Teoscar Hernandez home run

5 Things That Went Right for the Blue Jays in 2017

The Blue Jays’ season will come to an end in just under a week. It’s a disappointment considering the performances put on by the 2015 and 2016 versions of this team, with many key contributors from both of those groups still on board for this slog of a season.

Things never got off the ground and a nightmare start was exacerbated by a rash of injuries at key spots that asked far too much of players who were either ill equipped or unprepared to take on big responsibilities. Try as they might, the Toronto Blue Jays would never hit .500 on the season.

That being said, few things in life are ever all bad. There’s something to be gleaned from even the greatest of letdowns, and there were plenty of stories worth celebrating from a year that’s soon to be in the books. And that’s not including the terrific sendoff Jose Bautista received on Sunday or the exciting growth of Toronto’s highest-profile prospects.

Justin Smoak

The most notable of those is obviously the remarkable season of Justin Smoak, who rocketed up from afterthought (if not ‘unavoidable roster nuisance’) to All Star starter. He has already shattered his career high in home runs and may very well wind up reaching 40, in addition to posting a career-low K% while showing a little more restraint at the dish.

To wit, Smoak has done his damage on fewer fastballs than ever. Prior to this season, the 2015 mark of 52.8 percent represented the lowest fastball share that Smoak had ever seen. While the numbers can still change this year, it’s currently at 48.5 percent. Smoak simply doesn’t chase as much and regardless of whether the added breaking stuff popped up before or after his early success, it has turned him into a lethal lineup weapon. It’s the power-hitting version of Smoak that was in Toronto’s wildest dreams when they took a chance on the former top prospect three years ago.

Elsewhere in the stat profile, Smoak will also set career-highs in batting average (.275), OBP (.358), slugging (.541), ISO (.266) and True Average (.294).

Whether or not this ends up as a flash in the pan season from the much-maligned first baseman, it has certainly made the two-year, $8.25 million extension he signed last year look pretty good. Results don’t excuse process (whether the deal was a good or bad bit of process is certainly up for debate) but for now it’s hard to argue that the Jays didn’t hit a home run on that deal.

Marcus Stroman

Stroman was definitely better than the 4.37 ERA he posted last season, and the righty was dealt a poor hand thanks to an unsightly strand rate of 68.6 percent. This season it’s back up to 77.7 and despite a small increase in BABIP, Stroman has seen much better box score results.

While that seems like one of the largest drivers of Stroman’s excellent season, there are a few things to note beyond the surface numbers. He also saw a slight uptick in both ground ball and strikeout rate as well as an increase in soft contact. As you might expect, that’s accompanied by decreases in medium and hard contact.

Health was also a huge factor this year and his ability to stay on the field gave the Jays some nice dependability atop the rotation. He and Marco Estrada were the only two starters to top 150 innings pitched, with J.A. Happ and Joe Biagini being the only others to surpass the century mark.

As of Sunday night, Stroman sat eighth in MLB with his sparkling 3.01 ERA. In a season filled with injuries to the rotation’s other stalwarts, the Stro Show was a fun time every fifth game.

Josh Donaldson’s finish

While Donaldson’s absence and injury-capped performance was a huge hindrance to the team’s early efforts, he came back with a vengeance in the second half.

In the first half of the season, in which Donaldson battled calf injuries and was limited to a .261/.383/.484 line with nine home runs, 25 RBI and a .224 ISO. In the second half, he absolutely crushed opposing pitching as his power returned, posting similar .262 and .384 marks in average and OBP but dropping a .576 mark in slugging and a .314 ISO. August was particularly eventful, as JD hit .289 while smacking 12 dingers and driving in 22 runs.

Not that you’d expect much different from an MVP caliber guy like Donaldson, but it’s a nice reminder that he can absolutely drag a team wherever he’d like to once he gets on a bender like that. It was also particularly enjoyable considering the growing volume of trade rumors that would’ve kickstarted a full on rebuild had they come to fruition.

It may have been too little too late with too little help, but Josh Donaldson remains a Toronto Blue Jay.

Bullpen Growth

There was some offseason fretting after the team lost southpaw extraordinaire Brett Cecil to the big dollars of free agency, and the worries only grew when Jason Grilli pitched his way off the roster.

While the ride was somewhat bumpy, the Jays received some fantastic performances from lesser-heralded names this season and appear to have found a handful of options that can bridge the gap from a hopefully healthy 2018 rotation to a hopefully resurgent Roberto Osuna.

Ryan Tepera’s tremendous stuff finally showed up in his statline as he worked into a setup role, leading the team in innings out of the bullpen while striking out over a batter per inning. Danny Barnes forced his way into the conversation after an early call-up and wound up posting a strand rate north of .800, while Aaron Loup saw his home run rate return to earth and his ERA settle below four for the first time in three years.

Among the players who weren’t necessarily on the big league radar heading into the year, Dominic Leone really impressed with a 2.49 ERA and 10.1 K/9 across 68.2 innings of increasingly high-leverage work. Carlos Ramirez rode an otherworldly AAA season to a September call-up and didn’t allow his first earned run of the entire year until late September.

Though JP Howell didn’t work out and Joe Smith was traded after a successful stint, the Jays have proven that the organization is stocked with enough talented arms to cobble together an effective bullpen, even if they keep things limited to the low-risk district in free agency.

Teoscar Hernandez

When the Jays decided to hold onto their attractive assets at the trade deadline, it was taken as a sign that the team intended to get back into the playoff mix next season behind some better luck in the injury department. Though they could’ve dealt some big names for huge returns, the team made nice work of a Francisco Liriano trade that netted them outfielder Teoscar Hernandez. It wasn’t the king’s ransom that a full fire sale would’ve brought, but Hernandez has been a wonderful consolation prize.

Since joining the Blue Jays, Hernandez has slashed .266/.294/.578 with five home runs and 12 RBI through his first 20 games. Additionally, he represents an injection of athleticism that the team mentioned last winter but never really addressed. Hernandez also became the first Blue Jays rookie to homer in three consecutive games over the weekend, going deep in each game of the home set against the Yankees.

This isn’t to overhype the soon-to-be 24-year-old after a few short weeks in Toronto, but he’s certainly made a strong first impression and should be on the inside track to lock down a starting corner outfield spot come Opening Day. In a season with infrequent bright spots, a young prospect making good makes it nearly impossible to look ahead without some optimism. In short, baseball should be fun and good and the immediate returns on the Hernandez deal are the type that make you think that things will be fun and good again very soon. We’ve seen hot debuts fizzle out before, but for a while it’s just nice to hope.

So while it’s sad to see the Blue Jays dispatched before the thrill ride of October baseball (without anything exciting in September to show for it), there were still a handful of valuable things to take home. Let’s see what carries over into 2018.

© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

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