The Blue Jays’ month of July has been like every other month so far this season: not good enough. Their record thus far hasn’t gotten them back into any kind of shape to make a run at the playoffs, putting them more likely to sell than buy at the deadline. Even the moral victories have felt hollow: a series split against the league-leading Astros earlier in the month had two blowout losses. A winning streak against the A’s has the feel of too little, too late. The team has needed to make up ground ever since that disastrous start to the season, and have continually been unable to do so.
While there are many reasons the Jays have continued to be mediocre, one problem has been the struggles of the starting rotation. Remember before the season, when Fangraphs ranked the Blue Jays rotation 16th in baseball? Every Blue Jays fan and analyst thought this ranking sold them short.
Our reaction was justified. The Jays had just come off a season where the rotation had performed very well, and drove most of the success of the team. The basic stats were impressive as Blue Jays starters led the league in innings pitched, were fourth in both wins and ERA, and fifth in WHIP. They had added a potential bounce-back candidate in Francisco Liriano, whose tantalizing stuff led many to expect better results than they’d gotten from knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. There was reason to expect improvement from Marcus Stroman, and continued excellence from the rest of the rotation. It was even argued here that their rotation could have been even better than Boston.
Thus far this year, it seems Fangraphs might have been optimistic. Of those four stats we mentioned earlier—innings pitched, wins, ERA, and WHIP—Jays starters are as high as 16th in baseball, in ERA. Almost nothing has worked out as planned. After a Cy-Young caliber season in 2016, Aaron Sanchez has had continual blister issues that have held him to just eight starts this season, several of them cut short by said blisters. Marco Estrada’s 2016 excellence has been missing in action since the calendar turned to June. J.A. Happ missed several weeks with an injury, and has been slow to round back into form. Liriano has been a disaster, with injuries and inconsistency nagging at him. Only Stroman has been both healthy and good, something no other regular member of the rotation can say.
July has been especially ugly, with short outings and crooked numbers marking so many of those losses. Of those twelve losses this month, the Jays have lost five of them by ten runs or more. The rotation’s ineffectiveness has forced a heavy workload on the bullpen, a workload the Jays have generally managed well, given how often the bullpen has worked. This workload is in contrast to last year, when the rotation consistently went deep into games. This ensured fewer innings for the bullpen, which was occasionally volatile outside of closer Roberto Osuna. Fewer innings for worse pitchers is a good recipe for success.
Here are some numbers for the Jays’ starters in July. Avert your eyes, children, because they’re ugly.
That’s, uh… that’s almost all bad. Even after their four-game winning streak against the lowly A’s, there’s a lot of high numbers in that bunch. Only Stroman and spot starter Cesar Valdez have averaged more than 5 and 1/3 innings a start. Liriano has been downright awful. Seeing Sanchez and Estrada with similar numbers to Liriano is startling, given their prior success. Happ wasn’t really bad until his start Sunday, but hasn’t had his usual long outings. Stroman has been as good as we could expect, holding down the rotation as it collapses around him.
The slide in Toronto’s defense probably hasn’t helped. The Jays have allowed a league leading 138 runs this month (18 of them unearned), 14 more than the second-worst team in baseball. Those blowout losses have surely padded the total, but they all count the same. All those runs (and all those pitches that lead to those runs) wear down a pitching staff that was already thin. The starters have been bad, forcing the bullpen to work more, meaning more innings for guys who probably shouldn’t be getting them. Mike Bolsinger, who wasn’t on the opening day roster, has as many innings as Estrada and more than Sanchez this month (and has pitched much better than both of them).
It’s been a very rough stretch for the Jays’ starters, but it will turn around. They certainly aren’t this bad, even if they may not reach their 2016 heights or hopes again. Luck, talent, or randomness will happen, and things will get better. Sanchez should eventually figure out those blisters, Happ will get back to doing what he does best, and Estrada should find a level that’s comfortably higher than what we’ve seen recently. With 2016’s excellence a fading memory, and the playoffs probably out of reach, the Jays have some questions to answer about next year’s pitching staff. They need to figure out who’s worth keeping, and who they can or should move on from.
Stats as of July 27th 2017
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