Blue Jays FAQ: What slow-start concerns are legitimate?

MLB insider Shi Davidi isn’t panicking yet, says the Blue Jays are only a few swings from being 4-2 instead of 1-5, but wonders bigger picture, if the rest of the league has figured out how to pitch to the lineup.

In this regular feature, Toronto Blue Jays radio broadcaster Mike Wilner addresses key questions pertaining to the team.

Q – EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE!!!

A – OK, well, that’s not really a question, but it’s as good a place as any to start, since it appears as though that’s the common feeling sweeping through Blue Jays fandom after a first-week road trip resulted in the worst start (1-5) in franchise history.

The icing on the shark sandwich, as it were, was Josh Donaldson having to leave Sunday’s series finale in St. Petersburg with tightness in his right calf, suffered while trying to beat out a grounder to third.

So what went wrong on the visits to Baltimore and Tampa Bay? While it feels like the answer is “everything,” that’s really not the case.

The truth is that two of the Blue Jays’ losses came in extra innings, one more ended with the tying run at second base and yet another with the tying run on deck. In only one of the six games were the Jays not in it right until the end, which, as well all know, just makes the loss feel that much worse.

A hit here and there, though, and the result of the road trip could have been a lot different. One could argue that the Jays were just one hit away (in each game) from going into Sunday’s game with a 5-0 record.

The positives? J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman were dominant on the mound, and Marco Estrada really had just one bad inning in two starts combined.

Despite the fact that the team as a whole is hitting .201/.279/.297, they were within a hair’s breadth of at least splitting the road trip, if not doing much better than that. That’s an encouraging sign because any rational human understands that there’s no way the offense doesn’t improve dramatically the rest of the way.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that really it was nothing more than a bad week, and good teams have them all the time. The fact that these six games are all we have to go on just makes it stand out that much more.

Last year’s Blue Jays lost five out of six on three different occasions (including the first week and a half of the season), and still made the playoffs and got all the way to the ALCS. It happened three times in 2015 as well, and four times in both 1992 and 1993.

This is a very good team, and chances are that it’s going to be a contender all the way to the end of the season and likely beyond.


Q – What about the bullpen?

A – Two blown saves in the first week isn’t pretty, that’s for sure, but the first one was by a guy who probably shouldn’t have been pitching at all and the other was by the usually-reliable Joe Biagini, who was very good in his other two outings.

J.P. Howell blew the save in Friday night’s 10-8 loss to the Rays, facing four batters and retiring none, and wound up on the disabled list 36 hours later with shoulder soreness. His rough outing was the major blemish in what otherwise was a pretty terrific game for the bullpen, which was called on with one out in the very first inning because Francisco Liriano blew up in his first start of the season.

The bigger problem, and what makes it feel as though the bullpen can’t hold a lead, is that just like last April and September, the Blue Jays aren’t hitting. A total of 15 runs in their five losses is an average of three runs per loss, and that includes the eight scored Friday night. Just like last year, Jays’ relievers are working with no margin for error – perfection is required every time out and that’s just impossible.

The Jays have lost twice in extra innings. On opening day, the Jays managed one single in each of the 10th and 11th innings, on Saturday they were hitless from the eighth inning on.

The team hit .150 with runners in scoring position during the first week, but at least they were getting runners on in Baltimore and the early part of the Tampa series. They managed all of one hit after the first inning on Sunday.

The Jays bullpen has allowed 11 runs in 22.2 innings to start the season. Not pretty, but not awful (a 4.37 ERA with the major-league average at 4.21). But if you take out the ugly outing by Howell and the two by emergency airlift replacement Casey Lawrence, who really shouldn’t be in the majors yet, it becomes six runs in 20.2 innings, for an ERA of 2.18. And that’s without Roberto Osuna, who should be activated for the home opener (at the expense of Lawrence). 

The bullpen isn’t the problem.

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Q – But aren’t the Blue Jays demonstrably worse than they were last year?

A – This again seems to be the prevailing notion among some of the louder corners of Blue Jays fandom. This team clearly isn’t as good as it was last year or the year before, so the slow start is less of a bad week and more of an indication on how the season is going to go. Terribly.

While it’s difficult to make an argument that the Blue Jays are demonstrably better than they were in 2016, they’re really not much worse, if at all, on paper.

