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

Written by Nick Dika, Andrew Munn, and Gideon Turk

Tulo and Donaldson to Be Re-Evaluated in Florida This Weekend

The most interesting thing to watch during this weekend’s series in Tampa might not take place on the field at all, but rather down the interstate in Dunedin where the left side of the Blue Jays infield has been rehabbing. Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki have both been out of action since mid-April with calf and hamstring injuries respectively.

Gregor Chisolm at MLB.com is reporting that both players will be re-evaluated while the team is in Florida this weekend, and that there is at least a chance that the two players could join the team next week in Toronto.

It goes without saying that the Jays less-than-stellar start to the season is in some part related to the injuries of the team’s two best position players. Tulo and JD combined for 0.8 WARP in 96 plate appearances before hitting the disabled list. Aside from Chris Coghlan’s highlight reel front flip over Yadier Molina, he and Ryan Goins have been unable to contribute much offensively in the absence of Donaldson and Tulowitzki. With Devon Travis’ early season struggles, Darwin Barney has been forced into part-time duty at second base, keeping Goins an Coghlan in the lineup more often than not.

Aside from the obvious downgrade in production, watching players as good as Donaldson and Tulowitzki are the lone bright spots in following a struggling team, aside from the previously mentioned Coughlan flip. I know this may sound a little too Mike Trout-on-the-Angels for most fans, but a struggling team with a few great players is still better than a struggling team with no great players.

At 9-19, the Jays have dug themselves quite a hole. Having Donaldson and Tulo in the lineup makes this team better but it also makes them more enjoyable to watch. No matter how good or bad the team is.

Get Ready For Some Sliders

In this week’s series against the Yankees, the Blue Jays managed to hit well against a Yankees pitching staff throwing a heavy number of sliders. This matchup did not seem to favour the Blue Jays, who went into the series as the worst hitting team versus sliders in 2017 by FanGraphs’ pitch value metric. Well, there’s now a glimmer of hope: they’re not last anymore! After the series against the Yankees, the team is now only second-worst in baseball. Marginal improvement? Yes, but hey, it’s always nice to not be the absolute worst at something.

What’s more notable than Toronto’s ever so slightly improved performance against sliders is the new team that has slid into last as a result: their next opponent, the Tampa Bay Rays. Apart from Corey Dickerson, every Rays regular has produced negative value against the slider so far this season. This lack of success for the Rays seems to be limited to just the slider – by the same metric, the only other pitch in which they have produced at a below average rate is the cutter. This will be an area to focus on for the Blue Jays in order to succeed this weekend.

The Blue Jays and Rays combined misery against sliders will be particularly of note during Friday night’s game, when Francisco Liriano takes the mound against Chris Archer. Of starters who have thrown at least 10 innings this season, Archer has thrown the highest percentage of sliders at 46.9%, with Liriano following behind in fifth at 35.1%. Another place to watch for heavy slider usage is Tampa’s bullpen – two of their key relievers, Jumbo Diaz and Alex Colome, have thrown sliders in 2017 at staggering rates of 50.6% and 68% respectively.

Keep an eye on this trend during Friday night’s game with each team’s slider ace taking the mound, as well as late in games with two of Tampa’s high-leverage relievers. If both teams increase their slider usage to take advantage of each other’s struggles against the pitch, offense may not come easy this weekend.

Marco Estrada and the Rays

Do you remember in 2015 when Marco Estrada almost no-hit Tampa Bay? He didn’t end up getting the job done, but he did throw eight and two thirds innings of two hit, shutout ball with ten strikeouts. That year, Estrada three over 27 innings against Tampa, and only allowed two runs the entire time. It was pure dominance. It hasn’t continued.

Since 2015 ended, Estrada has made four starts against Tampa Bay; three in 2016, one last month. All of them have seen him leave the game with fewer than six innings under his belt, and all but one with four or more runs allowed. His ERA in these four games has been over 7.00. This could just be random fluctuation. Estrada is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and even the best pitchers in baseball need to have their bad games once in a while. In fact, Estrada’s start against Tampa Bay last month is still his lone appearance in 2017 where he has allowed more than two runs.

However, when a team consistently has numbers like the Rays have with Estrada, I think the odds are better that they are doing something specific to prepare for these games. Estrada is the type of pitcher in which the outside observer will remark that it seems very simple to hit off of him. His best skill is his rising fastball, and if hitters can adjust their swing plane for a day, they should be able to have success. Additionally, his change up usually gives hitters the fits, but again, that is something that with enough video and advance scouting, a team can fight against. If a team can point out a slight difference between a change up and fastball, that could significant help their batters, and allow them to be prepared for what is coming.

I’m not sure if either of those two things are reasons why Estrada has struggled with the Rays recently, but it’s now been four bad starts for him in a row against this team over a period of time where he has been dominant against everybody else. Hopefully he breaks out of that this weekend, but history isn’t going to bet on him.

Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

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