After the exhilaration of the past two postseason appearances, the Blue Jays’ 2017 campaign can only be described as a colossal disappointment. While it’s inevitable that a playoff team will eventually fall short of October baseball at some point, the Jays were built and marketed as a team in contention. In fact, most baseball pundits predicted a second straight wild card berth for the Jays, making the 2017 season – during which Toronto never once reached the .500 mark and were last in the American League East until after the final game of the season – a particularly bitter pill to swallow.
Without question, a number of circumstances conspired to derail this team. Injuries alone decimated the roster; a team cannot lose its best hitter for 43 days and the reigning ERA champ for all but eight starts without it taking a toll. It’s not as though other teams didn’t suffer their fair share of injuries, but perhaps what this season exposed most was Toronto’s primary weakness: its lack of depth.
Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney played 143 and 129 games respectively and, while both are suitable as backups, they are not meant to be everyday players. The precipitous dropoff in quality starters was made apparent when the likes of Mike Bolsinger, Cesar Valdez, Tom Koehler, Mat Latos, Nick Tepesch and a host of others made their way into the rotation.
Add to this the fact that several players performed below expectations and the Jays were never really in the playoff conversation. They scored the fewest runs in the American League with a -91 run differential – 22nd in all of baseball and 12th in AL. It’s not easy to win ballgames when you don’t score more runs than your opponents.
That’s not to say that the entire roster was a disappointment this season. Justin Smoak and Marcus Stroman had stellar years overall. Back in July, I explored what I felt were the three best and the three most disappointing player performances of the first half of the season. Now that the dust has settled and general manager Ross Atkins has given his postmortem on the season, here are my best and worst of the second half.
THREE STANDOUTS OF THE SECOND HALF
Marco Estrada’s 2017 campaign can only be described as a roller coaster ride. His April and May were excellent, during which he posted a 3.15 ERA over eleven starts, holding batters to a .226/.276/.406 slash line and a .682 OPS. His next eleven starts were a virtual disaster. During this span he pitched 15.7 innings fewer in the same number of starts, with batters hitting .305/.393/.549/.942, causing his ERA to soar to 7.86 over those eleven starts. This incredibly frustrating performance landed Estrada on my previous most disappointing player performances list.
The master of the changeup rebounded nicely during his final eleven starts of the season, with an ERA of 4.59 and an opponents’ slash line of .246/.303/.448/.751 – not great, but far improved over his performance in June and July. Moreover, his September was stellar save for his last start.
It should be noted that Estrada induced fewer whiffs with his changeup and curveball in 2017 than his previous two seasons with the Jays. Given that the changeup is his bread-and-butter pitch, one hopes that he is able to regain its mastery. It is possible that he lost some feel for it this season, which would help explain his struggles.
Estrada admitted that his mid-season slump was due to worry regarding an undisclosed personal issue that is now behind him, as seemingly are the back issues that have previously plagued him. The Jays are banking on Estrada returning to form, having inked him to a one-year, $13-million deal that suggests the club intends to contend in 2018. Assuming that Estrada’s issues are a thing of the past, one can reasonably expect him to return to form next season. If nothing else, the signing helps to solidify next year’s starting rotation, meaning one less thing the front office has to address this off-season.
The bullpen as a whole was a pleasant surprise in 2017. Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes had outstanding seasons (as did Aaron Loup, not that anyone ever wants to acknowledge that fact), while Matt Dermody and Carlos Ramírez were excellent down the stretch. However, it was the performance of Dominic Leone that stood out as one of the top performances of the second half.
Leone was claimed by Toronto off waivers last off-season and was initially sent to Buffalo, but was recalled April 2nd due to the injury to Roberto Osuna. Despite popping back and forth between Toronto and Buffalo, his season was excellent overall: 70.1 innings pitched (the most in his career) over 65 games with an ERA of 2.56, a DRA of 2.81, a WHIP of 1.05, and 1.8 WARP. His second half was, however, particularly good.
From the beginning of July to the end of September, Leone appeared in 32 games. In 32.2 innings, he held batters to a slash line of .203/.256/.339 with an ERA of just 1.93, giving up just 24 hits and eight walks (a WHIP of 0.994) – which is by far and away the best reliever performance from July onward.
One reason for his success this season appears to be the increased use of his cutter, which he threw 36.0% of the time this season, while decreasing the use of his slider by nearly fifty percent over previous years. The result has been more soft contact and less hard contact on batted balls.
Relievers are volatile by nature and there is no way to predict how one might perform from one season to the next. Can Dominic Leone be just as good in 2018? That remains to be seen, but it’s certain he’s earned himself a spot in the bullpen out of spring training.
I realize I might be getting ahead of myself here, but if Teoscar Hernandez can provide something close to his production this past September over the course of a full season, then he may be one less question to be answered by the Jays’ front office this winter. It is obvious that two corner outfielders are necessary. The departure of José Bautista from right field and the mess that is the platoon of Steve Pearce and Ezequiel Carrera in left field make it necessary for management to address these two positions.
In 26 games (95 plate appearances) after his roster expansion call-up from Buffalo, Hernandez posted an impressive .261/.305/.602 slash line with an OPS of .908 and TAv of .302. He set a Jays’ record for rookies in September by bashing eight home runs and his 0.7 WARP was seventh-best among hitters all Jays’ hitters, with only Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak and Russell Martin significantly higher – which is crazy given that he had so many fewer at-bats.
There is, however, the matter of Hernandez’s 37.9% strikeout rate. Entering his age 25 season, Hernandez is still quite raw. Perhaps eager to impress his new team in what was most definitely an extended audition for a spot in next year’s starting lineup, Hernandez may have been pressing at the plate. His swing percentage on balls both outside and inside the zone increased by at least eight percent, while his overall contact rate decreased by nearly two percent over 2016.
Hernandez’s strong September means he’s the front-runner for a corner outfield position going into spring training. One must assume that Anthony Alford is less ready and that Dalton Pompey has fallen behind both on the depth chart. One must also assume that the front office won’t rest on their laurels and will actively seek two outfielders this off-season and that Hernandez will have to earn his spot on the 25-man this spring. Regardless, his performance demonstrated that he is a viable option who can provide precisely what the Jays were missing all season in the corners: a strong bat and solid defense.
THREE MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYERS OF THE SECOND HALF
Perhaps it is unfair of me to criticize a player who very bravely opened up the discussion about mental health when he disclosed feelings of anxiety that kept him out of a mid-June game against the Royals (and which may have interfered with his performance). But this is about player performance and there is no doubt that Roberto Osuna’s performance was a disappointment during the second half of the season.
After an injury-shortened spring training and a rocky April that included three blown saves, Osuna successfully converted 22 straight saves despite a loss in fastball velocity, culminating in his first All-Star appearance. One of the few bright spots, I included him among the three best player performances of the first half.
Things fell apart for Osuna in the second half. Unable to get a feel for his fastball from the start of the season, Osuna turned to a heavy reliance on his cutter which could only get him so far. The league figured him out quickly and the result was seven blown saves in the second half.
There were some positive takeaways from Osuna’s season. His HR/FB ratio is nearly half of what it was last season, while his K/BB and DRA drastically improved as well. The thing is, all that anyone is going to remember from the second half of his season – given that his role is to close out games – is the blown saves. Osuna himself admits that his season was a disappointment.
A lot was asked of Joe Biagini this season. After making fourteen relief appearances (with an ERA of 3.38, holding opponents to .227/.282/.303) to begin the season, Biagini was thrown into the starting rotation necessitated by injuries to, well, nearly everyone. Fans and front office alike were truly rooting for him, hopeful that he would be the solution to the fifth starter problem. Instead, Biagini struggled to the tune of a 5.60 ERA over eleven starts with opponents batting .268/.318/.424.
He did not fare better in the second half. Once again pitching out of the bullpen, Biagini’s ERA remained well above five and he was eventually sent to Buffalo with the goal of stretching him out properly to give him another shot in the rotation.
In his final seven starts of the season, Biagani made it past the fifth inning only twice. Batters hit .296/.356/.496 with an OPS .852 while his ERA hovered just below six, leaving many to ponder whether his most effective role moving forward is out of the bullpen.
Biagini will no doubt be afforded a chance to earn a spot in the rotation next spring training. As it stands, the Jays only have four starters and one cannot predict if Sanchez’s blister issues will once again flare up. Unfortunately for Biagini, his chance to impress was that second shot in the rotation during the latter part of the season. His difficulty in making the adjustment means the front office will need to look for other alternatives this off-season.
There is a particularly painful truth that is completely independent of the emotions felt during José Bautista’s final game in Toronto, and that is this: he had, perhaps, the most disappointing season of all.
By virtually all statistical measures, the 2017 season was the worst of Bautista’s career as a Blue Jay. He hit a paltry .203/.308/.366 with the lowest BB% (12.2) and highest K% (24.8) since he was acquired from the Pirates. His 0.9 WARP is higher than last year’s total only because he played 41 more games. And, to be frank, that’s a part of what made this season so incredibly frustrating.
Two injuries derailed Bautista’s 2016 season. Tales of his throwing arm’s demise were already widespread by that point. But along came the World Baseball Classic, and Bautista appeared to have recaptured some of the Joey Bats of old. This throw from left field against Columbia and this monster of a home run at Marlins Park had many declaring that the José Bautista had indeed returned to form.
It was not to be. Instead, Jays fans witnessed the decline of an icon that only got worse as the season continued. He batted .234 in the first half compared to .165 in the second, with fewer home runs, fewer walks and nearly the same number of strikeouts. It became obvious that he just couldn’t catch up to the fastball and his reputation for having an eye at the plate seemed to have eluded him.
It’s no surprise that the Blue Jays did not pick up his $18-million option for next season. Nor is it a surprise that Bautista’s not ready yet to hang up the cleats. What is upsetting is that Bautista maintains that he wants to stay with the Jays – and many fans would no doubt like to see him finish his career in a Toronto uniform. Unless he retires, that simply isn’t going to happen.
If you’re like me, you in no way define the José Bautista era in Toronto by this past season. Instead, you’ll remember 54. You’ll remember back-to-back home run titles. You’ll remember the Bat Flip. You’ll remember skipping around the bases after being thrown behind. You’ll remember when José Bautista put this team on his back and carried it for years.
And when he returns for his Level of Excellence ceremony, you’ll have forgotten all about 2017.
Because, if we’re being honest, this was a season to forget. There were some great moments – Chris Coghlan’s leaping slide and Steve Pearce’s walk-off grand slams are foremost in my mind – but, ultimately, it was a season of frustration and futility. It’s difficult to fully appreciate individual performances when the team could not pull itself out of last place until game 162. If we’re looking for a silver lining here, it is this: the 2017 season exposed some glaring weaknesses with this team, ones that the front office will need to address if the Jays as a whole are to avoid a repeat performance next year.
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