The 2016 Toronto Blue Jays might just be the most frustrating first place team that has ever existed. At the very least, it has certainly felt that way over the past two weeks.
What, with the inconsistent nature of the offense, the shaky pitching performances and opposing players’ ground balls that somehow, mysteriously, manage to find a hole. Meanwhile the Jays can’t seem to buy themselves a base hit.
And yet, after 129 games the Blue Jays have a 73-56 record: the exact same record that they had at this point last season. They lead the AL East by a full game over the Boston Red Sox, which is also roughly the same, as they held a 1.5 game lead over the Yankees in 2015. So why, then, does there seem to be so much more angst amongst the fan base?
Perhaps it’s the fact that last season, the AL East was only a two-horse race. While the Jays and Yankees were battling it out for first, the Orioles sat nine games back in third place, well out of the playoff conversation. This year, the race is much tighter. Just three games separate the Jays, Red Sox, and Orioles. The wild card race is also much more congested than it was last season. Currently, the Red Sox have a 1.5 game lead over the Orioles for the first wild card, but Detroit, Seattle, Houston Kansas City and New York are all within 2.5 games of the second. Last season, the Texas Rangers were four games back of the Yankees for the first wild card while only Minnesota and Los Angeles were within 2.5 games of the second wild card.
With so much parity, each game feels like it’s a must-win, and thus as a fan it’s easy to be swept up in the excitement of a win, and become irrationally angry at a loss. It feels as though one or two bad losses, especially if coupled with a Red Sox or Orioles victory, could derail the entire season. When the lowly Angels take two of three on the Jays’ home turf, it’s difficult to maintain perspective, to remember that good teams sometimes lose to bad teams (as the Red Sox did to the Rays) for seemingly imperceptible reasons, because there are blips within a 162 game season that cannot be explained.
Perhaps, too, is the fact that this year feels different because, as a fan base, we are different than we were last season. Those who have been following this team for any length of time remembers the all those years following the glory days of 1992/1993, years of toiling in mediocrity inside a half-empty Dome, eleven seasons of below-.500 baseball that ended with the refrain “maybe next season”. And, the way 2015 started out, it appeared as though, despite all the talent, despite #NapTogether followed by June’s eleven game win streak, the Jays would once again fade away.
On July 28th, the day Troy Tulowitzki was traded to Toronto, the Jays were one game below .500 and eight games out of first, chasing three other teams. And then, with newly acquired David Price in the fold, the Jays took three of four from the Kansas City Royals, including that emotional bean-ball laden game that may have been the galvanizing force in the season. From therein, this fan base flocked to the Dome, their televisions, opponent’s stadiums, riding the wave of baseball highs that were new to so many. Every moment defied expectations, because we were cheering for an underdog. Underdogs don’t disappoint; they sweep you up and carry you along for the ride, and every moment of it seems magical because at one point those moments did not seem possible.
The expectations of this team are quite different this season. After watching the Jays lead the world in runs scored last season, there is an expectation that they will simply exert their will on other teams, and when they fail to do so, it elicits concern. And, truthfully, that concern is not unwarranted when the entire lineup appears to go cold all at the same time, forcing starting pitchers to work with the thinnest margin of error. However, when that concern spills over to fretting about Josh Thole hitting in the ninth spot every five days or so, perhaps one needs to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. There is reason to be concerned about Marco Estrada’s last three starts, especially given how he was considered to be the Jays’ best pitcher at one point this season, but to extrapolate and use it as “proof” that the six-man rotation has failed is false logic when you look at the rest of the rotation.
Players and teams will experience ebbs and flows over the course of a season. Remember how poorly Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin began this season? Recall how infuriating it was when it seemed as though Melvin Upton Jr. would do nothing but strike out? Good players find their way out of a slump just as good teams will normalize over the course of a season.
This team is in the exact same position that it was in last season, it’s simply taken a different path to get there. A greater number of games have been won on pitching and defense rather than sheer offensive prowess. It’s a far less exciting manner in which to win, and when they lose, it’s easy to scrutinize every mistake, particularly since expectations have been raised. If this were 2015, the fan base would be elated at the three-way battle for first; instead, frustration exists that the Jays haven’t just run away with the East. That’s perfectly fine. Be frustrated. Show passion. But remember, too, that this is a first place team – and we wouldn’t trade that for the world.
- Just prior to Friday’s game against the Twins it was announced that the Jays had reacquired fan favourite Dioner Navarro from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Double-A pitcher Colton Turner. Navarro will provide a switch-hitting bat off the bench as well as depth at the catcher’s position, which is of particular importance should R.A. Dickey not be named to the playoff roster. Though it is a relatively minor move, it demonstrates once again the front office’s efforts to improve the team heading into the final stretch of the season.
- As the August trade deadline nears, discussion of the Jays pursuing Reds’ Joey Votto have become increasingly more frequent. The two teams apparently engaged in serious discussions regarding Votto last season, but to no end. Acquiring Votto would, in many ways, make sense. The Jays need a left-handed threat in the lineup and Votto is one of the toughest outs in all of baseball. He’s locked up long term which satisfies the Jays’ need at first base, particularly if Edwin Encarnacion leaves in free agency. Though he has a hefty contract –who’s owed $22 million next season and $25 million each year thereafter through to his age 40 season – the Jays very well could lose Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and R.A. Dickey after this season, and have demonstrated a willingness to spend money. Finally, such a blockbuster move would not only benefit the Jays during this playoff run, but Votto would also help keep the window of contention open along with Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin.
- With a good September, Josh Donaldson could put himself right at the top of the MVP list for a second straight season. Though he likely won’t hit 41 home runs and 123 RBI again (he’s at 30 and 87), his .960 OPS is higher than it was last season (.939). He’s up against Mike Trout, who once again leads the league in WARP and Jose Altuve, who leads the batting race. Mookie Betts, David Ortiz and Edwin Encarnacion may also factor into the conversation. Regardless of whether or not he can repeat as MVP, once thing is certain – the Jays are a better team when Donaldson is swinging a hot bat.
- Ross Atkins confirmed that the Jays would send a scout to Tim Tebow’s workout August 30th. The former NFL quarterback is attempting to break into baseball and supposedly has an “impressive” swing. I can’t imagine anything actually coming of it, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt to take a look.
- And, finally. What Pros Wear has put together several videos of MLB players discussing the gloves they use. Devon Travis, Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar and Troy Tulowitzki were all featured in the series
Lead Photo: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports