I haven't been following the team as closely as usual. Anything interesting happen?
I kid. This 2017 season has been a real doozy, with reasons for pessimism and optimism locked in a battle royale atop a tightrope. Which will prove victorious? Don't ask me, I forgot my crystal ball at home. Instead lets look at what has happened so far and the wackiness that has ensued.
The 2-11 Start
There's really no ignoring it. You win two of your first thirteen games, you're gonna be climbing out of that hole for a while and the team still is at the moment. Most teams will go through tough stretches like this at some point, it's a long season after all, but it's a bit easier to hide when you have the cover of a few months of play. When you have a 2-11 run, and those are the only games you've played so far, people are gonna freak out. Folks were talking about what we could get in a potential Donaldson trade in mid-April fer cryin' out loud.
I did get the sense of panic though. The team looked bad. The offense was getting neutralized by scrubs the Phillies didn't want, they couldn't come up with anything even when they got any runners on base, and even when they did manage to scrap together a morsel of a lead there would be the inevitable bullpen implosion. Even after the 2-11 disaster opening they only won four of their next ten, and on April 28th were 6-17 after a loss to Tampa Bay. They've gone 25-15 since, an impressive feat considering...
Is There A Doctor In The House? Oh Wait, He's Injured Too
Every team has to deal with injuries to important players at some point. It's part of any sport, really, at any level. Certain teams sometimes more than others, either because they employ older players, they have a spell of situational bad luck, or in this case: because there's a meteoroid obstructing the gravitational pull of the Earth in one specific spot.
The Blue Jays enjoyed fairly nice luck in 2016. Sure, there was the predictable Tulowitzki injury and one for Devon Travis (which is becoming a sad annual tradition it seems), and Bautista wasn't entirely healthy all year either. But the starting rotation only used seven different pitchers, which is incredible. This season though? Well, when you lose key parts like Donaldson, Martin, Sanchez (twice), Liriano, Tulowitzki, Pearce, Happ and now Travis for lengthy amounts of time, that's extremely bad injury fortune. But then when you also lose their replacements to injury, like Darrell Ceciliani or Anthony Alford, well now you've stepped into an entirely absurd universe where anything can and will hurt you. Ceciliani hurt his shoulder and would up on the DL by hitting a home run. You can't make this stuff up at this point.
Considering the lousy start and all the injuries (they've missed their best player for about two thirds of their games) it's really rather impressive they are where they are right now. A large chunk of that is thanks to...
Yep. This is truly is a strange and confusing universe my friends, and this only proves it. On one end, the Blue Jays have a pretty interesting recent history of 30 year olds with considerable power suddenly putting it all together. On the other end, remember Juan Francisco and his hot couple months? Yet on the other other end, Francisco struck out way more than even the old version of Smoak did. Yet on the other, other other end, a lot of Smoak's impressive numbers are ballooned by a crazy .383 batting average and 1.104 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 54 plate appearances. Yet, on the other other, other other end, Smoak has dramatically decreased his strikeouts in 2017. Like, miraculously so. As a big leaguer, his strikeout rate has steadily been over 20 percent, his lowest mark as a full time player coming in 2012 at 20.7 with the Mariners (he slashed .217/.290/.367, so it wasn't much of a victory). In his previous two years with the Bluebirds, Smoak struck out 26.2 and 32.8(!) percent of the time. In 2017? It's down to 17.4 percent thus far, so what has changed?
To my eye at least, a big change has been that ability to lay off the low breaking ball out of the zone, at least as a lefty batter (as a righty, your crazy guess is as good as my crazy guess). We all remember the Smoak of the past two years, where on two strikes we knew it was over: here comes that ball in the dirt and he's gonna miss it by three feet. He's been able thus far to curb that aggressive tendency to chase on two strikes, while meanwhile avoiding such an unfavourable count by murdering pitches early in at-bats (11-23 on first pitches with 4 dingers). Lots of guys have a hot couple months (thus my Juan Francisco reference) so only time will tell if this is even somewhat for real. It's been fun saying he "Smoaked that one outta here" though. Lets keep doing that.
Joe The Lion
There was a great debate in spring training about what Joe Biagini's best role would be on this team: ace late inning reliever or crucial sixth starter depth in Buffalo. Much of this debate was instigated by the team stretching out Biagini for multiple innings during the spring, even allowing him to start a few March contests. Well, they didn't send him to Buffalo, which in retrospect looks like a real smart move. Then when injuries to the starting rotation happened, Biagini's transition into a starting pitcher was certainly easier thanks to those longer spring outings, which in retrospect looks like an even better real smart move.
The starting staff looks to be getting healthy again though, and once Aaron Sanchez returns from The Blister That Wouldn't Die the Blue Jays have a good problem on their hands. You know, the kind of problem where you're choosing between a deep dish or a thin crust pizza for dinner. The choices are 1: keep Biagini in the rotation (he's certainly pitched well enough to stay) and kick Liriano to the bullpen. 2: put Biagini back in the bullpen, or 3: the return of the six man rotation.
Well 1, as enticing as it would be to have a lefty with Liriano's stuff in the bullpen, you have to remember that he's a pending free agent looking for maybe one last big contract, and being a 7th inning reliever on a potential bubble playoff team isn't going to help that cause. The politics of it don't look good. Also he does have a tendency to walk the whole stadium, which unless you're striking out half the guys you face is more problematic for a tight spot reliever than a starter. 2: the most likely outcome, keeping Joe in that 1-2 inning role he's accustomed to in the 6th or 7th, plus you get to keep Danny Barnes' and Ryan Tepera's shoulders from falling off, hopefully. Option 3, it only makes sense when you're trying to keep the innings down for your other starting pitchers and thus keep them potentially healthier for the future (an idea which may be dubious anyway, considering the Mets tried this a couple seasons ago and look at how healthy their young starting pitchers are). Going with a six man run of Estrada, Stroman, Happ, Sanchez, Liriano and Biagini looks good on paper, but doing so robs your really good starters of valuable innings. Sure, Estrada does seem to be the type who could use a breather once and again, but in that scenario you can just spot start a Biagini in his place instead of cramming everybody in there. But anyway it's a pretty good problem to have, and usually a problem bad teams don't have, for whatever that's worth.
Overall, I'd lean more towards the optimism side with this bunch. The pitching still looks good (I didn't even get into how the bullpen has sorted itself out, thanks to Barnes/Tepera emerging as viable choices and Joe Smith chugging down strikeouts) and give me a good pitching staff over a juggernaut offense any day. That being said, the bats are a concern. They're mostly old and slow, their one great young hitter (Travis) can't stop hurting himself, and they don't really have a natural leadoff hitter (April Pillar is looking more and more like a mirage). If they're still in it come July, I bet we see a modest trade bringing a left-fielder or second baseman, since Steve Pearce is not the full time solution at either of those places.
Also, Chris Coghlan is kinda bad. Kinda really bad. At least we got that that flip over Molina out of him.
That is all. Lets get a bucket of 'W's now and really enjoy the summer.