3 Things to Watch for in the Blue Jays Series vs. Anaheim

Written by Matt Gwin and Dave Church

The Blue Jays Rotation “Depth” is Here

Entering the season, FanGraphs ranked the Blue Jays starting rotation 16th best in all of baseball. This was a topic of much discussion, so striking that a reporter asked John Gibbons about it at a presser during Spring Training. His response?

While dismissive, Gibbons’ response was largely justified. In 2016, the Jays’ rotation produced baseball’s sixth best ERA at 3.79. The projections systems don’t properly adjust for the unique talents of Jays starters like Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ. That was made abundantly clear prior to the season. A less discussed topic, however, was the Blue Jays rotation depth, or lack thereof. Now, with the team’s two best starters by 2016 ERA—J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez—on the 10-day disabled list, that lack of depth is starting to show. In comes Casey Lawrence and Mat Latos.

Latos and Lawrence will start the Blue Jays’ Friday and Saturday games against the Angels respectively. By WARP, Mat Latos was a Top 35 starter in baseball for four straight seasons between 2010 and 2013. He peaked at the beginning of that period, throwing 184 innings of 2.92 ERA ball with more than a strikeout per inning, good for a 5.2 WARP. Since then, however, Latos has had nothing but troubles. In each season, he’s gone on to strike out less batters, while walking more batters and giving up more home runs. As you can imagine, that doesn’t represent the best path to success. Fans and analysts were hopeful that Latos may be able to regain some of his previous form, but that was predicated on his pitching out of the bullpen, not as a starter in a game that the 3-12 Blue Jays desperately need to win.

Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, Casey Lawrence’s pitching prospects aren’t much better. Lawrence is a career minor league starter and just reaching the majors at 29. The one positive take here would be to hope on the success of the unconfirmed as, unlike Latos, Lawrence hasn’t recently disappointed as a major league starter. Lawrence is also BP Toronto prospect writer Tammy Rainey’s AAA pitcher to watch for, but that’s more so to do with his story of progression and perseverance than it does with his ability to pitch as a major league starter. In other words, Mike Trout is going to have a very fun Saturday.

The Bright Side Of The Bullpen

The Jays’ struggling offense has put them in an unusual number of tight games so far, and has put the pressure on a bullpen that maybe wasn’t built to take that pressure. The strength of the pitching was supposed to be in the starting staff, with a rotation that matches up well with anyone in the American League East. While Roberto Osuna is an elite closer by any measurement, the rest of the bullpen merely graded out as capable.

While there have been some heartbreaking losses and crooked innings, there have also been some bright spots in the Jays’ relief core so far. Joe Biagini has been a workhorse, notching 12 innings in 9 games already, and a 0.75 ERA. Aaron Loup has been a pleasant surprise, with a 1.93 ERA and 8 strikeouts in just 4.2 innings (even if the equivalent 1.93 WHIP suggests some trouble). Joe Smith has been solid on his way to a 2.57 ERA, as our own Kyle Matte reviewed a few days ago. Even Dominic Leone has had some solid outings in lower leverage situations.

This isn’t to wave away the problems that do exist. Jason Grilli has been shaky, continuing a troubling trend from the end of 2016. Ryan Tepera’s promising start was blown to shreds by two bad outings against the Orioles and Red Sox. Roberto Osuna’s injury meant we saw some of the minor league depth very quickly, and neither Matt Dermody or Casey Lawrence inspired much confidence in their ability to get major league outs.

John Gibbons has been less flexible with the bullpen in recent seasons than he was in his first stint with the Blue Jays. With the Jays slow start, and their continued habit of being in low scoring games, his bullpen management becomes more important, as the team tries to scratch out wins however it can. But looking at the depth chart, there are options for any situation, and it’s up to Gibbons to spread the innings optimally. Biagini can’t pitch every game, but giving more important innings to the guys who are pitching well (and keeping them away from Grilli and the Buffalo crew) can only help the team succeed.

Mike Trout vs. the Blue Jays

While the real 2015 AL MVP sits on the 10-day disabled list, Blue Jays fans will have to settle for seeing the guy who should’ve won it. The good news? While Mike Trout is still the best player in baseball, among all teams he’s faced at least 30 times, his OPS against the Blue Jays is the fourth worst. The bad news? That fourth worst OPS also happens to be .940.

During the offseason, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs took a conscious and lengthy effort to try and find a flaw with Mike Trout’s game, but instead “[he] didn’t find a statistic where Mike Trout is bad. While examining a statistic where Mike Trout looked bad, [he] found another statistic where Mike Trout is good.” Ergo, the best plan of attack against padding Trout’s counting numbers is ensuring that you strike out the other eight hitters in the lineup. To their credit, with the way they’ve been pitching, Marcus Stroman and Francisco Liriano may be able to do just that. The other two starters…well, that’s a different story.

Lead Photo: © Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

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