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Looking back at 2021

MLB: SEP 25 Blue Jays at Twins

With the 2021 season wrapping up, attention rightfully turns toward 2022 as the offseason approaches. But before fully turning to that, it’s an opportune time for one last look back on the 2021 Toronto Blue Jays.

Every year towards the end of Spring Training, I take a “Rumfseldian” look at the uncertainties and questions facing the Blue Jays as the season approaches. Now we can review how things played out, including the few predictions in the interests of accountability as well as what wasn’t even on the radar at time. For more on what each of these categories means, refer back to the original post.

Known knowns

  • The position players will be above average.
    That and more, as they piled up ~30 fWAR with a 116 team wRC+, only trailing the Astros and essentially tied with the Rays, Dodgers and Giants groups in a clear top five tier. The Jays benefited from generally favourable health and some historic standout individual seasons, but while it was a higher percentile overall outcome, plenty was left on the table (George Springer and Cavan Biggio combining for less than 600 PA and 3 WAR). The lineup was just obviously chalk full of talent, and it came through.
  • The opening day starting five will not throw 700 innings
    They in fact fell short with 621.1 innings, but didn’t fall that short despite Tanner Roark contributing just 7 IP before the Jays cut bait. Had they not done that (so early), or had Ross Stripling not missed most of the last two months after really settling in, they might well have made it. But that uncertainty, and modern management of quick hooks the third time through, was the very nature of the call. You get Robbie Ray, you write-off Roark, and you’re still way ahead of the game not to mention Steven Matz bouncing back nicely too.
  • A Blue Jays pitcher will throw a pitch measured at 100 MPH.
    I like to throw something more frivolous/fun in, and it came to pass, but there is something related worth flagging. As I then noted, in the pitch tracking era, nine Blue Jays had thrown a combined 31 pitches released at 100 MPH but only Nate Pearson remained in the organization. Julian Merryweather and Jordan Romano joined the ranks in 2021, but more notably the total more than doubled to 71. Pearson and Romano each registered triple digit pitches 19 times, with Merryweather adding a pair. Who join the club in 2022, and who takes the crown?

Known unknowns

  • Can Hyun-Jin Ryu stay healthy?
    Essentially yes. He did have two IL stints, but missing just a start each time after a glute strain in late April and neck stiffness in September that was more of the phantom variety to rest and rejuvenate him. Nonetheless, 31 starts is a new career high and 169 inning his 3rd highest MLB total. Both those marks would have been been at the very high end of expectations coming into the season, though conditional on generally favourable health his results (4.37 ERA, 94 ERA-) would have been on the disappointing end.
  • Can Pete Walker be the pitcher whisperer?
    Apparently so. With the necessary caveat that assigning credit between coaches (or the organization broadly) and the player themselves is inherently a nebulous exercise, the overwhelming magnitude of the Blue Jays success with their reclamation starters compels a good deal. I wrote that “one turning in a good season (150 IP, average or better run prevention) would count as a solid win”. That almost exactly describes Matz’s 2021 and he alone fulfills that, leaving Robbie Ray as pure gravy. And don’t forget about Ross Stripling, who had a really solid run from late-May until his injury (68.1 IP, 3.29 ERA, 4.60 FIP).
  • Was 2020 a blip in the most unusual of circumstances for Tanner Roark or were the Jays bagholders who bought right before the end?
    In hindsight the signs of ongoing decline are perhaps more glaring and obvious, but nonetheless the collapse from at-worst solid backend starter to unplayable is as baffling as it stunning. For $16.4-million (reduced from the initial $24-million), the Jays got 54.2 innings of 6.75 ERA and equally miserable 7.03 FIP. A free agent signing disappointing is nothing remarkable, but it’s rare it ends up so far from what could be reasonably expected.
  • Do the Jays get some quality starting innings from young arms stockpiled on the 40-man (Kay, Zeuch, Thornton)?
    Unfortunately not, despite huge holes in the rotation early in the season that called out for any of them to make a case and seize the opportunity. Zeuch had one promising outing before again getting hit very hard and ultimately being cast off. Kay’s 5.61 ERA driven by wildness and contact management issues disappointed, but his five (short) starts were actually okay (4.43 ERA, 3.76 FIP). Thornton struggled with the long ball and consistency as his role bounced around. I wonder if he’s just not suited to short outings. Their futures with the Jays now hang in the balance this winter.
  • Is Alejandro Kirk already too good a hitter to send down to the minors and force their hand somewhere?
    Enough so to choose him over Reese McGuire (and risk losing the latter), and he did post above average production as a 22-year old with excellent plate discipline and hard line drive contact despite the burden of his defensive responsibilities. But between losing the middle of the season to injury and crowding both behind the plate and at DH thereafter, nor did he really put things together for an extended period and finished with less than 200 PA.
  • Is this Vladdy’s big year to click?
    Does making a plausible run at the Triple Crown and establishing a new Vladimir Guerrero single season home run record qualify as clicking?
  • Can the Jays cobble together a decent bullpen despite not investing much?
    This is really a matter for a standalone piece, a question complicated by management issues. Overall though, relievers (or non-starter/openers) posted a pretty strong 4.08 ERA (91- ERA), backup by a solid 4.38 FIP (103 FIP-). The depth was certainly exposed in a costly manner in the middle of the season, but really only injuries hit much than could have been reasonably foreseen.

