Well, this certainly isn’t the start Blue Jay fans were looking for. The team’s .565 OPS ranks dead last in all of baseball, they’ve already had to deal with different levels of injuries to J.P. Howell, Roberto Osuna and Josh Donaldson, and they’ve lost all three games they’ve played so far decided by one run. The obvious question now is “how concerned should we be about all of this?”
Here’s a few observations about the disappointing start to the season:
1)From a purely mathematical standpoint, a 1-6 start isn’t that concerning
This morning I was looking at the seven teams in Blue Jays history that went to the playoffs, and all of them had a stretch where they went 1-6 or worse somewhere in the season. In fact, the 1993 team even had an 11 game stretch where they went 1-10 leading up to the All-Star break.
In other words, almost all good teams play bad baseball for short stretches of the season, and a poor week of baseball like this won’t prevent a good team from posting a good record by the end of the season. What we really need to know here is if there’s anything that’s happened in this first week that’s a red flag indicating that the Blue Jays are not a good team. That’s much harder to pin down though. Baseball generally reveals its secrets slowly.
2) Five of the six losses have been in really close games
The only game Toronto has lost by more than two runs so far was Sunday’s 7-2 defeat in Tampa. Three have been by just one run, and two of those were extra inning walk offs. This is good and bad.
On one hand, it’s nice to see the Jays in all these games. They’re not getting outclassed. In fact, you could easily argue they would be over .500 right now with just a few bounces of the ball going their way in certain situations.
There are a couple of big problems with this however. One is that on paper, the Blue Jays feel like a borderline playoff team as they begin the 2017 season. The type of team that if it finds a way to overachieve in close games will be a huge threat to take the division. The type of team that if it plays neutral in close games will contend for the Wild Cards, and the type of team that if it underachieves in close games, well ...
Here’s the issue: The Blue Jays already have a bunch of close losses carved in stone. They can’t get those back. They can still be a team that ends up as neutral or overachievers in close games, but now that task becomes a little bit harder as they have to dig themselves out of an early 0-3 record in one run affairs. This team is good, but it’s probably not good enough to overcome throwing away games like these on a consistent basis, so that pattern has to reverse itself soon.
The other big problem with all these close losses is that the bullpen is getting taxed with almost nothing to show for it. In seven games so far this season, Joe Biagini, Jason Grilli, and Joe Smith have all pitched four times already. Meanwhile, J.P. Howell is on the DL, and Osuna had to be used last night in his first game off it. That’s way too much wear and tear on your high leverage pen guys when you’ve only managed to get one game in the win column.
Unfortunately, last night was a perfect example of why this can be a huge issue going forward. The four best right handed relief options right now are Osuna, Grilli, Biagini and Smith, and all of them had to be used last night to hold the Brewers at four runs in an effort that ultimately proved to be chasing a ghost with the offense only being able to muster three runs. Now the chances increase that one of these guys might be ineffective or unavailable as we move through the home stand with Baltimore coming in this weekend, and the Jays can’t afford to lose a game where the bullpen coughs it up late after the way they’ve started.
They really could use a rocking chair victory tonight where Stroman pitches deep, the offense breaks out, and none of the high leverage arms are needed - Because something tells me they’re going to need those arms when the Orioles come strolling in for their four game set.
3) Hitting with runners in scoring position could make or break this team
This one is pretty obvious but the numbers are worth digging into. Last year the Blue Jays were not good with runners in scoring position. They hit just .249 in that situation, which was the fourth lowest mark in the American League (only the Rays, Twins and Yankees were worse).
This year, they’re off to an even more dreadful start, hitting just .152 (7-46) with almost all the production here coming from Kendrys Morales and Troy Tulowitzki. Morales has the grand slam that helped the Jays win their only game of the season so far, and Tulo has three of the team’s seven hits here to go along with a bases loaded walk, a sac fly, and an RBI ground out. Together, Tulo and Morales have 13 RBI with runners in scoring position while the rest of the team combined has four.
Only having two guys locked in during these at bats with runners in scoring position is going to be a problem for any team, but it’s even more problematic for the Blue Jays because as a group, they’re extremely slow. The new additions of Morales and Pearce have no speed at all. Tulo’s surgeries over the years have reduced him to a station to station runner. Smoak is not fast, Donaldson is dealing with calf injuries, Bautista is 36 and has never swiped more than nine bags in a season, and Martin is an ageing catcher. Pillar can fly, but he’s the only guy on the team with more than seven stolen bases last year.
As a group, the Jays need more hits with men on base and runners in scoring position than most teams to get their guys around. They’re not going to steal bases, they’re not going to go from first to third very often, and they might not be able to score from first on a ball in the gap. There will also be plenty of instances where guys can’t score from second on a single, and of course, they will require deeper fly balls than most teams to get guys home on sacrifice flies. The only way they can make up for this is to hit home runs with men on base (like the Morales grand slam in the Tampa series in the only game they’ve won), or to just get more hits than most teams with runners in scoring position (we’re still waiting to see this occur). If those things don’t happen, this team is not going to be very fun to watch offensively.
It also illustrates why one of the best things that can happen for this team is for Dalton Pompey to get healthy and end up having a productive season at the major league level. If he could somehow become an on base and speed guy for this club, it would give the offense a dimension it’s sorely lacking.