As Blue Jays’ offence struggles to produce results, their process provides signs of optimism
Photo credit:Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
By Thomas Hall8 months ago
Trust the process, a mentality the Toronto Blue Jays must remind themselves of during a suboptimal start to a pivotal 2023 campaign.
At 1-3 through four games, the record isn’t where anyone would like it to be, and rightly so. Losing three straight games, two to St. Louis and one to Kansas City, isn’t the ideal start to the season this franchise was hoping for. Neither are the less-than-impressive results that have shown up thus far.
Aside from a brilliant start from Kevin Gausman, Toronto’s starting rotation has struggled with consistent command, ranking 30th in runs allowed (25), tied for 30th in earned runs allowed (22) and tied for 28th in home runs allowed (six). But the pitching staff hasn’t received much support from the offence, which sits middle-of-the-pack in runs scored (20), wRC+ (109) and was the last team in the majors to register a home run, courtesy of Bo Bichette.
Bichette’s first round-tripper of 2023 – a 101.7-m.p.h. blast, travelling 397 feet over the left field wall at Kauffman Stadium – snapped his club’s three-game drought, a streak that set the franchise record for most games to begin a season without hitting a home run. But even that wasn’t worth celebrating in a 9-5 loss to the Royals on Monday night.
Amidst this slow start, the Blue Jays have encountered issues with preventing and scoring runs -two areas essential to piling up wins. And as we’ve seen lately, it is pretty difficult to come away victorious when you are struggling on both sides of the ball.
There were several questions about the starting rotation coming out of spring training, namely the effectiveness of José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi, who’ll make his 2023 debut Tuesday. So their early-season woes aren’t entirely shocking, although few people probably had Chris Bassitt surrendering four home runs in his Blue Jays debut. Offensively, however, it has been somewhat surprising to see this talented group faltering out of the gate from a results perspective.
For an offence that added Daulton Varsho, Brandon Belt and Kevin Kiermaier over the off-season, addressing the club’s lineup imbalance, the Blue Jays hoped to witness improved production at the plate. While the 2023 season is only a few days old, that has yet to occur up to this point.
The results are only one piece of the puzzle, though. And they can often be misleading if you don’t factor in a team’s offensive process, as is the case with Toronto’s lineup early this season.
Despite the minimal output, the offence has displayed quality at-bats out of the gate – they just haven’t translated into an offensive explosion outside of the 10-9 rollercoaster victory in St. Louis on Opening Day. What has stood out is their ability to put balls in play, as the team ranks second in contact percentage (79.4 per cent) across the sport heading into Wednesday’s slate.
Toronto’s hitters have also shown incredible plate discipline, much improved from a season ago, registering the third-lowest chase rate (27.8 per cent) and swinging strike rate (9.6 per cent) in the majors. In doing so, they’ve posted the fifth-lowest CSW (called strike plus swinging strike) percentage (25.6 per cent).
These are part of the little details that Blue Jays manager John Schneider has been preaching about since Day 1 of spring training. From an external view, they may seem like minuscule points of emphasis. Internally, however, Schneider’s message reads loud and clear to everyone, including first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Like the rest of the team, Guerrero’s bat hasn’t caught fire yet, as he sits with just one extra-base hit over 20 plate appearances into his fifth big-league season. But there is far more to the story than just his traditional metrics. The overall results haven’t been quite there for the two-time All-Star, though he ranks second on the team in contact percentage (92.7 per cent) and SwStr rate (3.2 per cent) and third in chase rate (21.2 per cent).
After putting too much pressure on himself last season, the 24-year-old underwent an off-season of self-reflection and realized he has to let things come to him, not the other way around. That meant implementing a more patient approach in the batter’s box, which is paying off thus far with his chase, SwStr and contact rates all significantly improved from 2022.
Guerrero’s hitting process from a quality-of-contact perspective has also been noteworthy, as 10 of his 14 batted-ball events have produced a 95 m.p.h. exit velocity or harder, tied for most in the majors. That is a major reason why the Blue Jays currently rank ninth in hard-hit percentage (42.5 per cent) – only to have much of their roster experience poor batted-ball fortune.
Part of that misfortune has caused Toronto’s offence to become stagnant during run-scoring opportunities, where they’ve slashed .233/.321/.279 with a 67 wRC+ with RISP, tied for 24th in the majors. The hits, however, should soon start to fall during these situations, mainly since the club features the fifth-most plate appearances (53) with runners on second and third base.
So while much of the fan base is already reaching for the panic button, doing so this early in the marathon that is a 162-game schedule would be ill-advised. There have already been more than a healthy amount of chances to produce runs, an aspect more fans should be paying attention to, especially given that most of those chances have been a by-product of improved baserunning.
No other coach has spent more time hammering the importance of operating as an effective base runner than Schneider this season, a sentiment that proved to be the difference in last Thursday’s opener, as advancing first to third base on George Springer’s 50-50 bloop shot positioned Kiermaier to score the game-winning run on Guerrero’s ninth-inning sac-fly.
Kiermaier hasn’t been the only example of this, either, as the Blue Jays have collectively been more inclined to tag from second base on deep flyouts, go first to third and score from first base, as Springer did on Thursday to register his team’s fourth run of the contest.
Matt Chapman, who is 8-for-15 to start the year, exemplified this trait perfectly Monday night, albeit in the later stages of a 9-5 loss to the Royals. The 29-year-old earned a walk before going first to third on Cavan Biggio’s single, ultimately scoring on a wild pitch to trim Toronto’s deficit to 9-4 in the eighth inning.
It may have only been one run, but it further cemented the point that with a solid process, the results are bound to follow eventually.
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