Unknown unknowns

  • Consolidating 2020 gains (Teoscar/Rowdy) and reversing 2020 collapses
    This is usually more about breakouts, for the 2021 Jays was more about what would happen after big changes from prior trend in 2020. The pitching side was been discussed, but the hitters less so. Rowdy Tellez ended up the odd man out after a rough start, largely rebounding in Milwaukee. Will be ever find consistency?
    In some sense, Teoscar Hernandez is the most fascinating Jays hitter. Despite a slow start and then infection, he largely consolidated his breakout but with an evolving profile. His strikeout rate fell further, offsetting less power (though it returned more in the second half). Add in high BABIPs the last couple years, and how everything shakes out bear watching.
  • Could an inexperienced recent first rounder be a viable option if needed in 2021? What other help is there from the farm?
    This ended up a huge X-factor, as Alek Manoah jumped to the majors after just three Triple-A starts and was right away a solid-to-impact MLB starter. Beyond plugging a critical hole in the rotation, he’s already a solid building block and potential centrepiece frontline starter. While Austin Martin did not directly help, he brought back a frontline starter at the deadline. It wasn’t surprising that Santiago Espinal was able to lock down third base defensively, but also added value at the plate. I’m not really buying the bat beyond a vert useful utility player, but in any eveny it was a huge boost exactly where and when the Jays needed it.
  • Crazy injuries
    Was there really anything in 2021? Nothing particularly jumps to mind

Unknowns knowns

  • What does the pitching staff end up as in terms of roles?
    Quite conventional on the whole, especially once the rotation was stabilized by late-May. The main starters having good seasons obviated the need to truly and squeeze value with strict limitations to twice the order, though some had very short leashes in this regard. For the most part, relievers were used for one inning but almost strictly in short capacity, with none used in a truly stretched long capacity where they would turn over the lineup. This is where I wonder if Kay or Thornton might be more suited to this kind of role.
  • If and when Nate Pearson is healthy...
    Yeah, about that...

In hindsight, what did I overlook in March? Beyond George Springer going from chronic minor injuries to significant injuries and extended missed time, the big individual storyline not picked up above was obviously Marcus Semien. I think everyone expected more than 2020 and for him to be a significant contributor, but a full-on reprisal of his 2019 career year went well beyond the wildest of reasonable expectations. Bo Bichette did his thing offensively, but I thought was quietly very reliable in the field defensively.

At the team level, the starting pitching going from a big question mark to a strength for most of the season was critical. Getting the infield worked out defensively took time and was more challenging than anticipated. Extra innings were a black hole, contributing to another year of huge run/win underperformance more broadly. Whether in-game management made the most of the talent is another big question.

Having done a last look back at 2021, later this week I’ll look forward to 2022 with a comprehensive breakdown of the roster as it stands before its reshaping begins this offseason.