The Blue Jays have been good but not great so far. What needs to change in the second half of the season?
Photo credit:Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
By Tate Kispech4 months ago
The 2023 iteration of the Toronto Blue Jays was supposed to be special.
This was supposed to be a team that did the little things right, one that found ways to win games, unlike the inconsistent teams of the past. Instead, at the midway point, they’re tied for 4th in the AL East and are considering how to fill some glaring holes on the roster ahead of the August 1 trade deadline.
How does this ship get turned around? What do the Blue Jays need to change in order to reach their potential?
If, at the start of the season, you’d told me that the Blue Jays were going to be a game or two out of the third Wild Card spot a week before the All-Star break, I’d have called you crazy. This was supposed to be a team within a game or two of the division, and even that would have been marginally disappointing. Instead, they’re eight back of Tampa, and even the most optimistic of fans would tell you it’s hard to see any world in which the Jays catch the Rays.
The Jays’ chance of making the playoffs dropped precipitously at the end of May, going from nearly 75% to 45%. The team then had one of the best June records in the American League, climbing 10 percentage points back up, but it’s still bleak. Following this week’s sweep of the Chicago White Sox, they’ve climbed back up to just a shade under 70 percent, right around where the Yankees and Orioles are.
Something has to change, and fast.
Bo Bichette’s 2023 has been among the league’s best, so much so that the season nearly hinges on him at this point. With the offence struggling to the extent that it is (25th in runs scored in the last 30 days), an injury to any of the big boppers, especially Bichette, could effectively kill the Blue Jays’ chance at even a Wild Card berth. The pitching’s been even more confusing.
Much to everyone’s appreciation, José Berríos seems to have recovered from a really tough 2022, and the righty’s ERA sits at 3.74. The issue is that for his rebirth, Alek Manoah seems to have been sacrificed. The young right-hander got the Opening Day nod ahead of Kevin Gausman, then posted an ERA well over 6 across his first 13 starts until the Jays mercifully demoted him, in an attempt to fix what’s been going brutally wrong. The aforementioned Gausman has been his usual self, but Chris Bassitt’s been a little bit up and down during his tenure, and the same can be said for Yusei Kikuchi.
This was supposed to be a starting rotation that had figured itself out and could lead a team to the promised land of a deep October run. Instead, at the midway point, there are probably more question marks than not in the rotation.
So, when your offence is struggling, and your rotation is uncertain, where do you go? The Blue Jays would certainly be well advised to start their trade season early, in case of things get worse before they get better. The issue is that I highly doubt this team is a trade away from being fixed. The actual root issue isn’t the talent of the roster, but the way in which that talent is performing. Vladimir Guerrero’s bat was supposed to be nothing short of franchise-altering, instead, his wRC+ is inferior to Brandon Drury’s. George Springer’s first two seasons were highlighted by great performances, but marred by injury. Now that he’s fully healthy, and moved off of centre field, we were supposed to be getting 162 games of a 5 WAR outfielder. Instead, that player looks firmly planted in the rearview mirror.
So, it seems as if the problem has been diagnosed. Whether it’s Vlad, Springer, Manoah, or a variety of others, the talent the Blue Jays have assembled simply isn’t able to play to their potential. But how does that problem get fixed? Let’s start with coaching. There’s a strong argument to be made about an issue with coaching that runs deeper than the manager. Hitting coach Guillermo Martinez has long preached taking the ball the opposite way and hitting it on the ground, an approach that quantifiably doesn’t work.
We also know about how many members of the locker room still rely on Dante Bichette for advice when things get hard, with Santiago Espinal having spent some time with the ex-major leaguer earlier this season. The issue with that is the same. Here’s a 2-minute video of Dante Bichette talking about hitting, one in which he says about 5 things that are once again, demonstrably false.
The elder Bichette claims that getting out in front of the ball somehow equates to loft, an issue that’s been plaguing several Jays hitters, including Vlad Guerrero. The first baseman has long had trouble getting the ball off the ground, something that’s been hurting his performance in the last two years especially. However, when we look at the data, there’s no correlation between his Pull% (being early will CERTAINLY cause you to pull the ball because, at that point, your swing path is angling the ball toward the pull field) and his GB%.
If there was any truth to Bichette’s statement, we would see a negative correlation between pulling the ball and hitting it on the ground, if being early causes loft. I know that there are more hitters in baseball than simply Guerrero, but this is the most aesthetically pleasing (and relevant) way to present the data. The trend doesn’t show itself no matter the sample size you use. Pulling the ball does not mean you’re going to hit it in the air. I wish it was that simple.
The atmosphere surrounding the Blue Jays club is one of the ideals that are simply inaccurate. Hitters in a slump in 2023 should not be looking to a player like Dante Bichette, whom the game passed by long ago, for advice. When you take a look at an organization like Tampa Bay, you see their coaching staff talk about things like decision-making, mechanics, and data, the last of which is especially shunned by people like Dante Bichette and Guillermo Martinez. Counter to a philosophy like that of the Rays, the adjustments we often hear about when it comes to the Blue Jays are about ‘seeing the ball up the middle’, or ‘letting the ball travel and going the opposite way.’
The organization is constructed using data, and while players don’t necessarily need to be made aware of data points when they’re going about their business, the advice they get from coaches should be statistically accurate and actionable, rather than ideas that are outdated, as well as simply incorrect.
A similar issue exists on the pitching side of the ball. Last year, much was made of José Berríos’s struggle, and many fans and writers theorized that it had a lot to do with a poor four-seam fastball thrown by the right-hander.
As just one example, here’s a FanGraphs article from Ben Clemens highlighting how bad the four-seamer really was.
It’s no surprise then that Berrios’s performance went down when his fastball usage went up, and no surprise that he’s regained his form this year after decreasing the usage of the 4SFB to a career low. The issue is how slow the organization was to diagnose the problem. Fans and journalists should not be spot on with their analysis of a pitcher’s struggles a YEAR before the coaching staff is able to treat them. The struggles of a player like Manoah are a bit more of a mystery, though it’s no secret that he came to this season out of condition, and not all of the blame can be shouldered by the coaches. However, there are certain issues that have been persistently nagging this team, especially this team’s hitters, and sooner or later, change has to occur inside the organization.
It’s no secret that the Blue Jays are underperforming. While not all struggles are permanent, this is a team that’s in danger of going three straight competitive years without a single playoff win, something that would have to be considered a failure when you take into account the group of talent that has been assembled, and spent upon. The spending won’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) stop in the years to come, with players such as Guerrero, Bichette, and Kirk needing to be signed long-term. External additions won’t hurt either, but the Jays may see a major change in performance if they can change the outdated and leisurely methods of the coaching staff.
All statistics via FanGraphs. Thanks for reading!
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