Much was made during the lead up to manager John Farrell's debut season as a major league skipper of the club's intention to become a more dynamic offensive team that would no longer rely on the long-fly as much as they had in the past. "More aggressive on the basepaths" was how it was most commonly phrased by Mr. Farrell and his boss, Alex Anthopoulos, who seemed to be of like mind with his new manager with respect to baseball philosophy.
The optimistic fan viewed this move to a more aggressive approach to "manufacturing runs" as being emblematic of a more athletic and younger team. The addition of Rajai Davis, a man with prodigious speed coming off of a 50 stolen base season, served to lend credibility to the rhetoric. So what actually happened? Well, it's something of a mixed bag. The Jays were indeed far more aggressive early on in the running game than they had been under Cito Gaston in previous seasons (no great feat mind you). The growing pains of this transition were immediately apparent. There were as many atrocious gaffes on the basepaths during the first month of the season as I can can remember at any time during my experience of watching the Jays. The team was very fortunate in that many of these gaffes did not result in outs as they should have. It was almost comical how many times a Jays base runner was caught in a rundown as a result of being excessively aggressive only to be bailed out by defensive incompetence.
During the course of the season the team reverted back to the "wait for a three run home run" approach. The way Jose Bautista was hitting in April in May it made no sense to risk taking the bat out of his hands with a caught stealing or botched hit and run. The struggles of Rajai Davis necessitated this to some extent (it really is true what they say about not being able to steal first base). The team simply took on a different identity with Yunel Escobar at the top of the order instead of Davis. As a lead off hitter, Escobar was somewhat reminiscent of former Blue Jays table-setter Marco Scutaro; someone who could get on base at a very respectable rate, and while by no means slow, did not force the issue on the bases.
At season's end this mixed bag of dabbling with "small ball" and "big ball" produced a fairly respectable offense, one that continually added more productive players throughout the course of the season. The Jays wound up sixth in the AL in stolen bases but were also caught the fourth-most times, resulting in a fairly average success rate of 71% (131/183). It is generally thought among theorists of offensive efficiency that for a team to see a tangible benefit to run production from stealing bases the success rate should be closer to 80%, not 70%. With the team's most efficient base-stealer from last season, Aaron Hill (yes, Aaron Hill) no longer in the lineup, can the Jays reasonably expect to be capable of achieving such a number? Full seasons of Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie could easily produce 40-50 steals between them. If Travis Snider were to pry the starting left field job away from Eric Thames, that would likely see an increase in the potential for aggressiveness on the bases as well.
This is a young and talented team with a blend of speed and power that appears capable of succeeding no matter what the overarching offensive philosophy is. They could come to resemble the Tampa Bay Rays (aggressive, fast, scrappy) or the New York Yankees (patient, methodical, powerful) or perhaps somewhere in between . One of the interesting story lines as spring training fast approaches will surely be whether or not the team's brain trust is still committed to the running game or if they view it as an experiment gone wrong and best forgotten.