The biggest issue, of course, is the loss of Edwin Encarnacion as a free agent. The elite slugger, who over the last five years posted a .912 OPS and averaged 39 home runs per season, left for Cleveland. He was replaced by Kendrys Morales, who’s had an OPS over .850 just once in his career and has only hit as many as 30 home runs in a season twice in his 11 big-league seasons.
Clearly, there’s a downgrade at the designated hitter position, but it’s hardly the end of the world.

Morales, a switch-hitter who over the last five years has been a slightly better right-handed hitter than left, was the clean-up hitter for the World Series champion Kansas City Royals just two years ago, and last season belted 30 home runs playing his home games in a park where fly balls go to die.

Over his 11 seasons, Morales has not once been on a team that plays in a hitter-friendly ballpark like the Blue Jays do, in a division full of hitter-friendly ballparks. It will be interesting to see what he can accomplish playing his home games at Rogers Centre, and a Donaldsonian increase in home runs isn’t out of the question. Donaldson’s career-high in homers, playing in that giant ballpark in Oakland, was 29. He’s averaged 39 in his two seasons as a Blue Jay.

For those who believe that hitting with runners in scoring position is a skill, Morales is a career .294/.366/.517 hitter in such situations, in more than 1,000 plate appearances.

It’s not just Morales for Edwin, though. The Jays also added Steve Pearce in the off-season, a terrific hitter who has posted a .262/.343/.473 mark in five seasons since coming over to the American League. That .816 OPS is more than 100 points higher than the career number of the man he’s replacing in the line-up, Michael Saunders.

But wait, Saunders had an .815 OPS in his all-star season, so it’s a saw-off, right? Maybe not.

Saunders was incredible in the first half, earning that all-star trip by hitting .298/.372/.551 before the break. He was a different hitter when he got back, though, and did pretty much nothing in the second half, batting .178/.282/.357.

There’s more. According to an article by Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs, Saunders had one of the least-clutch seasons of all-time. He hit just .204/.294/.352 with runners in scoring position, which went down to .179/.270/.357 with two outs, and just .206/.268/.333 in high-leverage situations. In low-leverage situations, he hit .295/.385/.621.

That’s not an indictment of Michael Saunders the hitter, just a detailed explanation of the year he had, which may well have been largely luck-driven. The article points out that in Saunders’ 18 most significant plate appearances of last season, by Leverage Index, the results were 18 outs and one Blue Jays run scored.

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So while Morales to Encarnacion is a step down, going from Encarnacion and Saunders to Morales and Pearce probably isn’t, even if bringing Saunders back would also likely have resulted in a step forward.

The Blue Jays also have a healthy Jose Bautista this season. While he hasn’t gotten off to a good start at all, going just 3-for-22 with five walks on the road trip with his only extra-base hit a flare double, Bautista didn’t have as poor a 2016 as most seem to think.

He missed time with two freak injuries, but still posted an on-base percentage of .366 and hit 22 home runs in just over two-thirds of a season’s worth of games. His OPS was down almost 100 points from 2015, but some, if not most, of that can be explained by the fact that he was beat up with lower-half injuries and was in and out of the line-up too much to hit his usual stride.

Certainly Bautista has gotten older (who hasn’t?), but to expect a guy who finished in the top eight in MVP voting four times between 2010 and 2015 and who was an all-star every year to just fall off a cliff, performance-wise, is more than a little unrealistic.

The offense isn’t demonstrably worse – and we haven’t even mentioned the fact that the Jays are likely to get far more than 101 games out of Devon Travis, their only .300 hitter last season. The league-best starting pitching, with Liriano taking R.A. Dickey’s place on a regular basis, certainly isn’t worse than it was.

The bullpen? Well, remember that this was a group that included Drew Storen and Jesse Chavez for the first four months of last season. Joaquin Benoit was terrific, but he only threw 23.2 innings. Brett Cecil is gone, but his loss is more than balanced by the fact that Chavez and Storen aren’t there for the American League to kick around anymore.

It’s definitely easier to be pessimistic than not, and the Blue Jays’ awful start hasn’t won over any of the fans who believe this team will be a lot worse than it was last year, but on paper it shouldn’t be. And it might even be better.