This Week in Blue Jays: Why It’s Ok to Worry

“I work hard not to draw any conclusions until 40 games in. Everything is amplified, magnified early in the season, just because of the number of games you’ve played. The most fortunate thing that’s happened is that the division is pretty wide open. We are not where we want to be, let me make that clear…What is probably most advantageous to where we are is that we’re going to have time to sort it out and get better.”

            -Mark Shapiro on The Jeff Blair Show, April 28th, when the Jays were 10-13

 When a team struggles out of the gate, particularly one with as many expectations as was placed on the Blue Jays this season, there is a tendency for those with a vested interest in the team to react in one of two ways. One either chalks it up to it being early in the season with plenty of time to sort things out, or succumbs to complete and utter panic. While the latter is incredibly tedious and, quite frankly, ridiculous, the former can also be contentious, particularly due to the debateable nature as to what constitutes “early” within the context of a 162-game season. To be quite honest, the “it’s early” mantra has irked me this season for two important reasons (aside from the let-down of hovering around the .500 mark).

First, both the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox continue to play good baseball, and while I don’t believe the Orioles can maintain their current .657 winning percentage, the Red Sox have a formidable lineup that is currently performing to expectation. Second, and more importantly, is the fact that the Blue Jays will play their fortieth game of the season today, and if the above quote is any indication, Mark Shapiro may be starting to draw some conclusions, which in turn could lead to some critical decisions. The fact that the Jays are sitting one game below .500 and have, quite frankly, exhibited mediocrity as a team to this point, one cannot help but wonder what the front office may be thinking. So, whether or not it’s still early, let’s examine how things have transpired in the first (nearly) forty games of the season.

The Good

Without a doubt, the one true bright spot this season has been the Jays’ rotation. Collectively thought of as the weak link coming into the season, they are the only reason the Jays haven’t lost more games. According to this tweet from Ben Nicholson-Smith, as of Friday, the Jays’ rotation ERA of 3.02 was the best in the American League and the third best in all of baseball. With all the angst amongst some fans regarding the offseason loss of David Price (which, quite frankly, was a given the day he was acquired), it was assumed that the rotation, which struggled mightily through the first half of last season, would be the one potential barrier to another run at the post-season. Enter J.A. Happ, who too many remembered as being mediocre with the Jays from 2012-2014 and too few were aware had turned things around during the latter half of 2015 with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

As Brendan Kennedy of The Star writes, Happ is pitching like an elite lefty, one who is undefeated in his first six starts, has the American League’s 13th-lowest ERA (2.50), and has given up three runs or fewer in each of his starts, all of which he has pitched at least six innings. What, exactly, is different about Happ this second go-around in Toronto? While with the Pirates, Happ increased his fastball usage, and is now using his two-seamer to get more ground balls in the bottom of the strike zone while using his four-seamer in the upper zone, generating fewer strikeouts but more weak contact. More than that, however, is his improved confidence as evidenced by the quick pace with which he pitches. Says Pete Walker: “His confidence is through the roof. I think he feels like he finally understands his game completely.”

Add to this the fact that Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and Marcus Stroman have been stellar all season, and R.A. Dickey has had three straight quality starts, and the Jays thus far have one of the better performing rotations in baseball. Though it is unlikely to continue being this good throughout the entire season, the rotation has been nothing less than impressive.

The Bad

Though they are only one of two teams remaining who have thrown fewer than 100 combined innings (thanks to the aforementioned stellar performance by the starting pitchers), it feels as though the Jays’ bullpen has coughed up a lead in every other game this season. Frustrating though they may be as a collective, the Jays’ relievers are near the middle of the pack in ERA (3.66 – 18th), FIP (3.92 – 15th), xFIP (3.93 – 17th) and WAR (0.6 – 15th). They do, however, have the fourth highest BABIP in the majors (.309).

Of particular concern is the performance of set-up man Drew Storen. His struggles are, in the estimation of Steve Phillips of TSN, both mental and physical. The fact that there are physical problems is fairly evident; his velocity is down on all of his pitches and his command has been an issue. He typically handles right-handed batters (.who have a 219 OBA vs Storen) better than left-handed batters (.256 OBA) because his slider is his most effective put-away pitch, but he simply has shown poor command of his slider thus far. Worse than that has been his fastball command, with which he is finding too much of the strike zone. The result? The league is hitting .352 against him (lefties have a BA of .385 with a 2.60 WHIP while righties have a BA of .321 with a 1.29 WHIP). Whether or not these physical struggles are the result of mental struggles, as Phillips suggest, is much more difficult to ascertain. Phillips writes that, “His performance in Washington tanked when he was demoted from closer to setup man. I believe it was a mental collapse as much as it was a physical collapse.”

I suppose that losing the closer’s job to Roberto Osuna could have been a blow to Storen’s confidence, but it’s not as though he was unaware of that strong possibility at the outset of spring training. For his part, Storen views his performance woes as just part of the job: “You’re going to have these stretches. It’s a matter of how you look at it. You can get caught up in ‘I’m not catching breaks.’ Just keep your head down and do your thing. There’s a reason I’ve had the career I have.” Regardless of the cause, Storen has been relegated to low-leverage situations for the time being.

Equally frustrating has been the performance of Brett Cecil, who went from being lights’ out last season to 0-and-5 with a 5.23 ERA in sixteen appearances this season. After facing two batters on Saturday, Cecil complained of a left triceps strain and was placed on the 15-day disabled list (it seems odd to me that he’d immediately be placed on the DL rather than be listed day-to-day, but my guess is that his poor performance made the decision that much easier to make).

The concern here is two-fold: first, that given the team’s offensive woes to date (more on that below), the Jays cannot afford to have a mediocre bullpen (they have yet to win a game in which they’ve given up four or more runs). Second, and more critical, is that it may drive the front office to make a change, such as pre-emptively moving Sanchez to the bullpen sooner rather than later and replacing him in the rotation with, say, Gavin Floyd or Drew Hutchison, or seeking help from outside the club.

The Ugly

I suppose that the Jays’ offence could have been classified along with the bullpen as “the bad” part of this season, but given their world-beating performance last season and expectations coming into this year, I’ve elected to classify it as “ugly.” As Richard Griffin points out in The Star, “entering the [past] weekend, the Jays’ cumulative numbers at catcher, first base, second base, shortstop and right field showed a batting average under .225, while all but Jose Bautista in right had an OPS south of .700.” Only Michael Saunders in left field, who is batting .325 with a BABIP of .440 and OBP of .392, has been an upgrade over last year.

A team that by far outscored the entire league last season, the Jays are currently ranked 16th with 155 runs scored. Moreover, the Jays have struck out at the sixth-highest pace in the majors. As for manufacturing runs, as Griffin points out, “this year’s group through 36 games had one sacrifice bunt, seven sacrifice flies and 11 stolen bases. The Jays, as a team, were hitting .144 with two strikes and .227 with runners in scoring position. Last year’s final numbers included 36 sacrifice bunts, 62 sacrifice flies, 88 steals, a 1.88 mark with two strikes and a .286 average with runner at second base or beyond.” It should come as no surprise that there has been a precipitous drop-off in offensive production this year. It was inevitable given that last year’s totals were buoyed by career-years from key guys like Josh Donaldson and Chris Colabello, but instead, the decline has been more akin to falling off a cliff.

Most notable has been the abysmal performance of five-time all-star Troy Tulowitzki, who has yet to hit with any consistency since being traded to Toronto on July 28th of last year. Steven Tzemis of CBC Sports writes that “considering the praise he’s gotten throughout his career…it’s worth wondering whether Coors Field was a factor – or, more damning, the factor – in Tulowitzki’s reputation as a superstar.” And, though it may still be considered early in the season, Tulowitzi’s “sample size in Toronto is big enough to start wondering.”Of greater concern, perhaps, have been his six errors committed this season, prompting some to wonder if he needs glasses (which, if that were the case, wouldn’t the Jays have figured it out by now?).  There is a glimmer of hope, however, as the Jays’ bats have begun to show signs of life. As a team, they have scored five or more runs in each of their last three games, and have also come from behind in each of those games to either tie or take the lead (unfortunately, they lost two of those three games).

May means that Edwin Encarnacion’s bat is heating up, and even Tulowitzki is showing signs of thawing out, batting .273 with three home runs in his last seven games. It is too early to declare that the offense has finally figured it out, but just as the starting rotation likely won’t be this good all season, it seems equally improbably that the offense will remain this lacklustre.

What, if anything, can be gleaned from the first forty games? The Jays are roughly in the same position as they were at this time last year, when they were 18-22 after forty games, yet do not look like the same team as last season. The one thing this team does not have going for it this year, however, is the potential to go all-in at the trade deadline – with the inevitability of losing both Bautista and Encarnacion to free agency, and the lack of prospects, I would imagine that Shapiro and Atkins would not be willing to mortgage any more of the future should the Jays continue to find themselves around the .500 mark by July. There is still plenty of time to right this ship – quite frankly, this team is too talented to not turn things around – but I think it’s fair to say that the first forty games have been, especially after last year, a let-down.

Quick Hits:

  • Devon Travis began his long-awaited rehabilitation assignment in single-A Dunedin on Friday. Travis played seven innings and went 1-for-four with an RBI double, sparking the conversation about who will play second base when he is ready to return. Depending on his progress (he also went 1-for-3 yesterday with a single and sac fly), he could be ready to return in twenty days (the length of a rehab assignment), though the Jays could option him to triple-A Buffalo if they deem he requires more time.
  • Suspended first baseman Chris Colabello is still seeking answers as to how he could have tested positive for a drug that he maintains he did not knowingly take. Says Colabello: “I’m working towards finding answers and I won’t stop until I do.” I admit that I have a difficult time believing athletes who claim to have not taken steroids after testing positive, but Colabello seems like a man possessed. If he is innocent as he claims, it is absolutely critical that it be discovered how he tested positive, not just for his sake, but for the sake of all athletes who may find themselves in the same position.
  • And, finally. Jose Bautista – the face of the franchise since 2010 – played in his 1,000th career game in a Jays uniform on Saturday, becoming just the eleventh player to do so. As this is likely to be his last season in Toronto, I would like nothing more than for him to win a championship this year. Seriously. I literally cannot think of anything else that would make me happier.

Lead Photo: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

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