There was more bad than good in the first half of 2017 for the Toronto Blue Jays. That doesn’t mean the season is over.
A horrifically slow start, a wealth of injuries, and some disappointing performances have the Jays sitting fifth in the American League East at the All-Star break. They’re 41-47, eight-and-a-half games back of the division, and five back of the second Wild Card. Perhaps the most damning number is Toronto’s -64 run differential, which is different than what we’ve seen from their slow-start-but-good-beneath-the-surface 2015 and 2016 seasons.
But we’re only half way there! The Blue Jays have played 88 games and will play 74 more before it’s all wrapped up. That’s plenty of time to make up ground on the Rays, Royals, Rangers, and the flux of mediocre clubs between the Jays and a playoff spot. Let’s review.
The rotation was supposed to be this team’s strength. Marcus Stroman was going to enjoy a breakout season and Aaron Sanchez was going to build on the breakout season he enjoyed last year. Behind them, steady veterans J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada were going to provide quality innings like we had come to expect. Francisco Liriano was a wild card, but after a strong spring and some time working with old pal Russell Martin, he was expected to be better than your average back-of-the-rotation starter.
Almost none of that worked out according to plan. Welcome to baseball!
Marcus Stroman has enjoyed a breakout season. That was the hope after his incredible performance at the World Baseball Classic. Through 18 starts, Stroman leads Blue Jays starters with a sparking 3.28 ERA. Save for a couple of bad starts, Stroman has been excellent this season.
Aaron Sanchez’s season has been completely derailed due to a terrible blister. He’s had three separate trips to the disabled list and has only made six starts. J.A. Happ also missed a significant chunk of time due to an elbow injury. Francisco Liriano, who also spent some time on the DL, has been all over the grid, sometimes very good and sometimes very bad. Marco Estrada got off to a strong start, but has seen his ERA balloon to 5.17 thanks to a miserable month of June.
Due to the injuries to Happ, Sanchez, and Liriano, the Jays have been forced to start guys like Casey Lawrence, Mat Latos, and Mike Bolsinger, who obviously weren’t part of the ideal season blueprint. Joe Biagini was also thrown into the rotation, forced to make 11 starts. It started off well, but Biagini eventually sputtered. Still, it was as much as you could expect from a player being thrown into the fire.
So, all in all, the rotation hasn’t been as much of a strength as anybody would have hoped. Still, it hasn’t been terrible either. And considering the grenades thrown at the club with Happ and Sanchez missing significant time, the Jays have done a pretty good job dancing their way through disaster. According to Baseball Reference, the Jays rank 10th in baseball in terms of Wins Above Average for starting pitching. Last season, they were fifth, and that’s where you’d likely expect them to be if they can remain healthy.
With everyone healthy there’s certainly reason to be optimistic about the starting rotation becoming excellent in the second half. At worst, you expect Stroman, Sanchez, Happ, Liriano, and Estrada rolling to be solid, but if Stroman continues to be excellent, Sanchez finds last season’s form, Estrada figures himself out, and Happ does what he’s done since coming off the disabled list, this rotation can compensate for a poor offence.
While the rotation has been a bit of an enigma, the bullpen has stepped up and been a major strength for the Blue Jays.
Coming into the season, Roberto Osuna as the closer was a sure thing, Jason Grilli was expected to be the eighth inning guy, Joe Biagini would get the seventh like he did last year, and J.P. Howell and Joe Smith would be the ideal lefty/righty in middle inning situations.
But hey! Baseball! Grilli fell completely flat, posting a 6.97 ERA through 26 appearances, and was designated for assignment and ultimately dealt to Texas. Howell has hardly pitched, spending the majority of the season on the DL for left arm shittiness. Of the veterans, Smith is the only one who panned out. Before hurting his shoulder in mid-June, the sidewinder snagged Grilli’s setup role and ran with it.
With Grilli and Howell not meeting expectations and Biagini thrusted into the starting rotation, a rag-tag group stepped up and has been surprisingly effective. Danny Barnes, Ryan Tepera, and Dominic Leone have all been excellent filling in much higher leverage roles than expected, Aaron Loup and Jeff Beliveau have been decent in lefty roles, and, of course, Osuna has slammed the door when necessary.
All told, the ‘pen has the fourth highest Wins Above Average figure according to Baseball Reference, behind only Cleveland, Baltimore, and Arizona. Yes, that’s even better than Aroldis Chapman’s Yankees, Andrew Miller’s Clevelanders, and Wade Davis’ Cubs. If not for the work of this bullpen, Toronto’s deficit would be a lot bigger than it is. Honestly, it might be insurmountable.
Bullpens are notoriously difficult to predict, but barring burnout and injury, this group should continue to be solid in the second half. Maybe not, like, fourth-best in baseball good, but good enough for the team to be successful. With a healthy and rolling starting rotation, their workload will decrease and they won’t be leaned on so heavily.
Remember in 2015 when the Jays scored runs at will? Then in 2016 it slowed down and was just kinda above average-ish? Well, now this offence is in the basement. In the first half of the season, the Jays averaged 4.16 runs per game. That was 26th in baseball, down in the category with the shitty Padres, Giants, Phillies, and Trout-less Angels.
Of course, some of that can be blamed on injuries. But these aren’t your 2015 Blue Jays anymore. There just isn’t the same potency and pop in the lineup that made you think that the team could still be in a game even if they were down by five runs. Hell, at times this season, it’s felt like the game is over when the other team has a 1-0 lead in the third inning.
Going by Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Average, Toronto is only above replacement level at two positions — first base and centre field. Otherwise, their non-pitchers combined to rank 28th in baseball.
Justin Smoak has carried this team offensively with a breakout season that’s made everyone go back and delete their old “Why the fuck did they sign this guy to a two-year extension” takes. Smoak, the All-Star, has put up a .936 OPS, 144 wRC+, 23 homers, and 56 RBIs. That’s very good. The team badly needs for him to keep up something close to that in the second half. Kevin Pillar, who mans the team’s other above-average position, drives that success largely with his glove. He seemed to have hitting figured out early on, but Pillar has fallen back to his swing at goddamn everything ways, and currently owns a .724 OPS for the season.
Otherwise? Every other position has been below league average. A lot of that comes down to a massive amount of man games lost to injury. Josh Donaldson missed significant time with a calf injury, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, and Steve Pearce missed a few weeks, and Devon Travis is likely out for the rest of the season. As a result, the Jays had to piece things together with a collection of bench players, giving Chris Coghlan, Darwin Barney, and Ryan Goins more at bats than you’d like. Of the bench players who have had to take on a significant role, Zeke Carrera has easily been the best. Zeke ‘The Playoff Legend” owns a .771 OPS, though has BABIP is well above his career average and his play in the field has been sketchy.
Josh Donaldson has been good when healthy. Despite missing half the season, Donaldson ranks third among Blue Jays position players in terms of WAR and his OPS of .868 is second only to Justin Smoak. A second half climb up the standings largely hinges on whether or not he’s able to consistently stay on the field.
Russell Martin has contributed nicely with the bat, posting a .781 OPS through 241 plate appearances. The Jays have had a hell of a time finding a suitable backup for Martin, though. Miguel Montero is the third backup they’ve had, but Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Luke Maile combined to be worth -1.4 WAR.
Jose Bautista has found a home at the top of the lineup. His power numbers are down, but his .349 OBP and excellent approach makes him a catalyst in the leadoff role. Kendrys Morales’ .754 OPS and 16 homers is a little disappointing, but he hasn’t been debilitating. It would be nice to see Troy Tulowitzki go on a big hot streak, because his .700 OPS is just league average.
But yeah, overall, the Blue Jays non-pitchers, like I said, have been waaaaay below average. Obviously hundreds of at bats being used on Maile, Goins, Coghlan, and Barney is going to drive that number down. If this lineup can stay healthy — that’s a massive if — they can be solid. I don’t think we can expect them to be potent, but they can be a lot better than the 4.16 runs-per-game they’ve put up so far. If this team is going to find success, it’s going to be with a good-but-not-great offence that hits for power and scores in bunches. That’s completely fine if the pitching can be excellent. We saw this blueprint be successful in 2016, and with some good luck, it can happen again down the stretch this year too.