MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays

The Blue Jays Were Out of (Their) Depth in 2017

It’s September 22nd. The Blue Jays have 71 wins, they’re seven games back of a playoff spot, and there’s not a speck of meaningful September baseball to be found. Needless to say things have not gone quite as well as planned this season. If you were to dig in to the details, I’m sure you’d find a number of issues with the players’ launch angles, pitch tunnels, and any other metric under the sun. But in order for a team to underperform their pre-season projections by five to ten wins, there have to be larger flaws pasted over the details. For the Blue Jays in 2017, it was a serious injury bug and far from enough depth to compensate for it. Some of this was assuredly bad luck, but there was a strategy behind it all and that could extend the issues in to 2018.

I’m sure you’ll know by now that the 2017 Blue Jays had their fair share of injuries, whether it was Sanchez’s constant blisters, Donaldson’s nagging calves, or Tulo and Travis’ continued ability to find something that’ll keep them out for half the season. As a result, per Man Games Lost’s latest update, the Jays were the fourth most injured team in the league, with over 1200 games lost to injured players on the disabled list. Plus, this doesn’t even include the three post calf injury months in which Donaldson was hardly able to hit better than Kevin Pillar. You can see how the games lost to the DL stacks up visually in the graphic below.

In contrast, in 2016 the Blue Jays were one of the least injured teams in major league baseball, with just over 400 games lost to players on the DL.

Last year, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin played in over 130 games for the first time since 2011 and 2012, respectively, Devon Travis and Michael Saunders set career highs in games played, and the rotation saw only two of their starts come from someone other than the team’s five (or six once Liriano was acquired) best pitchers. This led us all in to a false sense of security.

Because injuries are so hard to predict and because the team was coming off such an incredibly inspiring year (See Flip, Bat), we pushed this flaw aside in our minds. When ‘depth signing’ Steve Pearce was to be a significant piece of the starting lineup, it was a setback, but there was ‘so much potential with the team’. When the Bringer of Rain himself brought decidedly fewer droplets, it was a ‘problem’, but nothing that a rejuvenated Justin Smoak couldn’t fix. Instead, the problem was only accepted when the team having to play so many poor depth players mathematically removed the team from the playoff race.

Even when you look at this team’s high level performance, it’s pretty gruesome just how bad things got.

Between injuries to Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano and the roster shuffle that resulted from it, the Blue Jays’ top five pitchers by total innings pitched only accounted for 50.4 percent of the team’s total innings. Again, for comparison, that number was a whole 14 percent below the team’s 2016 season mark. Over the course of a full season that means that over 200 extra innings went to pitchers outside of the team’s top five workhorses. In the rotation, that meant that 25 starts went to eight journeymen (Mike Bolsinger, Brett Anderson, Chris Rowley, Nick Tepesch, Mat Latos, Cesar Valdez, Casey Lawrence, and Tom Koehler) who collectively pitched to a 6.27 ERA.

Unfortunately for Toronto, the hitting wasn’t much better. The team’s lack of a suitable backup catcher has resulted in 79 starts being handed to five players who were collectively worth -0.9 WARP. And the team’s commitment to the two headed ‘defensive beast’ of Goins and Barney resulted in a collective -1.0 WARP from backups in the middle infield. It’s a miracle that there weren’t more injury issues in the outfield, as the team’s true fourth outfielder Ezequiel Carrera found his way in to half a season’s worth of plate appearances.

Compared to other big money teams like the Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees, and Giants, the Jays have never been particularly great at providing depth options for their generally formidable major league starters. The flaw was just papered over in 2015 by a slew of upper level pitching prospects who were then traded away, and it seemed unnecessary in 2016 when Toronto lucked in to full seasons from most all of their starters. In 2017 there was not a healthy team nor any key minor league depth to aid it.

And yet, the same problem may repeat itself in 2018. The team appears committed to contending with a good, but aging, injured, and increasingly expensive core. In order to account for age related regression from key players, the Blue Jays will likely have to make a key acquisition in order to compete. But a key acquisition big enough to bridge the gap to a playoff spot will be a significant expenditure and will take away money for depth from a team that sorely needs it.

Aside from Aaron Sanchez’s freak blister injuries, all of the major injuries that plagued the team should have been anticipated as a possibility. This means that next season, when most of these exact same players come back a year older and with another season of wear and tear on their bodies, a disaster injury scenario needs to be accounted for again. If we’re to believe that history repeats itself, then I’d guess that the team won’t account for it and will grab a moderately flashy player alone. Bring in the reinforcements. Vlad and Bo, you can’t come soon enough.

Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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