One ball thrown by catcher Russell Martin hits the bat of Shin-Soo Choo, and suddenly Rougned Odor is in to score a run that puts the Rangers ahead, 3-2, in the deciding game of the 2015 ALDS. Rogers Centre erupts with anger, objects are thrown onto the playing field and play has to be stopped to protect the players. Half an inning later, Rogers Centre erupts again:
I'm sure you remember.
The last time these two teams met, the Texas Rangers came to Toronto as huge underdogs, but managed to win the first two games in Toronto anyway. The Blue Jays then miraculously came back to win three straight in an epic series, a series that was as gut-wrenching as it was exhilarating. This time, the Rangers are coming to Toronto with a thirst for revenge, and fresh off a series win over their rivals the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. And while the Rangers are once again leading the AL West, the Blue Jays have underperformed and could very much use a winning streak to get back into a favourable position in the AL East.
Monday, May 2nd: A.J. Griffin versus R.A. Dickey
The struggling R.A. Dickey faces off against the surprisingly good A.J. Griffin in the first game of the series. The less said about Dickey's season so far the better, but Griffin is a very interesting story. While he enjoyed some success as a starter for the Oakland A's in 2012 and 2013, consecutive years lost to elbow problems (Griffin had Tommy John Surgery in 2014) meant the Oakland A's decided not to retain Griffin. Despite the injury problems, Griffin has started very well, pitching to a 2.52 ERA in 4 April starts.
A.J. Griffin might not get a lot of strikeouts, or reach 90 mph with his fastball very often, but that doesn't mean he should be underestimated. Obviously, it seems unlikely that Griffin will keep his ERA under 3 (his SIERA is 4.74), but like a certain Marco Estrada, Griffin does a good job of inducing weak contact. He has a slow four-seam fastball in the high-80s, but he doesn't overuse it, and it gets a lot of popups thanks to its 'rising' movement. He contrasts it with a groundball-inducing changeup, an improved (faster) cutter and his signature pitch, a very slow curveball.
Given that Griffin throws all four of his pitches regularly and for strikes, as well as getting some extreme contrast between the rise on his four-seamer and the worm-killing ability of his offspeed pitches, suddenly the high-80s throwing Rangers starter doesn't seem like easy batting practice anymore. One positive point for the Blue Jays, specifically: Griffin doesn't have a history of being tougher on righties than he is on lefties, which could help the predominantly right-handed Blue Jays lineup.
Tuesday, May 3rd: Martin Perez versus Marco Estrada
Marco Estrada seemed to develop into the league's premier 'rising fastball' pitcher in 2015, and it's looking like 2016 is going to be more of the same out of Marco. While he pitched extremely well against Texas in 2015 with only 2 runs given up in 12+ innings, Jays fans will still be worried about Estrada going into this game, as Marco was nursing a sore shoulder in his last start and was asked to throw 118 pitches anyway.
Martin Perez was also tasked with beating Marco Estrada in game 3 of the ALDS, but the young left-hander was thwarted by a big home run off the bat of Troy Tulowitzki in a Blue Jays victory. The sinkerballer throws five pitches, but only the sinker and the changeup have been effective pitches both over Perez' career and in 2016 so far. Both the sinker and the changeup get a lot of groundballs, so the Blue Jays will have to watch out for double plays and try to find the holes in the infield, or simply hope they can crush a hanging curve or changeup, which has been a weakness for Perez. Over his career, Perez has been much tougher on lefties than on righties, which is good news for the Blue Jays.
Wednesday, May 4th: Colby Lewis versus Aaron Sanchez
Another veteran flyball pitcher takes on a young groundballer. This time, it's Toronto supplying the young groundball pitcher, with the surprisingly effective Sanchez hoping to continue his success against a lineup with some tough left-handed batters. With an improved ability to spot his sinker as well as his curveball, Sanchez has two pitches that right-handers have incredible difficulty doing any real damage against. It's the lefties that worry Sanchez still, however, and all three home runs hit against Sanchez this season have been hit by left-handed batters.
Colby Lewis, with his fastball now struggling to hit 88 mph consistently, seems an unlikely candidate for a 3.19 ERA, but that's what he's currently sitting at. Still, coming off two mediocre to poor seasons and running a 5.76 FIP with an outrageous 96.7% runners stranded rate, it does not seem likely this ERA represents a new Colby Lewis. While it's true that Lewis seems to have a new kind of changeup with a lot more drop than previously, he's struggled to command it, and it's been punished quite severely with a .944 SLG against the changeup. Colby Lewis is the same fastball-slider pitcher he's always been, which means he won't be challenging for any Cy Young titles, but on a good day could still give the right-handed heavy Toronto lineup some trouble.
Thursday, May 5th: Derek Holland versus J.A. Happ
On a Happ-y day in Holland, as we celebrate the liberation of our small nation by Allied forces (thanks, Canada and friends!) and the end of World War II, Derek Holland takes on J.A. Happ in a battle of powerful left-handed fastball pitchers. J.A. Happ has always had a great four-seam fastball with lousy secondary pitches, so it isn't that weird that the folks in Pittsburgh had him throw it even more than usual, and to great effect, too. What is weird is that this trend has been reversed with the Jays, as Happ has been throwing more two-seamers and offspeed pitches. Unfortunately, the two-seamer doesn't get whiffs and gets hit a lot harder than the four-seamer, and Happ still has problems commanding his offspeed pitches, so if this is the plan, it doesn't look like a great one (he won't sustain an 88% strand rate).
Derek Holland surely remembers getting lit up by the Blue Jays last October, giving up home runs to Josh Donaldson, Kevin Pillar and Chris Colabello (won't do that again, though) and getting tagged with six runs in just two innings of work in game 4 of the ALDS. After a disappointing performance in 2015, Holland has so far managed to limit the damage in his 2016 campaign, pitching to a 2.48 ERA despite a career low strikeout rate. Holland probably won't keep running a .227 BABIP or a 5% HR/FB rate, given what we know from his career numbers. It is interesting to note, though, that Holland seems to be throwing his changeup more carefully this year. Previously, only approximately 28% of his changeups dropped below the strikezone. This year, that number is around 55%. The result has been fewer strikes, but also far less damage dealt to a pitch that was getting crushed in previous years. It is definitely something the Blue Jays will have to watch out for.
Hitters to watch
We all know how good Adrian Beltre is, and Rougned Odor has shown his potential at the plate and on the basepaths against Toronto before. But these two new faces (Ian Desmond on the left, Nomar Mazara on the right) are worth keeping an eye on as well. Ian Desmond rejected a qualifying offer from the Nationals before signing a somewhat meagre 8 million, one-year contract with the Rangers. Desmond's got something to prove, and although his .241/.327/.391 doesn't show it, he's hit the highest percentage of hard hit balls out of all the Rangers, if we define "hard hit" as 100mph and faster (as measured by Statcast). Desmond has had to make a switch from shortstop to outfielder, but even more interesting is that he's stopped chasing balls out of the zone, which used to be a big weakness for him. He still whiffs a lot, but he should draw a lot more walks to help his on-base percentage.
Nomar Mazara, just 21 years of age, has shown a surprisingly mature approach at the plate, resulting in a decent amount of walks and a good number of line drives for a .324/.380/.441 slash line. Mazara hasn't fully tapped into his power potential yet, although he did show what he can do to a baseball against the White Sox:
Overall, both the Rangers and Blue Jays' hitters have been disappointing but still not too far away from average production, and both teams have gotten surprisingly effective performances from their starting pitching instead. We'll see if Russell Martin finds out where he's hidden his bat all this time, and whether these teams can continue to rely on overperforming pitchers to make up for disappointing offence, or if we'll see some slugfests at Rogers Centre.