Written by Sean Addis, Richard Lee-Sam, and Gideon Turk
The Year of the First Basemen
The Toronto Blue Jays are not the only team who has a first baseman that is having a breakout year. Oakland’s Yonder Alonso’s start to the 2017 season is showcasing the potential that the San Diego Padres saw when they acquired him from the Cincinnati Reds in 2011. He was so well-regarded that San Diego traded away another highly touted prospect that you may have heard of: Anthony Rizzo.
The potential of Alonso never seemed to translate to the major leagues, however. Over the previous three seasons, Alonso has averaged a slash line of .259/.323/.379 with a career high of nine home runs that was set in his first full season in 2012. However, in 46 games in 2017, he has 16 home runs and a stash line of .297/.395/.685. Alonso also ranks fifth in major league baseball with a wRC+ 188 ahead of Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.
Exploring zone charts from last season and 2017 show a significant increase in exit velocity. He has also been successful hitting pitches away and inside, making Alonso a challenging out for opposing pitchers (Charts below – 2016 on top, 2017 on the bottom).
Not only has his ability to drive pitches, as evidenced by the grids above, but Alonso has also improved his patience at the plate. This is indicated by his increase in walk rate to 13.7 %. So why the change in performance? Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported how Alonso reached out to many players in the league, including Carlos Betlran and Albert Pujols, to discuss their hitting approach. He used the information to help overhaul his swing in the offseason.
He has become a threatening bat in the middle of the order for the Athletics. The Blue Jays will need to be cautious pitching to him. One positive for Toronto is that they will be starting two left-handed pitchers in this series, JA Happ and Francisco Liriano. Alonso has struggled against southpaws in limited at bats this season. Toronto will hope to continue that trend starting Monday.
If the Blue Jays are leading a close game in the late innings, you can expect to see John Gibbons turn to Joe Smith at some point. The sidearm throwing righty has been a huge piece of a Toronto bullpen that has performed well of late. The unit posted a K/9 of 11.10 in May, second league-wide only to the Astros 11.47 mark. Smith led the way in the month, striking out 13.5 per 9 and, more importantly, taking over the role as set-up man as it begins to look like the fire in the Grilli is extinguished.
Smith has never been a big strikeout guy in the past. In fact, the only time he has averaged more than a strikeout an inning was in 2007 when he was a rookie with the New York Mets. Part of the reason that Smith is seeing so much success this year is that he’s starting to lay off his sinker a little and lean on his fourseam fastball more, often going to it with two strikes against left handed hitters. Both the fourseam and his slider are generating a ton of swings and misses. According to Brooks Baseball, hitters are whiffing on 17.92% of fourseam fastballs Smith throws – the highest whiff rate he’s ever had on his “heater” – and 16.8% of sliders, up from 10.53 in ’15 and 10.98 last season. As a result, Smith is racking up the Ks.
His name is boring and I admittedly forgot it at least ten times during April, but Joe Smith’s work out of the bullpen has been heroic. Thankfully now, there’s a bridge to Osuna in the ninth and not two pieces of rope and a few wooden planks like we saw when Jason Grilli got high leverage innings earlier in the year.
Devon Travis’ Left Wrist and Jason Leblebijian
Since coming over to the Blue Jays before the 2015 season, Devon Travis has had nothing but success on the field but plenty of problems staying on it consistently. Another saga of the Travis Injury Chronicles (available for pre-order now!) may have been opened on Sunday against New York when he was hit by a pitch on his left wrist in the seventh inning by flamethrowing righty Luis Severino. Although x-rays came back negative, that just means nothing is broken inside the body. However, it does not mean Travis has full control and range of his left hand via his wrist. As a player with notorious health issues, Travis may end up missing a few days given the way he was talking after the game on Sunday, and could even find himself on the 10-day DL if this persists.
That brings us to Jason Leblebijian, the 26-year-old with the hard-to-pronounce last name who seems to have suddenly figured out the trick to having success as a hitter; the Illinois-native is slashing a cool .308/.380/.578 with the AAA Buffalo Bisons. Leblebijian is a utility infielder and would be the perfect candidate to replace Travis should he need to go on the DL. Even if Ryan Goins were to fill in for Travis in the starting lineup, Leblebijian offers versatility that could see him give off-days to the recently returned left side of the Blue Jays infield, a strategy that could reasonably keep Tulowitzki and Donaldson healthier for a longer period of time, or step through the revolving door in left field.
The Blue Jays have played so well since the beginning of May that their odds of making the playoffs have crept back up to close to forty percent. Losing Travis, who has been one of their hottest hitters during this stretch, could be very detrimental to them. If they want to mitigate the impact of that, calling up Jason Leblebijian would be the right move. Enough with the large bullpens!
Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports