Written by Andrew Munn, Mike Passador, and Jenn Smith
Are the Bats Waking Up?
This past weekend saw the Blue Jays take on the Angels, and the team’s struggling hitters seemed to enjoy the warm California weather. Jose Bautista finally hit his first home run of the season on Friday night, later joined by Devon Travis on Sunday. The “sluggers” weren’t left out either, as Justin Smoak and Kevin Pillar continued their hot starts and contributed their share of clutch hits and booming home runs.
This upcoming series is an opportunity for the Jays to continue this production against a Cardinals rotation that, for the first time in a while, is looking rather vulnerable. After seven and a third dominating shutout innings on Opening Day, Carlos Martinez has lasted no more than five and a third innings in his past three starts. While he has a penchant for strikeouts, he has shown control issues (his third start featured 11 strikeouts and eight walks in five innings), and has been homer prone to begin the season (1.19 home runs per nine innings). Besides Martinez, veteran starter Adam Wainwright has also struggled to open the season. While his strikeout and walk rates have looked good, he has run an ERA of 6.27 through his first four starts, giving up 30 hits through 18 2/3 innings.
Even though Cardinals-Blue Jays matchups don’t occur often due to the AL-NL barrier, many current Blue Jays have a history of facing the St. Louis rotation – meetings that have gone rather well for Toronto’s hitters. Against the Cardinals’ projected starters Michael Wacha, Martinez, and Wainwright, current Blue Jays have combined to hit .313, to go along with 12 doubles, three home runs, and 18 walks in 182 at bats.
While the club’s offensive woes have been documented to begin the year, the shaky start of the Cardinals rotation combined with the Toronto’s past success against them represent an opportunity for the Blue Jays to break out. If the bats can string together another good series at the plate, there’s a chance we could look back at the stretch against the Angels and Cardinals as a turning point for the offense this season.
Men in the Mirror
It might not feel like it, but there are in fact other teams that are struggling with slow starts. The Cardinals are riding a three game win streak but sit at just 9-10 on the year, meaning they’re not so far removed from early panic territory. Three wins over Milwaukee aside, St. Louis has gotten off to a start that’s well below expectations.
As it turns out, the Cardinals and the Blue Jays look pretty similar. Pitching-wise, the Cards boast a team ERA of 4.09, good for just 19th in the majors. The Jays sit in 17th with a 4.03 mark. The teams have surrendered an identical 165 hits, 61 walks and 82 runs, and Toronto has given up 21 homers to St. Louis’ 20.
Offensively, a similar pattern emerges. St. Louis has scored 69 runs (tied for 23rd but effectively 25th in MLB), barely ahead of Toronto’s 64 (which places them 29th). The hits are 146 to 144 in favor of the Blue Jays, though they have about 30 extra at bats to their name. Eerily enough, their batted ball profiles are also remarkably similar, with Line Drive / Fly Ball / Ground Ball splits as of Monday reading 19.6 / 44.9 / 35.5 for Toronto and 19.9 / 44.8 / 35.3 for St. Louis. Their HR/FB rates are essentially equal at 10.6 for the Jays and 10.9 for the Cards.
So with the two teams sporting incredibly similar profiles on both sides of the ball, what gives? The Cardinals have managed to outdo the Jays in terms of run differential with a -13 to -18 edge. They’ve also benefitted from a 4-3 mark in one run contests whereas the Jays sit at a lowly 2-7, now owning the most such losses in the majors after last night’s clunker in Anaheim.
Strikeout totals aside (Toronto’s 176 to St. Louis’ 151), there doesn’t look to be much separating these two teams at the moment. If the Jays can avoid the K we should be looking at a competitive series.
Factor in the Pitching
After a tough 2-1 loss against the Angels Monday night – a game in which Jays’ hitters managed just one run on four hits through six innings against starter Jesse Chavez – the Blue Jays’ offense must contend with Michael Wacha right out of the gate in St. Louis.
Wacha has been one of the few bright spots in the in the early going of the Cardinal’s 2017 campaign. Wacha boasts a 2.41 ERA with a K/9 of 8.20 and BB/9 of 2.41 over 18.2 innings pitched, going at least six innings per start. Few in the Jays’ lineup have ever faced Wacha, though Kendrys Morales has three hits and two walks in seven plate appearances against the tall right-hander. It could be a long night for the Jays’ anemic offense.
The Jays’ bats ought to fare better against the Cardinals’ other two starters. Carlos Martinez has a 4.76 ERA over four games, though he has struck out 31 batters in 22.2 innings pitched. Thursday’s starter, Adam Wainwright, has had a dreadful start, having thrown just 18.2 innings over four starts with a whopping 6.27 ERA. One reason for optimism is their WHIPs – 1.50 and 1.93, respectively. If the Jays’ offense is going to wake up any time soon, it just might be against these guys.
Jays fans would likely feel more optimistic about the team’s chances in those two games if Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ, who were scheduled to pitch Wednesday and Thursday, weren’t being replaced by Mat Latos and Casey Lawrence. Neither was stellar in their first starts of the season against the Angels. Latos gave up four runs on six hits and three walks with just one strikeout over five innings of work. In all fairness, Lawrence did not have bad outing save for a four-seam fastball to Andrelton Simmons that was belted for a grand slam. These aren’t the guys you want to trust to hold down the fort while the offense tries to scratch out a win, but with the starting depth being what it is, one hopes they can at least provide a quality outing.
One final note: At some point in this series, the Jays will face their old familiar friend Brett Cecil, who inked a four-year, $30.5 million contract with the Cardinals during the offseason. The lefty has been effective out of the bullpen thus far this season save for one glaring relief appearance in which he gave up four earned runs without recording an out.
Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports