The first half of the Blue Jays’ 2017 campaign has been utterly disappointing. Thus, is should come as no surprise that their grade at the midpoint of the season is a D.
Had they not gone 18-10 in May, this season would be a complete disaster. Entering the All-Star break with a 41-47 record, the Jays find themselves 8.5 games out of first in the AL East and 5.0 games back of the second wild card position – closer to last place in the American League than they are to a playoff berth – with six teams ahead of them.
The mediocrity of the rest of the division is the reason the Jays still have a shot – albeit a long shot – at making the postseason for the third straight season. Baseball Prospectus puts their playoff odds at 7.1%, just ahead of the Baltimore Orioles despite trailing the Orioles by a game in the standings. Although injuries and a beleaguered offense are largely to blame for the Jays’ woes (they rank 29th in the league in batting average with runners in scoring position), they have also had less than reliable starting pitching (though some of that is owing to injury replacements) and relatively poor defense. The Jays currently rank 25th in defensive efficiency (percentage of balls in play turned into outs) but drop to 26th when factoring in park adjustments. Broken down by batted ball type, they are middle of the pack when it comes to converting ground balls into outs (75.6%), but are second-last in the majors in turning fly balls into outs (83.8%).
Despite the mediocre performance of the team as a whole, there are certain players on this team who are performing at an exceedingly high level. Here’s a look at three players who have been exceptional.
Justin Smoak – A+
At thirty years of age, Justin Smoak is finally enjoying a break-out season. The former first round draft pick had demonstrated the ability to hit at every level except the major leagues, causing many to – rightfully so, at the time – denounce the Jays’ decision to sign him to a two-year extension in the middle of the 2016 campaign.
Entering 2017, Smoak was given the full-time first base job, then he took the opportunity and ran with it. Over the course of 87 games and 333 plate appearances, Smoak is putting up career numbers in nearly every offensive category. He is currently slashing .294/.360/.575 with a TAv of .308 and OPS of .936, which are all well above his career numbers. Although he is walking less frequently, he has struck out in just 19.2% at-bats – down from his career average of 23.4% and a far cry from his whopping 32.8 K% of last season. He has already surpassed his previous high of 20 home runs by three – on pace for a 40-home run season – and needs just three more RBI to reach another career best.
Simply put, Smoak has far exceeded all expectations to this point.
Whether or not Smoak’s new-found success is sustainable remains to be seen. It’s unusual for a player to figure things out in his thirties. But the All-Star starting first baseman has put in the work both on and off the field to facilitate this turnaround, beginning with a visit to a sports psychologist. He has also made adjustments with regards to his batting stance from the right and left sides of the plate, having come to the realization that the two need not be identical.
Whatever happens the remainder of the season, there is no doubt that Justin Smoak is the Blue Jays’ star player for the first half of the season.
Roberto Osuna – A
After starting the season on the 10-day disabled list due to an injury suffered during the World Baseball Classic, Roberto Osuna got off to a shaky start. He had three blown saves in April while experiencing a troubling drop in velocity.
As it turns out, there was absolutely no cause for concern.
Since April, Osuna has been absolutely lights out. On June 22nd, he picked up his 19th save, becoming the youngest pitcher in history to record 75 saves. He then finished the first half having converted 21 consecutive saves, the most in the league among active closers (Zach Britton has 52 going back to 2016, but is not currently closing games for Baltimore following his injury). He was awarded the AL Reliever of the Month award for June.
Osuna credits the turnaround to adjustments he has made with regards to attacking the zone early, working with his four-seam fastball and cutter, mixing his pitches more, and locating better. Needless to say, the adjustments have worked.
His numbers this season are downright gaudy. Sporting a 2.06 ERA and 2.35 xFIP (ninth-best among relievers), Osuna has a walk rate of just 0.77 per nine, good for second-best in the league amongst relief pitchers, while striking out 12.09 batters per nine innings – up from 9.97% last season.
The insane thing is how he has improved his strike out rate. Osuna has an O-swing percentage of 47.3%, which is more than ten percent better than in his previous two seasons and is the highest among all pitchers in the majors with a minimum of 30 innings. This is due in part to increased use of his wicked cutter, a pitch he added to his repertoire last season that he has thrown 37.5% of the time this past month.
All things considered, there is no other reliever in baseball right now who I’d rather bring in with the game on the line than Roberto Osuna. He’s been simply sensational the first half of the season.
Marcus Stroman – A-
The one constant in the Blue Jays’ rotation this season has been Marcus Stroman. Due to both his own performance on the mound and that of his teammates, the larger-than-life pitcher has established himself as the ace of the staff. In 112.1 innings pitched over 18 starts, Stroman has a 3.28 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, to go with a ground ball rate of 60.9% which is second only to Lance McCullers of the Astros.
One of his newly-developed tools is his “rocking chair” delivery, employed to disrupt the timing of hitters. Whether or not the technique is having the desired outcome has yet to be determined, but given that he is currently experiencing career-best numbers in several statistical areas, it would appear that, at the bare minimum, the new approach has not hindered him. In fact, Stroman’s numbers have been so good this season that many around baseball, including Rays’ outfielder Steven Souza, have been left wondering how he didn’t receive an All-Star nod.
The main potential concern is the length of his outings. In 18 starts, Stroman has pitched six innings or more just twelve times, with four of those starts lasting exactly six innings. In addition, Stroman’s HR/9 is 1.04, up slightly from 0.93 a season ago, resulting in a HR/FB rate of 18.1%, which is eleventh highest among qualified pitchers in the league. Still, Stroman has been good; he has been very good. When he takes the mound, one can expect that he’ll give his team a chance to win.
Check back soon for the first half disappointments.
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