It seems that everything that was supposed to go right for the Blue Jays last year, but didn’t – a deep, potent batting lineup, good defense, a strong starting rotation, a weakened A.L. East ripe for the taking – has come together this year, as though it just took a year for everything to settle. Jays’ management could have been forgiven for simply backing up the truck after last year’s Murphy’s Law-disaster and getting rid of almost everybody, but took a more measured approach, shedding obvious deadwood – Bonifacio, Josh Johnson, Arencibia – while keeping most everybody else, reasoning that this team wasn’t just built for one season.
At this point last year, I was asking myself if they were just a bad ball club, or a good team playing badly, and at what point did one decide which?
Their recent hot stretch and startling zoom into first place has a lot of us reciting the cautionary mantra of “It’s still early, it’s still early”, while wondering if these guys are really this good, still understandably a little gun-shy after last year’s dance of death.
After their win against the Tigers Wednesday night, the Jays’ record stood at 36-24 after 60 games, a conveniently math-friendly and tidy winning-percentage of .600. It’s maybe a little early to project ahead this far, but the Jays will likely need to win about 96 games to either take the division or a wild card spot. This means they need to win 60 of their remaining 102 games, a clip of .600 – in other words, they need to maintain their current pace for the rest of the season. Given that their good record so far was fuelled in part by a surprising nine-game winning streak, can they do this? Or, to put it another way, was the streak a real indication of their ability, or just one of those flukey baseball things?
There are those who think any long winning streak is inherently lucky. They would point to last year’s broken team reeling off eleven straight wins in June to get our hopes up, only to crash and burn afterward, losing 20 of their next 27 games. And they would recite the old saw about things evening out over the long haul in baseball, that a team is never quite as good as it looks during a win streak or as bad as they look when they’re losing. Well, exactly, but it cuts both ways – I don’t see the nine-game win streak as lucky, I see it as things evening out over the long run. This team is not nearly as bad as it looked last year, and they under-achieved this year in April, due to some injuries, slow starts, etc. I didn’t see the win streak coming either, but I think their hot May is mostly indicative of this team’s true abilities and not a fluke.
It’s not the nine-game win streak, but the way it was accomplished – with all hands on deck – that counts. Mostly, May was a team-wide effort, the winning achieved with a wide mix of elements – good defense, much better starting pitching, speed, a more balanced offense in every way. Yes, Edwin Encarnacion got really hot – Mickey Mantle?!? – and that surely helped. But if you look at it closely, given his ice-cold start this year and his power numbers the last two years – 79 home runs – even Edwin’s sizzling month was not that out of whack, more of an averaging out. Thrilling though he was, there was a lot more to the winning in May than Edwin. The guys who had been very good since the beginning – Cabrera, Bautista, Lind, Buehrle – kept up their pace, as did the defense, which has been tremendous from the get-go. Getting Casey Janssen back as the closer – he’s been spotlessly efficient so far – was a huge boost to an overworked and beleaguered bullpen. Jose Reyes very quietly had a good month after recovering fully from his opening day injury. He’s still only hitting .247, but he began May at about .190. Forget the numbers in his case. Watching him – at bat, running the bases, in the field – you can see he feels right for the first time in a while and there’s room for improvement from him still. And above all, the starting pitching really improved, lowering its collective ERA by almost two runs and going deeper into games. Maybe I’m seeing the glass half-full, but I don’t regard any of this as flukey, but rather overdue – this is how things were supposed to be.
All the winning the Jays have been doing lately – 19 of their last 23 – has been mainly about two things – the strike zone, and effectively plugging some holes. Let’s look at these two in some detail:
The Strike Zone. Simply put, the Jays’ starting pitchers have been pounding the strike zone, and their hitters have learned to judge it. Earlier in the season, the relievers and starting pitchers were giving up far too many walks, it was pretty ugly. This has stopped among the starters – there have been a bunch of games lately where they walked very few, if any. Liam Hendriks had a start recently where he was hit very hard and everyone pointed out that the stellar defense bailed him out with five or six great plays. This was true, but overlooked was that he walked nobody – zero. Dickey had a start against Oakland recently where he walked only one, and both Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman are coming off zero-walk games. This is more like it, and Buehrle has walked very few all year. Also, the starters – Buehrle and Dickey in particular – have given up far fewer home runs than last year. This all means fewer pitches, more efficiency and going deeper into games – six-plus to seven-plus innings per start is becoming more the norm, good news all around.
As for the hitters, along with all the home runs and other good news, they’re showing a lot more strike-zone judgement and plate discipline than in the past, throughout the order. They’re walking a lot more and striking out a lot less, giving away at-bats much less often than last year. This is all reflected in their team numbers – they’re sixth in the A.L. in walks, but second in on-base-percentage (.334) and a close fourth in batting average (.265). They lead in everything else, mostly by a wide margin – hits, extra-base hits, home runs (by a whopping 15), runs, slugging percentage and, to cut to the chase, the big one – on-base-plus-slugging (O.P.S.), at .787. These numbers are nice, but what it all means in terms of winning for the Jays is that it’s no longer all or nothing, not just about hitting home runs as in the past. Nobody seems to be trying to do too much all by themselves, hitters seem to be more aware of ‘keeping the line moving’, taking the walk or slapping the ball to the opposite field if that’s what the pitcher is giving them. Jose Bautista has been the epitome of this all season and is showing the way for the rest of the lineup. He’s no longer swinging at bad pitches or getting frustrated or arguing strike calls with the umpires, he’s become a complete hitter – average, power, on-base – and some of the other hitters – Cabrera, Lind, Navarro – are following suit. The result has been a deep, versatile lineup scoring lots of runs and having big innings, generally making opposing pitchers – including some good left-handers for a change – miserable.
Hitting coach Kevin Seitzer deserves a lot of credit for this, he’s a very visible force in the dugout, encouraging guys and interacting with them during games. He’s not just a cheerleader though, he’s analytical and seems to have come up with an approach for the hitters that combines being patient with being aggressive and ready to hit. It’s worked, this is a palpably different hitting lineup and John Gibbons has done a great job of manipulating it, sometimes breaking up Bautista and Encarnacion with Adam Lind, who’s been just money against righties, and rotating the catchers, Tolleson and Francisco in and out of the DH slot and pinch-hitting. Everyone seems to be contributing and the bench, which once seemed a weakness, is now a strength. This has also improved morale and unity, these guys are playing together as a team and it shows.
Plugging Holes. Despite a none too active off-season, the Jays have plugged some holes in their lineup from last year and used April to sort out some that developed this year. The catching situation is much better (it couldn’t have been much worse, Arencibia’s career as a Nashville C & W music producer seems imminent), defensively and offensively. With their short bench early in the season, carrying three catchers had me scratching my head, but it’s worked out really well, and John Gibbons has done a great job of moving Kratz, Thole and Navarro in and out of the lineup. Kratz has been very good as Happ’s personal catcher, he throws well and has power. Thole catches Dickey and has chipped in with a .360 average in limited time. And Navarro has been very good all-around – he can throw and hit, calls a good game, and doesn’t have to bear too much of the burden. Given how the Jays have depleted their cupboard of young catching prospects, they’re in pretty good shape behind the plate. These three are hitting about .280 between them, with some production. J.P.’s gone, let the good times roll.
Second base was another hole and it took a while, but they’ve sorted that out too. After trying out a bunch of options, they’ve settled on Steve Tolleson, or Brett Lawrie moving over from third. Tolleson is solid and although many still don’t like it, the Lawrie-at-second- base experiment has been a resounding success, if team results and winning are any indication. Lawrie seems ready for this and has looked mostly great, he seems to be a different player entirely. You can see it in his eyes, his face, his body English, he’s calmer and more under control this year, there haven’t been any “Brett incidents” – tantrums with umpires or teammates, or stupid, reckless injuries. He’s been a standout defensively at both second and third base and a much more productive hitter – you’d like his average to be higher, but at the end of the season his pro-rated numbers would be: .240, 25 homers, 85 RBI. Given his great defense, that’s a heck of a year. And Juan Francisco has been fine at third base, a bobble here and there but also some good plays, and his bat has been a big plus.
They’ve also sorted out their starting pitching, filling the hole left by Morrow’s injury with J.A. Happ, who’s a smart pitcher and has been pretty steady, and moving Dustin McGowan out of the rotation and into the bullpen, which has strengthened it. McGowan’s place has been taken by Marcus Stroman and so far, so good. If he fails, Liam Hendriks, who was pretty impressive in two starts, is a viable alternative. They’re still a bit thin in the rotation, but it looks a lot better than it did at the season’s outset. And suddenly, a bunch of teams – the Yankees, Rays, Orioles, Rangers and others – have bad cases of the pitching shorts. I think the keys for the Jays are R.A. Dickey and Drew Hutchison – if both continue to pitch as well as they generally have lately, they’ll be OK.
So, all these factors and a few more operating in sync indicate to me that the Jays’ winning ways of late have been legitimate. I don’t expect them to stay quite this hot, but they haven’t been doing it with mirrors either. As Gregg Zaun put it the other night, they’re “finding ways to win”, the mark of a truly good ball club. They need to win six out of every ten games the rest of the way to make the post-season, and barring serious injury troubles, seem to me to be capable of this. But, their hot streak is no guarantee of future performance, there’s a reason they play the games. We’ve all seen late-season collapses before – remember 1987? Looming disaster is mostly what baseball is all about, it’s not supposed to be easy.
Whether the Jays win anything this year or not, they’re a lot of fun to watch, and at the very least should provide some meaningful baseball games in September for the first time in over twenty years. Lord knows we’re overdue for that and I’ll take it.
© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.