Toronto Blue Jays @ Texas Rangers
May 13th – May 15th
The Blue Jays (18-18) head into a weekend series with the Texas Rangers (20-15) just over a week after the two clubs met in Toronto where the Blue Jays took three of four games. Toronto enters the second series of their mini road trip after after taking two of three games from the San Francisco Giants and look to rebound from a tough extra innings loss on Wednesday that saw the team lose in the most frustrating of fashions – a walk-off walk. Last week in Toronto, the Blue Jays shut down a powerful Rangers offence that ranks 7th in baseball in runs scored, allowing only 8 runs in 4 games. If Toronto can continue to prevent runs at this pace (their team ERA sits at 3.26), they will be able to wait patiently for the team’s offence to start clicking.
Friday, May 13th – 8:05 PM ET
RHP R.A. Dickey vs. LHP Martin Perez
R.A. Dickey’s most recent start came last Saturday when the knuckleballer went head-to-head with Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers. As always seems to be the case with Dickey, it was a single inning — the three-run third — that left a black eye on his afternoon. Dickey was excellent otherwise, allowing just four base runners across the other six innings. What is becoming a potential cause for concern, however, is the number of home runs surrendered; after giving up just one over his first four starts it’s been four over his most recent three. Historically, Dickey gets much better as the weather warms up and the season wears on, and it’s scheduled for a balmy 29 degrees Celsius in Arlington on Friday night. Joshua Howsam and Steve McEwen noted in the rotation review that the knuckleball eclipsed 80 miles per hour for the first time against Los Angeles — the velocity will be one of many things to watch as Dickey faces the Rangers for the second time in eleven days.
Martin Perez is continuing his road back from Tommy John surgery, and as is often the trend with the survivors, his velocity has come back much quicker than the command. Through his first seven starts of 2016, Perez’s sinker has averaged 93.55 miles per hour — its highest level since his rookie season five years ago. Among left handed starting pitchers, that sinker velocity ranks second best in the league. Conversely, his zone rate is 44 percent and batters are swinging at just 27 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, which has led to an unhealthy walk rate of 5.05 per nine innings. Perez last faced Toronto back on May 3rd and turned in five shutout innings. The left hander allowed seven base runners, but limited the damage by inducing a pair of double plays. His overall groundball rate of 54.3 percent ranks 16th in baseball among 101 qualified starters.
Saturday, May 14th – 8:05 PM ET
RHP Marco Estrada vs. RHP Colby Lewis
It has been a banner year for starting pitching in Toronto, and a lot of that success rests on the shoulders of Marco Estrada. Joshua Howsam wrote an extensive breakdown of Estrada’s repertoire back on Tuesday, and while the cutter has certainly added a new groundball element to the equation, his bread continues to be buttered by that devastating — and statistically bizarre — changeup. Eighty-six starting pitchers have thrown 50 or more changeups this year, and despite having the 4th lowest average velocity (78.71 miles per hour), at +10.41 inches, it also has the least vertical drop. This goes contrary to conventional wisdom where slower pitches should have more sink as gravity has more time to act on the ball. Estrada counters this principle in two ways: spin angle and spin rate. His changeup is thrown with a spin angle of roughly 215 degrees, giving it backspin and causing the Magnus Force to provide it with lift. Secondly, Estrada has generated an outstanding spin rate of 2,079 revolutions per minute on the pitch this season. These two factors allow him to throw the changeup with the same arm speed as his fastball, with the grip and arm action creating the nearly eleven miles per hour of velocity separation. The immaculate disguise his changeup wears is the driving force behind all of the awkward and uncomfortable swings that Blue Jays fans have the pleasure of watching every fifth day. I mean from the opposition, not by Troy Tulowitzki.
When the Blue Jays last saw Colby Lewis back on May 4th, among his 106 pitches, he threw his high-80’s four seam fastball 42 times and his slider 41 times. The Blue Jays swung and missed at the fastball a total of zero times, and yet somehow, miraculously, Lewis allowed just five hits and three runs across seven innings, striking out seven batters. With a right handed heavy lineup facing a right handed starter, the key is always the breaking ball. If the Blue Jays can hold off on the sliders down and away and force Lewis to bring the ball back into the zone, they should feast. The 2015 Blue Jays wouldn’t let a soft-tossing flyball pitcher off the hook twice in two weeks; let’s hope the 2016 edition can channel their inner juggernauts, at least for one night.
May 15th – 3:05 PM ET
Sunday, May 15th – 3:05 PM ET
RHP Aaron Sanchez vs. LHP Cesar Ramos
Fifty-three right handed starters have thrown at least 50 sinkers/two-seam fastballs in 2016. To the surprise of no one, Sanchez’s ranks 6th in average velocity at 95.1 miles per hour and 13th in groundball rate at 61 percent — he has always thrown hard, and has always been able to induce worm burners. The element that has changed in 2016, and has been one of the main driving forces for his success, is that all of a sudden batters are swinging and missing – his whiff per swing rate of 16.4 percent with the two-seam fastball ranks 6th.
Another driving force behind Sanchez’s success has been the development of his secondary pitches. Through seven starts, his curveball and changeup usage have climbed to 14.7 and 10.5 percent, respectively. According to the weighted Pitch Values over at Fangraphs, among 101 qualified starting pitchers, Sanchez’s curveball has been the 9th most valuable of its kin, while his changeup ranks 18th — just a hair behind teammate Marco Estrada. That he’s even within a stone’s throw of the top of the leaderboard after being a 90% fastball relief pitcher as recently as October speaks volumes about the progress he made this offseason. The Rangers sat fastball in the early innings the last time they saw Sanchez and were rewarded with a cascade of base hits, so those secondary pitches will be of utmost importance on Sunday.
The originally scheduled starter for Sunday was Derek Holland — yes, the same Derek Holland who surrendered 11 earned runs to the Blue Jays back on May 5th. Texas shuffled their rotation in order to get him out of the nightmarish matchup again, shoving forward another soft-tossing left hander in his stead: converted reliever Cesar Ramos. Between his four seam fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup, Ramos will throw the kitchen sink at you, but thankfully, three of the four appliances are lacking. The only pitch likely to give the Blue Jays any trouble is the curveball, as at 70 miles per hour, the painfully slow bender could give them flashbacks to A.J. Griffin. Ramos made a six inning start on April 25th, but has appeared as a long-man just twice in the twenty days since. Rust and a tight pitch count could both be a factor. If Toronto can get deep into the Rangers bullpen on Friday and Saturday, the vulnerable Ramos might be asked to wear one on Sunday.
Keep an Eye On
Offensive Defensive Struggles
It looked like Troy Tulowitzki may have finally broken through. When Tulo went 2 for 3 with a, homer, double and sacrifice fly Tuesday night in San Francisco, many hoped this would be the beginning of the turnaround for Toronto’s all-star shortstop. But what happened on Wednesday was even more confusing. The usually sure-handed Tulowitzki looked particularly shaky in the field, where he made two errors and bobbled a couple other balls that still resulted in outs. Despite the numerous theories currently being discussed (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-worrisome-trend-for-troy-tulowitzki/), it’s hard to know for certain exactly what Tulowitzki’s struggles mean, especially on defense. Tulo looked to be every bit the stellar defender he was throughout his career until sometime in the last couple weeks. It would still be irresponsible to draw any firm conclusions, but the enigma of Troy Tulowitzki the Blue Jay seems to be growing with every passing day.
The Top of the Rangers lineup
Since the start of May, the top two hitters in the Rangers lineup have been on fire. Rougned Odor, a recent bane of the Blue Jays’ existence, is hitting .352/.352/.667. That’s tough enough on its own, but when it is being followed by Ian Desmond’s .318/.380/.568 stretch it becomes much more dangerous. It will very important for the Blue Jays to try and keep these two guys off base. This is especially true thanks to the extreme struggles of Prince Fielder (whose full season mark is down to .198/.260/.298). If Odor and Desmond are held at bay, the team can be careful with Nomar Mazara and Adrian Beltre and face the struggling first baseman instead.
Who Hits First for Toronto?
Kevin Pillar struggled in the leadoff spot, so Kevin Pillar was moved down to the bottom of the order. Then he got hot and moved back into the leadoff spot. Then he began to struggle again. One would venture a guess that Pillar’s hot and cold streaks have more to do with his profile as a swing first hitter without plate discipline than his position in the lineup – he will always be swinging – so whenever his batted balls find holes is when he will be successful. Will John Gibbon’s continue to shuffle Pillar between the top and bottom of the lineup or let him settle in to a role in one specific spot?
Who Pitches Before Osuna?
Roberto Osuna is entrenched as the team’s closer but beyond him the Blue Jays’ bullpen is a bit of an open question. The relievers that the team initially planned to use in high leverage situations (Brett Cecil and Drew Storen) have been relegated lower pressure innings for the time being while. This means that the 7th and 8th innings are up for grabs. Gavin Floyd seems to be the latest candidate for the top setup role, but he threw two innings in Thursday’s extra inning tilt. It will be interesting to see who will take the ball with the game on the line in the games late innings this weekend.
Additions and Subtractions
After surrendering the game-wining, bases loaded walk to Buster Posey on Wednesday, Ryan Tepera has been sent to back to Buffalo. Tepera’s demotion has more to do with the return of Brett Cecil, who was away from the team on paternity leave, than Tepera’s poor performance on the mound Wednesday, but he still had little place on the current big league roster.
The Blue Jays will be denied the privilege (or based on how he pitched last time he faced the Jays, spared the task) of having to face AJ Griffin for a second time in two weeks, as the righthander was placed on the disabled list last weekend. He has been replaced by Alex Claudio. The Rangers also called up left-handed pitcher Andrew Faulkner to replace Anthony Ranaudo, who was traded to the Chicago White Sox earlier this week.
According to Jon Heyman, the Rangers have just signed free agent RHP Kyle Lohse to a minor league deal with a June 1 opt out. The minor league deal is likely just so that he has time to build up inning in the minors.
Also, former no. 1 overall pick, Matt Bush has been called up to help add depth to the Rangers bullpen. After spending most of his recent life battling a multitude of legal issues, Bush has apparently reformed. He has pitched quite well this season for the Rangers’ AA affiliate, posting a 2.65 ERA with 18 strikeouts and only four walks in 17 innings. To make room for Bush, the Rangers have optioned outfielder Deline DeShields Jr.
|Elvis Andrus -SS
via Roster Resource
Last week in Toronto, two of the four games were decided by one run, while a third was ended in dramatic fashion when Justin Smoak hit a two run homer in extra innings. Expect another hard fought and close series by two teams that should be playoff contenders in the American League.
Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports