The Blue Jays haven’t been fun to watch very often so far this season. Even as someone who enjoys baseball for baseball’s sake, and who still is full of belief in this team, I can’t not admit that. With huge chunks of the offence struggling and the bullpen still not having found its footing a month in, it’s certainly not anywhere near as fun as when we had last seen last season, as the Jays steamrolled their way through the second half of 2015 and into the ALCS.
Clearly we were spoiled by that incredible run and how it felt like every game was destined to be a victory, but knowing that sometimes doesn’t make the ghosts of 2015 any easier to shake. In particular, those ghosts live on in the narrative of how last season transpired and how the Jays are going to be unable to repeat some of its most incredible tricks.
I’m not saying everybody thinks this way, but there exists in the conversation about the 2016 Jays an over-simple notion that last season the Jays floundered until the trade deadline, then remade their bullpen, swapped Reyes for Tulo, and added Ben Revere and David Price, at which point a not-so-great team was transformed — something they won’t be able to do this time around, with their prospect stock so depleted.
Obviously there is a lot that’s accurate about that narrative, but I think that in it we see how we’ve been spoiled by that incredible second half into not having to actually think about what really came before it.
All of this is a long way of saying that I think we’d do well to remember that last year’s bullpen wasn’t an unmitigated disaster for four months before Aaron Sanchez, Mark Lowe, and LaTroy Hawkins rode in to save it.
The Blue Jays had one of the American League’s top bullpens last June, for example. Despite Sanchez being out of the picture and Brett Cecil having a horrific month (9.00 ERA, 14.6% walk rate), the Jays had a top three bullpen in the AL by WAR, FIP, xFIP, K/9, BB/9, and WPA/LI. They were fourth in ERA.
Osuna was Osuna. Aaron Loup was unlucky but excelled by FIP. Liam Hendriks didn’t allow an earned run. Bo Schultz rode the luck dragon to big success. Steve Delabar was decent enough. Todd Redmond and Ryan Tepera were going well.
They were pretty alright in July, too! Or at the very least in the upper-middle of the AL pack — and they would have been better, too, had Loup and Delabar not blown up that month, or if regression hadn’t hit Tepera and Schultz, at least where FIP is concerned. Everyone else was going quite well.
I’m not saying it was necessarily a championship calibre bullpen at that point, but for two months before the trade deadline (though I should note that Sanchez and Hawkins combined for six innings in late July), it was entirely fine.
I’m also not saying that means things will necessarily right themselves this year, but it’s worth remembering how last season actually unfolded.
Also worth remembering is how the Jays’ position players played last April. As a group they posted a wRC+ of just 102, putting up a combined 3.7 WAR. This year those numbers were, perhaps surprisingly, not too far off — a 99 wRC+ and 3.2 WAR.
Am I reaching to make the best of a bad situation here? A little bit, I can admit. This year’s specific problems — Drew Storen, Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin in particular — could possibly be more intractable than the issues that slowed the Jays early on last year, and probably deserve — or at least will if they persist — deeper analysis than simply assuming everything be fine with a dismissive shrug. I’m not exactly presenting a mountain of evidence that shows things will definitely be fine here. I can’t do that, obviously — and maybe I’m afraid to look too closely at those cases in particular. But what I can do is try to remind that for all the wheel-spinning the Jays did in the early going of 2015, we didn’t watch four months of an awful bullpen that was only fixed by additions that this year’s doomed version will be unable to make. We didn’t watch an offence that clicked on all cylinders unrelentingly for an entire season.
When the peaks are so incredibly high it’s hard to see the valleys below the clouds, and when you’re in a valley it’s sometimes hard to envision ever getting up to that peak. In reality, as neat and tidy a story as it makes, and as much as their being 50-51 in late July feeds into it, the 2015 Blue Jays season had a lot of moving parts that didn’t fit that narrative, I don’t think. Enough that, for me, it still seems way off to assume that this year’s version is the same kind of early-season mediocrity that will struggle for months to hang close, only this time they won’t have the trade chips to right itself when the time comes. Even if it’s been hard so far to feel sometimes like that’s not the trajectory they’re on.
Maybe that’s obvious. But with each loss and each game in which their current problems don’t disappear, I think it becomes easier to forget. And what I’m saying is: let’s not. At least not yet.