In a Tough AL East, Games Like These Still Matter
If there is one thing baseball prognosticators can agree on this season, it’s that the AL East is pretty evenly matched. It may not be the best division in baseball, but one through five it the the most parity. Because of that, every interdivisional game will take on additional meaning. It is conceivable that any of the five teams, from the front running Boston Red Sox to the young and retooling New York Yankees, can take this division. Last season, the Blue Jays went 40-36 (.526) against AL East opponents, managing winning records against all clubs aside from the Yankees. This season, they’ll need more of the same, if not better, if they want to find their way back to the playoffs for the third straight season.
To do so, they’ll need to start by winning games against Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy of the Baltimore Orioles. They didn’t have any trouble doing that against Gausman in 2016, scoring 14 runs in 15 1/3 innings against the righty, but only faced Bundy in three relief appearances for a total of three and two thirds total innings. However, in a longer stint, Bundy is the type of pitcher who can be exposed against the Blue Jays. He’s basically a three pitch pitcher as a starter, relying primarily on his four-seam fastball, change up, and curve. Although the fastball has good velocity on it, averaging 94.80 MPH as a starter last season, it also has what is described as “rising” action because of the spin on it. This may sound familiar, because it is what makes Marco Estrada so dominant, as he generates a ton of pop ups due to confusing the swing plane of the opposing batters. Fortunately for the Blue Jays, Bundy is no Estrada, and if he makes mistakes with the pitch, they could be hit very far in the batter friendly Camden Yards.
The Blue Jays will have over 70 games against the AL East in 2017. Winning the first two won’t necesarrily be a sign of things to come, but it will sure help down the road. Some good hitting can go a long way in helping them take these games.
We Don’t Need to Hate the Orioles
I know this is not going to be a popular opinion. There are a lot of reasons to dislike them. Darren O’Day started a years-long war with Jose Bautista when he beaned him for no good reason. Orioles starter Mike Wright had the audacity to throw shade at former Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion. Most recently, O’s general manager Dan Duquette made remarks about Jose Bautista’s work ethic that would be described as uninformed at best, and loaded with racial biases at worst. Jose Bautista doesn’t work hard? You know the guy is so committed to fitness that he hasn’t eaten carbs since 2007, right?
The Orioles offences against the Jays and their players are legitimately gripe-worthy, but we may have more in common with our division rivals than we care to admit.
Both the Jays and Orioles win in unorthodox ways, and at least in ways that projection systems like PECOTA don’t seem to understand yet. Whether it’s the Jays FIP-busting starting pitchers or whatever it is that the Orioles seem to be good at, both teams possess skills that don’t seem to be quantified by advanced projection systems.
Some of the detest for the Orioles comes from seeing pitchers like Darren O’Day intentionally throw at Jays players. Unfortunately, the Jays are just as guilty as Baltimore when it comes to this all-too-common on-field behavior. During the thick of the O’Day/Bautista drama, Marcus Stroman threw at Manny Machado. And plenty of other Blue Jay pitchers have gotten involved in the retaliatory bean ball culture that is still permitted in the major leagues over the last couple of years as well.
There is no excusing Dan Duquette’s comments about Jose Bautista. We need hold him to a higher standard. Regrettably, insensitive comments of many stripes are far too common in major league baseball. John Gibbons made some of his own last year when he suggested the Jays come out in dresses if they couldn’t slide hard into second base. Sexist remarks and coded racialized language are not the same things; nor should they be swept under the rug or ignored. But hopefully, if we think that John Gibbons had a momentary lapse in judgment and said some things he regrets and don’t represent him at his best, we can think the same about Dan Duquette.
Lastly, the Orioles have Adam Jones. And for every backwards thing that people in professional sports say, Adam Jones can say something inclusive and insightful that shows us how athletes can be important agents for activism and social change. Just like when Josh Donaldson speaks out against domestic violence.
In any case, the O’s aren’t going anywhere. We’re going to see them 18 times a season. I suggest we make the best of a bad situation and try to see our similarities and not our differences.
If you want to be practical about it, the Jays already have rivalries with the Rangers, Red Sox, Yankees, Twins and Royals. Takes too much energy to hate everyone.
Baseball is Back!
Today is a good day.
Baseball is back, and along with it comes all of its perks. The days are getting longer, the weather is… well, I guess some things take longer to develop. The greatest gift given on Opening Day, however, is a clean slate for all 30 teams. What’s in the past is over with, and there is a sense of optimism about what could happen this year for each and every club.
This optimism runs from the players, to the coaching staff, to the front office, and of course, to the fans. It is part of human nature to hope, and for many fan bases, this sense of hope runs highest on Opening Day. The Blue Jays think that they can win the World Series this season. Even though the odds are stacked against them, fans can find hope in the knowledge that every year, one team pulls through against these unfavourable odds to win the final game of the season.
Now, even though this is fun to fantasize about, the tight division races and playoffs are oh so far away. What we have now is April: the type of baseball that requires the tracking of results, but brings along with it the recognition that they might not matter in the long run. In the grand scheme of things, the opening series against the Orioles means very little. There are 160 games that will occur after this opening series – games which will (obviously) have much more bearing on the Blue Jays season than the first two.
Where does that leave this series then? Well, it just might be the most enjoyable one of the season. The games start to matter now, and if you think about it, maybe it means we shouldn’t care about the results of this series at all. Maybe this opening series shouldn’t be analyzed even in the slightest – not if Josh Donaldson strikes out in every at bat, not if Roberto Osuna comes out throwing 93, and not even if Justin Smoak starts hot and smacks 3 dingers today.
Instead, this short two-game opening series should be reason for us to celebrate. After 166 cold, dark, and dreary days, the Blue Jays are playing meaningful baseball again. Jose Bautista is back, perhaps the greatest position player in team history leg kicking his way to even more greatness in 2017. Last year’s AL-best rotation returns, with the potential to repeat again this season. John Gibbons will be back, his relaxed dugout poses and happy-go-lucky interviews along with his fiery ejections staying with the Jays for the foreseeable future. Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin remain Blue Jays, ready to lead this team through the tortuous grind that is a major league season.
So don’t get too caught up in what happens on the field over this series, or even the next three. More important than April results is the fact that, for every major league team, Opening Day marks the start of a journey. A journey that, for one team, will end in completely bewildering, chaotic, and joyous celebration that is winning the World Series. And when that celebration ends, what remains is a battle-tested community of players, coaches, and fans who can share their memories of that journey, the type of journey that makes the end destination so highly coveted.
Today, Toronto goes on the road again. We don’t know where it will end, but we know we’ll be along for the ride. Cheers to that.
Article by Gideon Turk, Nick Dika, and Andrew Munn.
Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports