“If”, Not “When”, Is the Jays’ Season Over?

To make the playoffs the Blue Jays will have to play as well as the Yankees and the Orioles…as it turns out, they may already be doing that

The math does not look good.

To have a legitimate shot at the playoffs, goes the current thinking, you need to win ninety games. There’s definitely some wiggle in that number: teams have made it to the post-season with fewer wins (the Giants and the Nationals both got in with eighty-seven last year while the Jays had eighty-nine) and there have been teams–even in the post second-wildcard era–who have not (the Rangers, who had ninety-one wins in 2013, and the Rays with ninety in 2012 both had to watch from the sidelines in October). But, still, ninety is a nice round number so let’s go with it.

With their record now sitting at thirteen and twenty-one, to reach ninety wins the Blue Jays would have to go seventy-seven and fifty-one for the remaining 128 games. That’s a .602 record which is…a lot to ask of a team that so far has posted just .382.

But, of course, to say that it’s going to be difficult is not the same as proclaiming it impossible. The Cubs played better than .600 ball last year, the Angels accomplished it in 2014, and in 2015 the Cubs, the Pirates and the Cardinals all bettered the .600 mark. And those were season-long records, there have been a lot of teams in the last few years who finished with an overall record just below .600 because they had a bad stretch here and there.

So, yeah, it’s possible for the Jays to pull this thing out still, but is it likely?

What it comes down to is this: are the Jays at least potentially a .600 ball club, or are they doomed to spend the rest of their season duking it out for last place in the majors with the likes of the Royals (.364), the Giants (.343) and, God help us, the Braves (.355) and the Padres (.371)?

This question will, of course, answer itself as the season unfolds and while it won’t take until September, any definitive conclusion is probably still weeks away. So all we can really do for now is to compare the Jays to the competition–in particular, to the two teams who, so far at least, have been playing better than .600 baseball in the American League East: the Yankees and the Orioles.

The Yankees

Coming into the season very few of the pundits and pressers expected the Yankees to finish above fourth in the division, but their talented core of young players and surprisingly effective starting rotation have made a lot of people around the game rethink this.

For my part, I don’t really see it continuing for the Yankees, as their success to this point has been built upon some trends that are probably not very sustainable over the long haul, first and foremost of these being the pitching of Pine Tar Pineda and Rookie Jordan Montgomery; add to that the congenital unreliability of Elder Statesman Sabathia and the fragile arm of It’s Gonna Blow Tanaka and the thought of them being able to sustain their steady run of quality starts becomes something only slightly less hazy than a pipe dream. Just about the closest thing the Yankees have to a reliable starter is Luis Severino who projects out to 3.82 ERA for the rest of the season.

As for the Yankees’ overwhelming offense through April and May: that, too, is going to have to come back down to Earth at some point since it’s been largely sustained by three guys–Aaron Hicks, Starlin Castro and Aaron Judge–who are hitting like Mike Trout, but who patently are not Mike Trout. As soon as they start to cool off and/or the league figures them out, runs are going to be a lot harder to come by in Yankees land (even in that ridiculous ballpark they were allowed to build).

But, really, none of these prognostications for the fate of the Yankees is the point; the reason I wanted to look at them was to see what a .600 team in the American League East looks like, and to ask if the Jays have any chance whatsoever of being that team.

On the pitching front, the Jays continue to have the clear advantage over the Yankees so long as everyone can get and stay healthy. While the Yankees’ starting five have clearly been performing way above expectations to this point, the Blue Jays starting rotation has been horrifically under-performing thanks to some shaky starts by Stroman and Liriano and more significantly the injuries to Happ and Sanchez.

But those are the problems that have led to this mess, and we’re trying to look into the future. Happ and Sanchez will be back in the rotation at some point: if it happens soon enough and if they can stay there, then the Jays will once again have a starting rotation at least as good as and probably much better than the Yankees have enjoyed so far this season. They’ll still be backed by a bullpen that has a lot of question marks, but of late it would seem Gibby has been doing a very good job of identifying the right guy for the right role in the middle innings, and with Osuna returning to form this should become less of a concern in the coming weeks.

On the offensive front, the Jays again compare very favourably to the Yankees if everyone can get healthy and stay healthy. Hicks and Judge and Castro are good, but are they as good as a healthy Josh Donaldson or Troy Tulowitzki? No. Add to that the bats of Kendrys Morales and Kevin Pillar, and a turnaround for just two of the struggling José Bautista, Russell Martin and Devon Travis and you would have a lineup easily as potent as the Yankees have enjoyed to this point.

I’m not saying that any of this is goingto happen, only that it very well could: and if it does, then the Jays would be as good a team as the Yankees are now…and the Yankees are a .600 team in the AL East.

The Orioles

Again, the point of this exercise is to try and look into the Jays’ future, not dissect other teams’ pasts, but to see if the Jays can be a .600 team I’m trying to figure out what it is that makes a team play .600 ball in the American League East in the first place. In the case of the New York Yankees it’s been a combination two probably-unsustainable things: good starting pitching and an overpowering offense. The Jays have a very realistic shot at having both of these things at some point in the near(ish) future.

In the case of the Baltimore Orioles, their .600 record is largely something of a mirage, built on the vagaries of an uneven schedule.

So far this season they’ve played three games against the White Sox and the Rays, and six games against the Blue Jays: that’s twelve of their thirty-three games against sub .500 teams and they’ve made the most of that, going nine and three in those games. Against the rest of their opponents they’re just thirteen and eight–so, against the really bad teams (and yes, I account the Jays in that because so far they have been terrible–but we’re looking to the future, remember?) they’ve built up a whopping .750 win ratio to offset the far more modest .590 they’ve managed against everyone else.

As they did with the Yankees, the potential Blue Jays team of the future compares reasonably well to the so-far-this-year Orioles when it comes to starting pitching…assuming, of course and as always, that the Jays’ starting rotation can get healthy and stay healthy.

Because of their ridiculous number of off-days, the Orioles have been able to limit the use of a fifth starter, meaning almost half their starts have been by Dylan Bundy (ERA 2.17) and Wade Miley (2.45). Neither of those guys is going to be able to sustain those numbers and as the season goes on they are going to get proportionally less of the total starts, giving their opponents more quality time with the likes of Kevin Gausman (6.63), Ubaldo Jimenez (6.15) and whomever else Buck Schowalter can scrape out of his bullpen. To this point, however, the Orioles have been able to present a starting rotation as good as the Yankees’ has been, and as good as the Jays’ could be.

It’s on the offensive side of things that the Orioles and the Jays present a fascinating study in contrasts. The Orioles have scored just nineteen more runs than the Jays (149 to 130) and they’ve only hit seven more home runs (43 to 36). Most interestingly: so far this year, eight of the Oriole’s twenty-two wins have been by just one run. The Jays, on the other hand, have dropped seven of their twenty-one losses by just one run. So, one third of the Oriole’s wins have been by a single run, and one third of the Jays’ losses have been by a single run.

So, the full-strength, uninjured, well-rested Orioles offense–who, by the by, have been playing more than their fair share of bad teams–have been only slightly better than the Blue Jays’ offense. In terms of runs put on the board, at least, it would seem as though the Jays are already playing as well as .600 team in the American League East.

And the crystal ball says…?

There are no such things as crystal balls, of course, and nobody can ever really know what the future may bring, but from this comparison it would seem that it does remain at least realistically possible that the Jays could, in fact, turn themselves into a .600 team…

IF Happ and Sanchez can get back into the rotation and stay there and IF Liriano can be just a bit more dependable as their fifth man then the Blue Jays will have a starting rotation that is at least as good as, if not significantly better than, the rotations of the .600 winning-ratio Yankees and Orioles, and…

IF Donaldson, Tulowitzki and Morales can get healthy quickly enough, and IF any two of Bautista, Martin and Travis can start hitting as well as they should be, then the Blue Jays will have an offense at least as good as the .600 Yankees and far better than the .600 Orioles.

So…yeah…that’s a lot of ifs, and it might be too many to ask for. But at least we can say this: it’s not a matter of when the Jays are out of the playoffs, but if.

 

This Team Can’t Win. But in Two Weeks This Won’t Be the Same Team.

There’s good news and bad news for the Jays…and weirdly enough it’s the same news

@ New York Yankees, May 1-3

Blue Jays 7, Yankees 1

Blue Jays 5, Yankees 11

Blue Jays 6, Yankees 8

After finally winning a series last week and taking the first game against New York, the Blue Jays and their fans were understandably optimistic about taking two of three against the Yankees as well.

Sadly, the Blue Jays’ pitchers had other plans.

But back to that first game: Marco Estrada was incredible (again) and Matt Barnes didn’t look too terrible either: didn’t look fabulous, but he got the job done, which for this series was something of a rarity for the bullpen.

Which brings me to game two:

After a horrific start by Latos, Leone was not good, Grilli was just godawful, while Loup continued his surprisingly consistent run of OK-ness for the year. I guess that two good starts from Latos is probably about as much as anyone could have hoped for, but lordy oh lordy that was not pretty. The really worrying sight was, of course, Grilli, and not just because he coughed it up all over Grandma’s new rug, but because he’s been coughing it up all over the rug, the couch, the chaise and the freshly laundered doilies all season. It’s hard to know what’s going on with him: slow start? Forty years old? Who the heck knows, but I sure as heck hope it’s something he can get over quickly (which is why if it isthe age thing, then the back end of the bullpen is in real trouble).

Aaaaaand, game three:

Whether it was just One Of Those Starts or some kind of mystery-one-game-only injury, Marcus Stroman joined Grilli in messing up Grandma’s stuff because that was not a good start. Assuming it wasn’t an injury then there’s probably not a lot to be concerned about, since Stroman’s always been prone for the Big Fall Apart every once in a while, but he usually bounces back and pitches really well the next time out.

But…if it is an injury thing (and there’s no real reason to believe that it is right now, but if it is)…

Eep.

He did at least leave the game with a lead, but the bullpen…man oh man, that bullpen. Amid all the panic over the (complete lack of) offence to begin the season everyone (including yours truly) seems to have lost sight of the fact that going into the season the one area of real concern for the Jays was that bullpen. And now, perhaps, we’re seeing why. Tepera was good until he wasn’t and then Biagini made a bit of a mess of Grandma’s increasingly filthy furniture.

Do you realise that even with the Blue Jays’ (complete lack of) offence, if the bullpen had been performing even at the league average the Jays would have twelve or thirteen wins by now instead of nine? And thirteen and fifteen is a LOOOOT different than nine and nineteen.

Now, on the (rather significant) upside the Jays have now scored four or more runs in thirteen of their last seventeen games. A couple of weeks ago I argued that so long as the Jays could be league average on offence (which means scoring four or five runs a night) then they would be just fine…but that was predicated on three points that have (temporarily, I hope) been somewhat altered: 1) the incredible strength of the starting rotation, 2) the brilliance of Osuna and, 3) the ho-hum-adequate nature of the rest of the bullpen.

And, wouldn’t you know it, just about as soon as I wrote that piece, Happ and Sanchez went on the disabled list, Osuna started to struggle and the bullpen began to implode on a more or less regular basis.

Which brings me, at last, to the good news. Which is also the bad news.

First, the bad: right now, the Blue Jays’ pitching is a mess: two starters (three? Stroman?) are down; the bullpen is absolutely not very reliable. Osuna, thank the gods, has begun to look more like his old self but until he’s thrown a few more one-two-three innings when it really matters I’m not quite ready to climb off the ledge on that one. If this keeps up then…well…I hope you like the CFL because that’s the only playoff action you can look forward to in October.

But now, the good news: the Blue Jays’ pitching is a mess, which is just another way of saying that the problem is no longer the offence. They’re getting four or five runs a game almost every night: that’s really good.

At the beginning of the season, they had the greatest starting pitching in the league but zero runs were being scored. Now, they’re scoring enough to win, but the pitching is a shambles. If they can just put it together, they could be a really good team.

And, you know what? There’s every reason to expect that they can put it all together.

They’re already scoring as many runs as they really should need to, and that’s without Josh Donaldson and Tulo. When they come back, it should only improve.

The starting rotation is a shambles because Happ and Sanchez are out with genuine but relatively un-terrifying injuries. It’s going to be a painful two weeks before they return, but they will return. Assuming Stroman is also OK, this is a problem that will fix itself, probably right around the time that Donaldson and Tulo return to the lineup.

Which leaves only the bullpen. As I said, Osuna appears to be more like his old self, but I’m going to want to wait a bit and see, but assuming he does turn things around then there’s really nothing too much to worry about in the pen either. Very soon, teams are going to start letting pitchers go or shopping them out. Creating an overpowering bullpen is hard, but putting together an average one is one of the easiest things to do on a major league roster: the Jays did it last year when they brought in Grilli in May and Joaquin Benoit in July; they can easily do so again this summer.

The team on the field right now is playing relatively good baseball. But in two weeks that team is going to be replaced with one that features Josh Donaldson (batting, I pray, in the three hole behind Bautista), Tulo at short, and the starting rotation they began the year with. Sometime very soon after that they will probably also be boasting an improved bullpen. And that, my friends, is a team that can win some ballgames.

The only question, which is the same question I’ve been asking since the Blue Jays opened the season one and nine, is will it happen soon enough to save the season? I honestly can’t think of any reason why it can’t.

But that doesn’t mean that it will.

Stay tuned.