twenty years. Expect a raucous crowd for all three games, with attendance figures likely pushing 140,000 for the three-game set.
Friday, April 8th – First Pitch 7:07 PM ET
Marcus Stroman vs. Joe Kelly
If expectations for Marcus Stroman’s 2016 weren’t high enough heading into the season, he certainly ratcheted them up on Sunday in Tampa Bay. Stroman pitched eight innings allowing three runs on six hits, one walk and striking out five. While his final line may not have appeared to set the world on fire, Stroman threw 74 of 98 pitches for strikes and induced 17 ground balls. This is the guy everyone was dreaming on this offseason. He will face a tougher offensive opponent in Boston, but if they insist on making Stroman work, they could find themselves battling through a lot of 0-1 and 0-2 counts. If last Sunday is any indication, Stroman looks to be more than up to the task filling the shoes of staff ace.
With two of Boston’s first four games postponed due to weather, Joe Kelly will be making his first start of the season on Friday night at the Rogers Centre. Joe Kelly is a funny pitcher. Every time he is on the mound some announcer will proudly proclaim that he has “great stuff.” However, despite throwing a two-seam fastball with an average velocity of 95 miles an hour in 2015, Kelly just isn’t that good. He is still really susceptible to being hit around and only averages 7.4 K/9. Acquired at the 2014 trade deadline, Kelly made 25 starts for the BoSox last year, posting an ERA of 4.82 with a DRA of 4.28. He is no stranger to the Blue Jays either: last year he faced the team four times and only managed one start (September 9) where he didn’t give up at least four runs.
Satuday, April 9th – 1:07 PM ET
R.A. Dickey vs. Rick Porcello
R.A. Dickey did many R.A. Dickey things during his first start of the season in Tampa Bay earlier this week earning his first win of the season. With his meniscus injury behind him and an apparent rededication to fitness, the 41-year-old Dickey will try to combat his declining strikeout rate and build on a much improved second half of 2015 that saw his ERA drop over two full runs – from 4.87 to 2.80. Dickey is the only Blue Jays starting pitcher that has thrown 200 innings in a season, and the team will be counting on him to go deeper into games than he did on Monday in Tampa Bay. The key for Dickey, as always, will be throwing strikes with his knuckleball. When he is ahead in the count, he is very, very tough to beat. Also, keep an eye out to see if he throws a few changeups in this game to some of the tougher left-handed bats like Ortiz or Shaw.
Rick Porcello enters his second year in Boston and the first year of a 4-year/$82.5 million dollar contract extension. Expectations were high for Porcello in his first season in Beantown, but things definitely did not go as planned. After posting WARP’s of 2.2 and 2.4 in 2013 and 2014 respectively, Procello was only worth 0.8 WARP last season, pitching to an ERA of 4.92 and a WHIP of 1.36. There may be some reason to expect positive regression in Porcello’s performance this season. While he’s never been a big strikeout pitcher (5.8 K/9 in his career) he is adept at inducing groundballs (53% during his career). He relies heavily on a hard sinker, mixing in the occasional curveball and changeup. If it turns out that 2015 was an anomaly for the 27 year old Porcello, his return to league average will go a long way in stabilizing the Red Sox rotation. Stopping the Blue Jays offence though…that is a slightly more difficult task.
Sunday, April 10th – First Pitch 1:07 PM ET
Marco Estrada vs. Steven Wright
The last time Blue Jays fans saw Marco Estrada in a real game was when he was walking off the mound to a thunderous ovation in game five of the ALCS. After beginning the year with a backdated stint on the disabled list, Marco Estrada will make his 2016 debut on Sunday afternoon at the Rogers Centre. It will be interesting to see how he fares after an abridged spring training and with lingering back soreness. One of the central questions facing the 2016 Blue Jay pitching staff is whether or not Estrada’s 2015 is at all sustainable. If Estrada can come anything close to replicating that performance (his .216 BABIP will indeed be hard to sustain), it will go a long way towards stabilizing the Blue Jays pitching staff. Estrada struggled during his two starts against Boston in 2015; allowing 7 runs and 7 walks in 7.1 innings of work.
While there was some speculation that baseball fans would be treated to the first ever knuckleballer vs. knuckleballer matchup this weekend, the postponed Red Sox games in Cleveland means Steven Wright will pitch in the series finale instead matching up with Dickey on Saturday. Wright will probably spend most of 2016 as a swingman for the Red Sox once Eduardo Rodriguez returns from the disabled list, but for now he is a member of the rotation. Much like his knuckleballing brethren (and fortunately for the Blue Jays), Stephen Wright is susceptible to wide variations in his performance, and lacks the ability to miss bats, which produced a measley 6.4 K/9 in 72.2 innings in 2016. Like Dickey, Wright uses a “hard” knuckleball, with his velocity on the pitch toppping out at just over 80 mph last year. Thankfully for the Blue Jays, they have an off-day following this start, so there shouldn’t be any knuckleball hangover for their series against the Yankees.
Additions and Subtractions
While the Jays have made it through the first four games without anyone hitting the DL, they are currently dealing with a couple of minor injuries that are being classified as day-to-day. Josh Donaldson left Wednesday’s game with a right calf strain, which started in Montreal according to manager John Gibbons. Donaldson is likely to play Friday, but could get another day or two off to fully recover. Similarly, Michael Saunders is dealing with a hamstring issue but also expects to play this weekend. Expect to see more of Darwin Barney and Ezequiel Carrera if either is unable to play, and if a DL stint is required, Andy Burns or Dalton Pompey will probably at the front of the line to get the call.
While Craig Kimbrel was the marquee bullpen addition this off season, the team’s acquisition of Carson Smith provided the Red Sox with another hard throwing, elite reliever at the back end of their bullpen for a fraction of the price. Unfortunately for Boston, Smith is currently on the disabled list with a right flexor muscle strain and isn’t expected back any time soon. The Red Sox young starter Eduardo Rodriguez (3.85 ERA in 21 starts last year) is also out with a knee injury.
Keep an Eye On
The Red Sox Outfield Logjam.
It will be interesting to see how John Farrell uses his plethora of outfield options. Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. Rusney Castillo, Chris Young and Brock Holt make up quite a collection of players to roam the area beyond the dirt, but much like the Los Angeles Dodgers a year ago, there isn’t much sense of how they will be used. Bradley Jr. and Young are heavy platoon split players while Castillo is thus far a ball of untapped potential and disappointment. Brock Holt is Mr. Everywhere and could see time at any number of positions during the series. The only truly proven starter in the outfield is Mookie Betts who is – for a lack of a less soul-crushing word – awesome.
Part of the Blue Jays prolific 2015 offensive output was rooted in the lineup’s ability to hit for power without striking out (18.5 percent of the time as a team). This ability to combine hitting for power with a lack of swing and miss hasn’t shown up so far this season. Through four games the Jays are third in baseball with a 30.9 percent strikeout rate, and they just tied a franchise record for most strikeouts in a four game series with 46. Now ,besides being far too small a sample to make anything of these numbers, it’s worth noting that the Rays pitching staff is definitely built more on strikeouts than the Red Sox. It will be interesting to see how many swings and misses pitchers like Porcello and Kelly get compared to Archer, Smyly, Odorizzi, and Moore.
Who Isn’t Pitching
The Blue Jays are returning to Toronto down one key contributor from the 2015 playoff team. From the day David Price signed with Boston, Blue Jays nation began to anticipate when the star lefty would return to Toronto, and how they were going to greet their former hero. While Price was initially scheduled to pitch this weekend, postponed games in Cleveland pushed Price out of the picture. It was a curious decision from John Farrell, as with all of the rainouts, the Red Sox could have easily skipped Wright and used Price anyway. If you’re paying a guy $31M/season, don’t you want him facing your division rivals as often as possible, regardless of their lineup construction? While Price’s relationship with Toronto is more of a barstool talking point than anything, the baseball takeaway is that the Blue Jays get a huge gift by missing the best part of the Red Sox rotation.
|Mookie Betts-RF||Kevin Pillar – CF|
|Dustin Pedroia-2B||Josh Donaldson – 3B|
|Xander Bogaerts-SS||Jose Bautista – RF|
|David Ortiz-DH||Edwin Encarnacion – DH|
|Hanley Ramirez-1B||Troy Tulowitzki – SS|
|Travis Shaw-3B||Justin Smoak – 1B|
|Brock Holt-LF||Michael Saunders – LF|
|Blake Swihart-C||Russell Martin – C|
|Jackie Bradley Jr.-CF||Ryan Goins – 2B|
Part two of the April AL East gauntlet that was foist upon the Blue Jays will likely bring a lot of hand-wringing from the fanbase, particularly after the tough losses in Tampa, but most of all this weekend will be filled with noise, and fun, from a community of people that want to celebrate their returning “champions.” A win in this series would send a nice statement to the people of Toronto, and the incoming Yankees, that the Blue Jays are ready and willing to take on all challengers for their division crown.
Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports