Toronto Blue Jays vs. Texas Rangers
May 2nd – May 5th
Written by Joshua Howsam and Matt Gwin
Thanks to a series win in Tampa Bay, the Toronto Blue Jays are one spot ahead in the AL East standings than they were in our last series preview. However, now they come home, only to face the AL West leading Texas Rangers. It’s undoubtedly true that this Toronto team is better than their record shows. On luck alone, they’re one win worse off than their Pythagorean record. On top of that, hitters like Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin just haven’t gotten their bats going. Fortunately for the team, they’ll just miss out on facing Rangers ace Cole Hamels.
Monday, May 2nd – 7:07 PM ET
R.A. Dickey vs. A.J. Griffin
R.A. Dickey will be taking the ball for the first time in May, with hopes of putting a disastrous April behind him. The 41-year old knuckleballer is no stranger to early season struggles, but his 6.75 ERA to this point is far and away Dickey’s worst first month performance as a Blue Jay. The knuckleball is supposed to make performance inconsistent, but to this point Dickey’s pitching has simply been consistently bad. He has only had one decent outing, and even in that one he allowed three runs in the first inning before throwing five shutout frames. Oftentimes it seems that any misplay causes the wheels to fall off with Dickey on the mound, so hopefully the defense can pick up some of the slack.
It’s the battle of initialed pitchers, as A.J. Griffin takes the mound for the boys from Arlington. Pitching for the first time since 2013 due to injuries, Griffin has had a very nice start to the 2016 season with a 3-0 record and 2.52 ERA in 25 innings across four starts. Those numbers are a bit unsustainable, however. Griffin isn’t striking out many batters while at the same time walking more than he ever has in the past. As a big-time flyball pitcher, Griffin has also been historically homer-prone (he led the league with 39 HR allowed in 2013) despite an early career home park of the cavernous O.Co Coliseum. This year he is allowing flyballs at an equal rate, but has cut his HR/FB in half, down to 6.1 percent which is well below average. While the Jays offense has been slumping, they’ve still been hitting the long ball, so look for that to continue against A.J. Griffin.
Tuesday, May 3rd – 7:07 PM ET
Marco Estrada vs. Martin Perez
Oh Estrada…what more can we ask of thee? Despite missing time during the spring (he made just one spring training start) and opening the season on the disabled list, Estrada has picked up right where he left off in 2015; he has a 2.92 ERA and has thrown at least six innings in three of the four games. In the other outing, he only went five, but somehow managed to allow only one run despite putting ten runners on base. The biggest reason he was able to get out of so many jams was the return of his strikeouts. Throughout his career, Estrada bounced between being an average strikeout pitcher and a very good strikeout pitcher. Then last year, he punched out hitters at a well below league-average rate of 18.1 percent. This year, Estrada’s K-rate is all the way up to 24.3 percent. If he can keep that up, and limit some of the walks (also a career high at 10.7 percent), he should be able to replicate his last outing against these Rangers when he allowed a solitary run in 6 1/3 innings in the ALDS.
Martin Perez has had a tough go of things in the early part of his career. After a solid 2013 as a 22-year-old, the young lefty tore his UCL and lost a bunch of time to Tommy John surgery. Since returning, he has induced groundballs at a very high rate but really struggles to miss bats. He posted a 5.1 K/9 in 2015 and is all the way down to 4.2 in the early going this year. The Jays haven’t exactly been contact machines in 2016, but a visit from Perez could really turn things around for some slumping hitters.
Wednesday, May 4th – 7:07 PM ET
Aaron Sanchez vs. Colby Lewis
Thus far, we’ve seen five starts from Aaron Sanchez. On one hand, that seems like so very little. It’s probably just one fifth of what we’ll see from him this season. However, statistically speaking, his performance is starting to become very significant. Research suggests that strikeout rates stabilize at 70 batters faced, while walk rates stabilize at 170 batters faced; Aaron Sanchez has faced 129 batters. This meaning that Sanchez’s strikeout rate, at 22.5%, is becoming hard to continue to question. Of course, over a full season, that number will likely fluctuate, but it shouldn’t deviate too far from what we’ve already seen. As well, facing a struggling Rangers lineup almost certainly won’t be the cause of the deviation. In 2016, Rangers batters have a 20.0 K%.
To call Colby Lewis an enigma might be an understatement. Over the past few seasons, he’s gone from one of the more consistently underrated starters in the league to someone who’s entirely forgettable. A lot of the downfall has to do with the fact that he missed a season due to surgery for a hip condition. Since then, he hasn’t quite been the same. Lewis has never shied away from the long ball, but now he no longer seems to have an above average strikeout rate to compensate for it. Against the Blue Jays, one of MLB’s most prolific home run hitting teams, he’s going to have a lot of issues. I wouldn’t expect him to go more than five innings at best.
Thursday, May 5th – 7:07 PM ET
J.A. Happ vs. Derek Holland
Over Happ’s first five starts, he’s gone six or seven innings each time, giving up a total of 10 earned runs. On its face, that seems rather good, but, despite a shiny ERA, it’s been a worrisome start to the season. Rather than pitching success, Happ’s 2.76 ERA has come on the back of the fact that he’s stranded 88.2% of batters (for context, his career average is 74.1%). As the strand rate regresses, Happ may need to attempt to go back to the high fastball usage that made him so successful with the Pirates in the latter half of 2015. In 2016, his fastball usage is at 37.84%, which is his lowest such total since April 2013. When Happ isn’t throwing the fastball, he’s not attacking hitters as much as he should. That’s going to be an issue.
In many ways, the beginning of Derek Holland’s season has been similar to J.A. Happ’s. On the surface, he’s prevented runs rather well, but his folly lies in his home run rate. In 2016, Holland has given up 0.62 home runs per nine innings, which is roughly half his career average of 1.18. A glance at Derek Holland’s Brooks Baseball page shows us that he’s actually giving up MORE fly balls, yet somehow less home runs. Given that there’s no particular pitch usage trend to explain the change, that trend will almost certainly not continue.
Additions and Subtractions
The Jays are currently dealing with some banged up players, with Russell Martin unable to play back-to-back games, Michael Saunders nursing a sore hamstring and Josh Donaldson needing occasional time at DH to rest his calf, but all of them are still on the roster, so there are no changes from last series.
The Rangers are still without Shin-Soo Choo and Josh Hamilton (though the latter has just begun a rehab assignment), which means additional playing time for Nomar Mazara, Delino Deschileds, and Ryan Rua. The Rangers bullpen is also a big banged up, with last year’s primary setup man Keone Kela on the shelf for three months following elbow surgery. Ace Yu Darvish is on the mend following last year’s Tommy John surgery, but he won’t be back until late May at the earliest
Keep an Eye On
Everybody in Canada loved the Bat Flip. Many people in the rest of the World loved the Bat Flip. You know who didn’t love it? The Texas Rangers. It’s a sad thing to say, but they are almost certainly going to throw at Jose Bautista. In fact, it will probably happen in his first at-bat on Monday. What will be interesting to see is how Jose and the rest of the Blue Jays react, especially with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey on the mound. It will be on the umpiring crew to maintain order, or this series could get really ugly in a hurry.
The Blue Jays didn’t get a lot of hits against the Tampa Bay Rays, but they certainly hit their share of home runs. Of the 11 total hits in the series (a paltry number), seven left the yard. Look for this trend to continue as the four starters the Rangers are sending to the hill, with three of the four being very homer prone (Martin Perez is the exception). When you combine that with a return to the homer-happy Dome, there could be some fireworks in this series.
When Shin-Soo Choo went down with injury, the Rangers turned to the 21-year-old top prospect, Nomar Mazara. He started off like a man on fire, hitting .444/.452/.593 with just three strikeouts in his first 31 plate appearances. In the 43 PA since then, the rookie has cooled off with a line of .250/.349/.361 and ten strikeouts. He has all the talent in the world, but if the Jays can keep him off base ahead of sluggers like Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre, they should have some success.
|Rougnod Odor – 2B||Michael Saunders – LF|
|Nomar Mazara – RF||Josh Donaldson – 3B|
|Adrian Beltre – 3B||Jose Bautista – RF|
|Prince Fielder – 1B||Edwin Encarnacion – DH|
|Ian Desmond – LF||Troy Tulowitzki – SS|
|Mitch Moreland – 1B||Justin Smoak – 1B|
|Elvis Andrus – SS||Russell Martin – C|
|Brett Nicholas – C||Kevin Pillar – CF|
|Delino DeShields Jr. – CF||Ryan Goins – 2B|
via Roster Resource
To say that the Jays *need* to win now is somewhat foolish. Even after this series, there will still be 133 games, and a win now means no more than a win in September. With that said, it’d certainly be nice to win a few more series in the early going. For one thing, it would aid the increasing number of Jays fans who are already starting to panic. For another, it’ll help the squad get a better idea of what they may need to do at the trade deadline.
Lead Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports