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

Written by Rachael McDaniel, Gideon Turk, and Elie Waitzer

Steven Souza Jr.: A Familiar Foe, Now with Added Plate Discipline

Steven Souza Jr. has been a thorn in the side of Blue Jays pitching for the entirety of his two seasons with the Rays. In his 34 career games against the Jays, he is slashing .307/.385/.551. Unfortunately, he seems primed to become an even bigger problem this season, thanks to his embracing the magic of plate discipline. While the 2015 and 2016 seasons had Souza’s K% at 33.8 percent and 34.0 percent, the latter number the highest among MLB hitters with a minimum of 600 PA, he’s managed to knock that number down to 25.3 percent so far in 2017. He’s also improved upon his BB%, raising it to 11.6 percent from 6.6 percent last season.

Much like our very own Kevin Pillar, Souza in his 2017 incarnation appears to have gotten better at laying off pitches outside of the strike zone. His O-swing% is down to 24.2 percent from 30.6 percent last year. (This difference of 6.4 percentage points is, incidentally, almost the exact same as the difference between Pillar’s 2016 and 2017 O-swing% – Kevin has dropped his by 6.5 points.) Souza has also dropped his swinging strike rate by 3.7 percentage points from last year. So not only has he toned down his propensity for chasing pitches that aren’t strikes, but Souza has vastly improved his contact rate on pitches that are strikes. Even though Souza has actually seen a smaller proportion of pitches in the zone this year than last year, his zone contact rate has risen from 75.3 percent to 81.7 percent.

All of these changes have combined to give Souza quite the hot start to 2017. As of April 27th, he was batting .330/.404/.557. He was named AL Player of the Week for April 17th-24th after batting .414 with two homers, and he has already had a chance to rough up the Blue Jays this season, with seven hits (including three doubles and a home run) during a four-game series in the accursed confines of the Trop. He tagged Marcus Stroman, who opens this series, for three of those hits.

Souza has also been the beneficiary of an absurd .455 BABIP so far this season. It’s virtually impossible that he stays this hot forever. But for the Blue Jays to win this series, they’ll have to at least slow Souza’s roll somewhat. And sadly, Troy Tulowitzki isn’t eligible to return from his DL stint until May 2nd, meaning he won’t be able to distract Souza from hitting by stoking the flames of their ongoing feud. But who knows? Maybe he’ll show up just to get some jeers in. 

The Return of Aaron Sanchez…and His Fastball?

It’s been a disaster start for the Blue Jays this season, and despite the assurances from certain radio hosts that everything is fine, it isn’t. The team is quickly running out of time before the hole they are digging will be too deep for them to escape. One player that could help them immensely is Aaron Sanchez, with the most recent reports saying that he could be pitching the last game of this series on Sunday afternoon. Sanchez has only made two starts on the year because of his blister issue, but the first of those was against these same Rays, and he shoved. He allowed one baserunner for every inning he pitched, going seven strong while allowing just one batter to cross the plate.

How Sanchez shut down the Rays on April 8th is an interesting story because he was a different pitcher than he was in 2016, or his other start this year. Sanchez threw 101 pitches on the evening, with 43 percent of those being four seam fastballs. Only once in 2016 did he surpass that mark. What this meant is that he relied less on his otherworldly sinker, throwing it only 33 percent of the time rather than the 54 percent he averaged in 2016. This was no doubt a deliberate strategy by Sanchez and his catcher, Russell Martin, and it worked, as the Rays whiffed on over a quarter of their swings and registered only one hit against the fourseamer. Against pitches that are greater than 95 mph this season, the Rays are 24th in baseball in OPS at just .571, so Sanchez could go back to the heavy fastball mix again if he makes this start. 

Blake Snell: Too Filthy For His Own Good

When you think of Blake Snell, you think ridiculous curveball, power fastball, and command issues. After an intriguing debut season in which he went from dominant to disastrous from start to start, many picked him to breakout as a filthy number two starter behind Chris Archer on the Rays staff. How could you not fall in love with his potential when his heater gets some of the most vertical rise in the majors and his hook looks like this?

But while his 3.38 ERA thus far has been good to fantasy owners, he’s still struggling with the same problems that plagued him last year.

Exhibit A: He has as many walks as he has strikeouts (15:15).
Exhibit B: He’s missing the zone over 60 percent of the time, and not in an intentional, Liriano kind of way.
Exhibit C: His first-strike percentage ranks in the bottom ten. Filthiness only gets you so far in the majors; you still have to throw strikes.

In the three times the Jays have seen Snell in his career, they’ve struck out 14 times, but they’ve also walked 11 times. Expect more of the same, but don’t expect Snell to stick to his old game plan. He’s rolled with a fastball-change heavy mix in the past (over 85 percent combined), but given how the Jays have fared against the breaking ball early on, this would be a good occasion to lean more on his curveball.

For the Jays, I propose a counter-adjustment. Snell is a lock to walk three to five batters. The way the Jays have been hitting with RISP, they should be ultra-aggressive on the basepaths to squeeze every run out of their baserunners instead of trying to hit home runs off of his breaking stuff. Although, that’s easier said than done when Kevin Pillar is your only speed threat.

Lead Photo:  Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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