Written by Jenn Smith, Matt Gwin, and Mike Passador
Time to Start Rolling
After an abysmal start to the season, an 18-10 May that featured two five-game win streaks vaulted the Jays back into relevancy. Now, having gone 5-5 thus far in June, many see the upcoming soft schedule once again as the opportune time for the Jays to make some hay in the standings, beginning tonight against the 34-32 Tampa Bay Rays.
The next twelve games may not actually be crucial to the Jays’ season, but they certainly feel like they could represent a turning point. After the Rays leave town, the 27-35 Chicago White Sox come to town. The Jays then hit the road again to face two of their biggest foes: four games against the Texas Rangers (31-32) and three versus the Kansas City Royals (28-34). While the White Sox were not expected to make any noise in 2017, the Rangers and Royals have – not unlike the Jays – been a disappointment thus far. It feels imperative that the Jays find a way to take advantage of these weaker teams before squaring off against more formidable foes – the Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees ,and Astros round out the rest of the Jays’ pre-All Star Break schedule. Climbing above .500 over the next twelve games puts the Jays in the right position to begin chipping away at the division.
Perhaps it’s still too early to declare a particular series or stretch of games as crucial to the direction of a team’s season, but this is not the same team as we’ve seen the past two seasons. Plagued by injuries to both sluggers and starters, the Jays have not lived up to their reputation of being able to outscore their opponents. They are 23rd in the league with 270 runs scored thus far and have given up 275 runs (also 23rd in MLB); the Jays have not finished a season with a negative run differential since 2013. As the season inches ever-closer to the non-waiver trade deadline, the Jays have to gain some ground if they are going to remain in the playoff conversation – and not become sellers come July 31st.
Entering play tonight, the Jays are just one and half games behind the Rays and can leapfrog their division rivals in the standings – and achieve that elusive above-.500 record – with a two-game sweep. The Jays and Rays have already squared off ten times this season, with both teams playing to a 5-5 head-to-head record, but those games were played with Tampa’s best player, Kiermaier, patrolling centre field.
Despite that injury and the seemingly advantageous pitching matchups, things could still be tough for Toronto in its attempts to win two. Even though he has been very consistently good against the rest of the league, Marco Estrada has had his troubles with the Rays. In two starts against Tampa this year he has given up 10 earned runs (on five home runs) in 11 innings. And going back to September of last year, Estrada has an 8.02 ERA in his last four starts against the southernmost AL East team.
He’ll need to reverse that trend if the Jays can start this roll that they seem to so desperately need.
Another New Rays Starter, Another Great Changeup
23-year-old Jacob Faria is the newest starter to join the Tampa Bay Rays. In 58.2 minor league innings this season as a starter, Faria had struck out 84 batters. Among starters in the upper minors, only the Dodgers’ Wilmer Font has a higher strikeout rate to this point in the season. Faria has slowing been making his way up the Rays depth chart this season, ultimately making his major league debut in a doubleheader against the White Sox last week. With usual Rays rotation stalwart Matt Andriese hitting the DL, Faria will get a couple more chances to prove he deserves to be in the majors.
Like many Rays pitchers—oh so many—Jacob Faria has an excellent changeup. In their 2017 prospect handbook, Baseball America notes that Faria, “throws his changeup with identical arm speed [to his fastball], and he’s able to take off quite a bit of velocity and throw the pitch at 79-81 MPH.” This was borne out in his first start, wherein he clocked his fastball at an average velocity of 92.9 MPH and his changeup 11.4 MPH slower at 81.5. Among major league starters this season, that would rank tied for the third highest velocity difference along with Rick Porcello and Wily Peralta. It’s also not far behind Marco Estrada at a 12.2 MPH difference and league leader Jharel Cotton at 15.6 MPH. Using that fastball-changeup combo, Faria induced 15 whiffs against the White Sox.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays continue to struggle against changeups in 2017, posting MLB’s third worst pitch value against the pitch, narrowly edging out the Angels and Phillies. Perhaps it’s not the Trop or black magic that helps the Rays beat the Jays each year, but instead a series of superb changeups that an era of Blue Jays hitters struggle to hit.
Burners on the Basepaths?
Entering Monday the Rays ranked eighth in the majors with 38 stolen bases while placing a respectable ninth in success rate at 76 percent. Whereas most teams above them in the ranks have a designated speedster who racks up plenty of steals, Tampa employs a by-committee approach with only one player in double digits. Kevin Kiermaier leads the way with 10 thefts while 13 players have stolen at least one bag and seven players have multiple steals.
Fans are accustomed to Kiermaier wreaking havoc on the basepaths, as the speedy center fielder has 22 career swipes against Toronto. While he’ll miss this series with a broken hip, there’s no relief for the Jays since slowing down his replacement seems a far tougher task. Mallex Smith ranks second on the team with a perfect seven-for-seven in just 13 games and has proven himself an accomplished base stealer in the minors.
Smith had seasons of 88, 64, and 56 steals in his minor league career before swiping 16 bags last year with the Braves in his first half season of MLB action. While that took 72 games, Smith has been running freely since joining the Rays organization. He’s picked up 16 steals in just 30 minor league games in addition to his quick seven in the bigs this season. If he can get on (and unfortunately for the Jays, he’s rocking a .452 OBP thus far) he’ll have plenty of opportunity to run.
Russell Martin, perhaps hobbled by nagging injuries, has caught just four of 28 base stealers this season for a 14.3 percent success rate. Among the 42 catchers who have donned the tools of ignorance for at least 200 innings this season, Martin ranks dead last in catching base stealers. Ex-Ray Luke Maile has performed better by mowing down five of 15 runners, good for rank 16, and he should be behind the dish for game one considering Martin hasn’t caught Tuesday’s starter Marco Estrada since April 9th.
As far as the pitchers, Estrada has allowed four steals in his 78 innings while Wednesday’s starter Francisco Liriano has allowed just a single swipe in his 38.1 innings pitched this season. The greater trouble could lie in the bullpen as runners have stolen five bases off Ryan Tepera in just 34.2 innings. Anyone who reaches base could become a threat to take an extra 90 feet, and given Tepera’s usage in high leverage situations the Jays will understandably be treating any stolen base situations with caution. The Rays always seem to be a thorn in Toronto’s side and could make this short set a whole lot more aggravating by running with abandon on the basepaths.
Lead Photo © Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports