At this time last year, the Toronto Blue Jays were by far the game’s most exciting, most compelling, and — judging by their plus-221 run differential over the full season — best team.
Yet, since this website’s inception, we’ve published only one standalone piece about one of baseball’s best teams. The Yankees? Sure. The Red Sox? Of course. The Orioles? We’ve written more pieces about their closer than their superior divisional rival north of the border. And that’s not just because of grotesque anti-Canadian bias. Gary Sánchez is new. Jackie Bradley Jr.’s breakout year is new. And Zach Britton’s 1992 Dennis Eckersley act is new, while the Blue Jays were not only a known quantity, but they also took a while to get going in 2016. Over the first four months of this year, they spent a grand total of four days either tied for or in sole possession of first place in the AL East, but the rust wore off in August, as the Blue Jays jumped into the divisional lead for 26 out of 31 days.
All signs point to the Blue Jays returning to the playoffs this year, and it’s time to catch up.
What’s the Same As Last Year?
The 2015 Blue Jays were defined by their lineup, which, by season’s end, went like this: speedy on-base machine Ben Revere, then six guys who hit like they had the Aluminum Power power-up from Backyard Baseball, then defensive specialists Ryan Goins and Kevin Pillar. This team played a brand of baseball that looked like something out of a John Woo movie, and for the most part, the band is back together; everyone but Revere is on the team this year. José Bautista still has the most exquisitely trimmed beard in baseball, and Edwin Encarnación is still walking his parrot around the bases (a team-high 36 times and counting).
Josh Donaldson, who plays baseball like an adolescent lion and has a haircut to match, is mounting a spirited defense of his MVP award, hitting .296/.407/.579 while playing excellent defense at third base. On Sunday, he hit three home runs, which the crowd honored by throwing hats on the field.
Torontonians must be worldly, cosmopolitan hockey fans, because they certainly didn’t learn about hat tricks by watching the Maple Leafs. Of course, the Jays are still also fond of another venerated hockey tradition: the line brawl.
With the departure of David Price, Mark Buehrle, and Drew Hutchison, the Blue Jays’ pitching has undergone more significant changes. There are some familiar faces, though. Roberto Osuna, who despite being in his second year as Toronto’s closer is younger than Weezer’s Blue Album, has a 2.48 ERA and is striking out more than six batters for every walk. R.A. Dickey is still very old and vaguely league-average, and Marco Estrada has followed up his shocking 2015 with an even better 2016: a 127 ERA+ over 144.1 innings, with a team-high 8.2 K/9 ratio.
The biggest difference between last year and this year is the starting rotation, which, denuded of Price or any equivalently big name, has been an experiment in exploiting the extremes of batted-ball splits.
The ideal five-man rotation for Toronto (Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Estrada, Dickey, and Marcus Stroman) lacks anyone who strikes out more than 8.2 batters per nine innings or walks fewer than 2.2, but instead leans heavily on controlling balls in play. It’s an old-ass knuckleballer, two veteran fly ball pitchers, and two young extreme ground ball pitchers.
Early in his career, Happ was an extreme fly ball pitcher, but in 2010 he started throwing a sinker (28.1 percent of the time this year), which has landed him just on the fly ball–heavy side of average in 2016: 37th out of 80 qualified starters in fly ball rate. However, Estrada, who’s seventh in fly ball rate, remains an extreme fly ball pitcher.
Now, we’re usually told that keeping the ball on the deck is better for two reasons: avoiding extra-base hits and inducing double plays. But getting hitters to put the ball in the air has helped Happ and particularly Estrada in two ways.
First, fly ball pitchers tend to get a lot of pop-ups, and short of a strikeout, a pop-up is the outcome least likely to result in a hit. At 16.8 percent, Estrada has the highest pop-up rate in baseball — and, as a result, the lowest BABIP — among qualified starting pitchers this year.
Second, fly balls are slightly less likely to turn into hits than grounders. This is particularly true when your center fielder is a spider monkey on a motorcycle.
That’s not to downplay the virtues of getting ground balls. Both Stroman, who missed the first five months of 2015 with a torn ACL, and Sanchez, who spent most of last year in the bullpen, have returned to the rotation full-time. In 2016, they’re first and second in the American League in ground ball rate.
Stroman, whose stature (he’s 5-foot-8) and tendency to pitch like he’s on a mind-bending sugar high made him a fan favorite, got shelled in the first half, but after his ERA peaked at 5.33 at the end of June, he’s posted a 3.43 ERA with 69 strikeouts in 65.2 innings in July and August. Sanchez just returned from a 10-day furlough in A-ball to keep his innings down, but his 148 ERA+ has made him a dark horse Cy Young candidate.
By structuring their rotation like that, the Blue Jays can have it both ways: their starters are fourth in ground ball rate and fifth in pop-up rate, per FanGraphs. Despite having only one starter with an above-average strikeout rate (Estrada, only barely), the pitching staff as a whole has the fourth-best ERA+ in baseball.
Apart from Dickey, who was the reigning Cy Young winner when Toronto sent Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud to the Mets to get him, the Blue Jays haven’t invested heavily in any one pitcher. The 25-year-old Stroman and the 24-year-old Sanchez were late first-round picks, while Estrada and Happ, both 33, were mid-tier free agents. Estrada, who initially joined Toronto in a trade from Milwaukee, dipped his toes in free-agent waters this past offseason, but returned to Toronto on a two-year, $26 million deal, while Happ signed for three years and $36 million.
Even though the most notable turnover has been in the rotation, Toronto’s lineup has changed here and there, mostly through players returning from injury. Canadian national hero Michael Saunders, after missing all but nine games in 2015 with a knee injury, is back in left field, where he’s slugging .518 and made his first All-Star team. And second baseman Devon Travis, who looked like the second coming of Dustin Pedroia for about two months last year before a shoulder injury put him on the shelf, returned in May and is hitting .293/.326/.465. Travis is only 5-foot-9, which makes him an amusing double-play partner for the 6-foot-3 Troy Tulowitzki — even if José Altuve and Carlos Correa have lapped the field in the funny height difference race.
If you thought this lineup didn’t have any weaknesses last year, it’s even harder to find an easy out this time around. The only holes in the lineup are Pillar, whose 80 OPS+ is the price you pay to get his glove out there, and first baseman Justin Smoak. As a prospect, Smoak drew Mark Teixeira comparisons because he was a switch-hitting first baseman who hit a lot of line drives, and it turns out to be a good comp … if you meant the 36-year-old version of Teixeira. Smoak’s 92 OPS+ presents an interesting contradiction: the Blue Jays have found someone who can hit at seven positions, but not first base, America’s preferred home for lead-footed sluggers since 1920.
Baseball Prospectus gives the Blue Jays a 94.2 percent chance of making the playoffs and makes them odds-on favorites to win the AL East at 60.9 percent. Once they get to the postseason, the lack of a surefire no. 1 starter might be a handicap, as tougher competition might cause problems for a rotation that doesn’t strike a lot of guys out. Then again, that deep lineup will probably cause problems for opposing pitchers, so it’s not like the Blue Jays are set to fold in October.
More than anything, I want a rematch of last year’s ALDS against the Rangers, a tense, occasionally violent series that culminated in one of the most bizarre, spectacular deciding games in years, and produced possibly baseball’s single most iconic still image of the 21st century. The Blue Jays, when they’re on, are a reality-altering drug. And even though we haven’t been talking about them as much, they’re on again.