With Major League Baseball set to resume today after being on a four-day work stoppage for All-Star week festivities, the Toronto Blue Jays look to regain their winning ways after limping into a much-needed break.
After a red-hot month of May, the Blue Jays regression from a top of the American League East has been a steady decline that has seen them go 16-21 since June 1st. Sadly, the once first place Blue Jays now sit four games back of the Baltimore Orioles. While some fans call the Jays recent play a slump, others sum it up as the team has fallen off a cliff.
Even though we are technically passed the midway point of the season, let’s take a look back and grade the roller coaster first half the Toronto Blue Jays endured.
The Blue Jays first half from a hitting perspective is a bit Jekyll and Hyde like. Statistically they stack up as one of baseball’s top-ten offences, ranking well across the board. But for anybody who has watched the Jays recently, they don’t resemble anything of a top-ten offense. Although we tend to remember what we last saw, there is no denying that during the first few months of the season, this team hit the cover off the baseball. Opposing pitchers paid for any little mistake they made.
Lawrie is one of many examples where the Blue Jays regularly capitalized on opposing teams mistakes. But as the injuries piled up, not only did the Jays roster change, their approach at the plate changed too.
Toronto hitters have still been swinging the bat around their regular 44% rate during their recent slide, but two things in particular have changed during the last 30 days that are alarming figures.
They are falling behind in counts, and are swinging at more and more pitches outside of the zone.
According to FanGraphs, the Blue Jays percentage of first pitch strikes has risen to 61.4% in the last 30-days. The league average is generally around 59%, but when you are playing games everyday and the sample size is so large, 2% is a larger difference than it logistically appears.
The real problem with the rise of first pitch strike percentages is that the Blue Jays are letting pitchers attack them now as they fall behind in the count. Pitchers are able to throw more breaking balls at the Jays and attack them from different angles. In the last 30-days, the Blue Jays are swinging at 32.2% of pitches outside of the strike zone, compared to the 29-30% they were earlier in the year. Yes they still make contact with these pitches (connecting on 69.5% of them), but as we all know, driving a pitch outside of the zone is significantly harder than driving one inside the zone.
When you consider those metrics and how the Jays swing and miss on only 8.2% of their pitches recently, pitch selection is an area that needs to be addressed in the second half.
Yes you could argue that some of this is regression from their unbelievable start to the year, but some numbers remain the same to nullify that argument – like their home run rate. To be honest, the recent struggles are just poor judgment from a team pressing for results.
On top of the pitch selection issues, the situational hitting has been mediocre at best. Regular baseball plays like bunting the ball, driving in runners with less than two outs on third base and just leaving runners on base period, have become growing concerns for Toronto.
But not to sound too negative about the Jays first half! Let’s not forget the early months that saw the Blue Jays drive the ball all over the field and rank tops in the league for home runs. This team was once the league’s most potent offence by a mile. As they get healthier, they could easily return to that form, but until then, I will give them a generous B grade for the first half – not letting the last 30 days overshadow what was a phenomenal start to the year.
Defensively the Blue Jays have been below average – to put it kindly.
Behind the plate, catcher Dioner Navarro has played as advertised. He is slow to block balls laterally and throws out runners at a disappointing 19% rate – allowing 37 stolen bases this year. Although his overall fundamentals are mediocre at best, he has helped the Blue Jays pitching staff improve this year with his game management. But mind you, improving upon J.P. Arencibia‘s “adventures” behind the plate last year doesn’t take much work.
The infield has been serviceable. Brett Lawrie’s versatile glove is the highlight of the infield, while Jose Reyes diminishing range and arm continue to raise concerns in Toronto.
The outfield has played well for the most part, but an everyday centre fielder patrolling the Rogers Centre would be a huge plus in the second half. Whether that is Colby Rasmus or Anthony Gose is unknown going forward though.
Overall the outfield has played well, but hitting cutoff men on tandem relays has been a recent problem that must come to an end immediately. Missing the cut off man and giving up extra bases at the major league level is a sure-fire way to lose ball games in the field. It is not a difficult thing to fix for the Blue Jays, but it is something that must be addressed going forward.
Given the mediocre play from most of the players, and the regular mental mistakes we have seen recently, it is hard to give the Jays defence much more than a C- at this point. Hopefully Gibbons and company, can resolve their woes on tandem relays right away.
Although Mark Buerhle has been the Blue Jays most talked about pitcher during the first half, Drew Hutchison has quietly put together a career year. Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Coming into the season, the Blue Jays pitching staff was one of the unknown aspects of the team. The starting rotation was questionable at best, the bullpen was seeking stability and the young arms in Buffalo were projected to need more time. But the pitching staff has been the surprise performance of the season for Toronto.
The starting rotation has easily exceed expectations this year. Led by Mark Buehrle‘s renaissance season, the Blue Jays pitching staff has put together a string of quality starts thus far. Even though R.A. Dickey is not the dominating knuckle baller that he once was in New York, he is still more than serviceable for the Jays rotation. The pleasant surprises for Toronto this season are Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ. These three have come up big for the Blue Jays in much-needed spots this year, supplying 17 quality starts combined.
Statistically, the pitching staff has posted a 37-34 record, 3.90 ERA, 7.04 K/9, 3.18 BB/9 and a 7.6 WAR. But when you really look closely at the Blue Jays starting pitching statistics, there are reasons for concern in the second half. For starters, the teams FIP, xFIP and LOB% is quite high. Those three stats would indicate that the Blue Jays are getting timely outs with runners on base, but should be weary of it going forward, as FIP would indicate that they have been fortunate. Whether you believe in sabermetrics like FIP, the amount of runners being left-on-base by Blue Jays pitchers (74.1%) is high. To expect them to sustain this rate all season will be very difficult, thus hinting to us that regression could be on the way for the starting rotation.
The bullpen has been average this year as well. Closer Casey Janssen has been the reliable arm, but after that it is up-and-down roller coaster. Aaron Loup, Brett Cecil and Sergio Santos have all shown flashes of quality stuff this year, but the trio continues to struggle with their high walk rates. Actually, the bullpen as a whole – outside of Janssen – has struggled with walks this year, walking 128 batters in 287 innings pitched. This problem really came to the forefront during the teams recent west coast road trip. Hopefully it is something the Jays brain trust can resolve going forward.
Overall, the starters have been the surprise anchor of the pitching staff this season. But if the advanced metrics are any indication, regression could be on the horizon in the second half. The bullpen does need work, but when you look at the Blue Jays pitching staff as a whole so far this year, they have pitched above expectations, earning them a B+ grade up to this point.
The likeable John Gibbons has endured a roller coaster season so far. He has lost players to injuries, forcing him to play around with the lineup. While issues like the teams bullpen woes are resting on his shoulders. Until Gibbons get his bullpen under control, it is tough to give him a higher grade than a B- here. Sure players get hurt and you have to do with what you have on the bench, that’s sports, not just baseball. But when it comes to managerial decisions like the bullpen and player changes, Gibbons could use an improvement there. You would be hard pressed to find many games where Gibbons game-managing skills helped the team close out a win.
For what Gibbons lacks in game-managing skills at times, his likeable character makes him hard not to play for each night. Hopefully the players can rally around that during the second half, or else the hot seat will surely get warmer for John Gibbons – regardless of whether he deserves it or not.
The Toronto Blue Jays did have a remarkable month of May and early June. But the bottom line is that when you go from being four games up in the American League East, to four games down in less than a month, and close out the break on a 2-8 road trip, you deserve skepticism.
There is no denying that injuries have played a role in the Blue Jays decline from a top the AL East, but to lose the way they have lost recently, it is hard to watch. Sadly, it puts a damper on what was a fantastic start to the season.
Aside from the recent struggles, Toronto has played pretty well this year. I can’t say that I expected the Jays to win more than 84 games this year. So to see this team sitting only four games back of the AL East crown in mid-July, it is a pleasant surprise. Let’s be honest though Toronto fans, the long win-streaks in May and early June did cloud our judgment of what this team really is – an above average ball club that will have to fight and claw its way into the playoffs.
With that being said, we can’t let recent struggles overshadow what was a fun and for the most part successful first half of the season. Although this team did blow the division lead, they are still in the thick of the American League races. Overall, when you evaluate the Blue Jays first half of the season, they earn a B- for the combination of a stellar May/early June and the recent struggles that have them now trailing in the American League. If the Jays can straighten out some issues heading into the second half, we could finally have October baseball in Toronto. But there is still lots of ball left to play before we jump to that conclusion!