Written by Nick Dika, Bennett Brauer, and Joshua Howsam
Can the Blue Jays Pitcher’s Exploit Baltimore’s Swing First Lineup?
The Orioles have spent most of their 2017 season following their typical formula for contention: pair a strong offence with an elite bullpen and cross your fingers that the starting pitching will be good enough.
Despite a starting rotation that has struggled (5.63 starter’s ERA), the Orioles have managed to remain within spitting distance of the second AL Wildcard spot with less than a month to play. Baltimore’s ability to remain on the fringes of contention hinges largely on an offense that has continued to produce at a high level – ranking in the top ten in runs scored (10th), slugging (4th) and wRC+ (9th). Only the Texas Rangers have hit more home runs than the Orioles this season.
Although it may seem difficult to keep the Orioles off the scoreboard, they do appear to have one glaring flaw in the offensive game. The Orioles sit dead last in all of baseball in team walk rate, at 6.4%.
Adam Jones is the worst culprit among full-time starters (4.3%), but part-timers Caleb Joseph (4.1%) and Joey Rickard (3.4%) are also extreme hackers. Jonathan Schoop and Wellington Castillo aren’t exactly patient either (both 5.4%). In fact, the only Oriole batters to post a walk rate better than eight percent (MLB average is 8.6%) are Chris Davis and Seth Smith.
If Blue Jays’ pitchers can exploit the Orioles tendency to swing more often than take, they might be able to reduce the damage Baltimore’s offence can inflict. If not, runs could be going up in bunches.
In either case, don’t expect to see too many Baltimore hitters working a walk.
Worlds Apart at 2B
For much of the second half of their existence, the Blue Jays have had very good second basemen. Hall of Fame inductee Roberto Alomar was world class, Orlando Hudson and Aaron Hill were the mainstays, Johnny Mac’s blue collar hustle made him the fan favourite, and most recently, Devon Travis has shown flashes of greatness when rarely healthy.
This year is very different, however, as a season-ending injury to Travis has caused a huge hole in their lineup.
Darwin Barney, bless his heart, has assumed the brunt of the 2B work, playing 61 games, sporting a meager season-long .587 OPS. Ryan Goins (part-time shortstop) hasn’t been much better, with a .616 OPS despite good RISP numbers. And the less said about Rob Refsnyder’s performance, the better.
As a result, it is no wonder why there are whispers that the front office is looking for a long-term solution to this predicament.
Contrast that with the Orioles, who seem to have found lightning in a bottle with their second baseman, Jonathan Schoop. Schoop is at the top of many key offensive categories: 2nd in the AL in RBI (102), 7th in AL batting average, 10th in AL slugging percentage (.535), and 10th overall in offensive WAR across ALL of MLB (4.8) with a VORP of 39.3. All of that leaves him 12th in MLB among position players in WARP (4.9).
Not only are those overall numbers excellent, but he has been remarkably consistent this season as well. His first half line saw him put up a .347 OBP and a .536 SLG. In the second half, Schoop has a .355 OBP and a .533 SLG. In short, he has mashed pretty much all season.
With many key Orioles like Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Manny Machado (for much of the season) and every starting pitcher not named Dylan Bundy having down years, Schoop has helped keep the Orioles in the Wild Card race. The Jays will have to be very careful with him.
With Schoop under team control through the 2019 season, this position is currently headed in VERY different directions for both teams.
Will Anybody Come Out And Watch?
That may seem like an odd question to ask considering the team is currently on pace to surpass three million in attendance for the second straight year. But despite the second highest average attendance in the AL (Yankees are first), there were a lot of empty seats last weekend against the Tigers. The Friday game had an announced crowd of nearly 40K, but nowhere near that many actually showed up. So while the team still banked those gate receipts, concession sales were likely way down.
However, the series finale was likely the real red flag. The 31 961 announced crowd (with again, many no-shows) for a sunny, September, Sunday game – when the Blue Jays were likely hoping for something close to a sellout – had to be a massive disappointment both to the players and the front office.
And that was on a weekend. If that level of interest is any indication, the Orioles series in particular is looking like it could bring back some reminders of what Skydome crowds were like before Alex Anthopoulos traded for Troy Tulowitzki and David Price in 2015. One only needs to look at secondary markets to see how “popular” the team is right now. For Monday’s game, fans can sit in the Field Level Infield section (face value of $80) for $6 USD. That’s the minimum price that StubHub will allow. Tuesday and Wednesday aren’t looking much better.
It’s not hard to understand this fan frustration of course. When it comes to playing out the string, the Jays can’t even market coming out to see the star players, as Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, and Aaron Sanchez are still out, with only Martin having any chance of a return before season’s end. Sure, there’s value in seeing the kids (Richard Urena in particular has looked very good), but that’s hard to sell. Similarly, telling fans to “come watch the last days of Jose Bautista in a Blue Jays uniform” isn’t exactly a message that the team can deliver. It may be (sadly) true (and a very good reason to show up), but they sure can’t say that out loud.
All this adds up to a quiet, cavernous stadium that hurts not only the in-stadium atmosphere but also the television product. All of this probably has the Blue Jays brass counting their lucky stars that there aren’t many home games left this season.
Lead Photo: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports