DENVER – We’ve been talking about the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching a lot lately. If you’ve been following along then you’re well aware. Not good. But to be fair, they’re not solely responsible for that dismal 7-21 May. The offence has been nearly as problematic, and considering it features more of the players expected to be on the team if/when it actually contends, that’s rather troubling in its own right.
Consider this drop-off over the first two months of the season.
Fun fact – the .211 batting average in May was the second lowest of any month in team history, barely surpassing the .210 the Blue Jays hit in September 1978. Not the company you want to keep.
Compounding matters is that on the rare occasions the Blue Jays manage to get something started – their 384 at-bats with runners in scoring position so far this season is last in the American League, 64 below the league average – they rarely capitalize.
These are the numbers before Saturday night’s 4-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies, when Marcus Stroman did the staff a rare solid by throwing seven innings, allowing four runs, three earned.
|Blue Jays||384 (15th)||.245 (12th)||.317 (13th)||.422 (10th)||.739 (11th)|
“The biggest key right now offensively is that we’re giving them some easy outs. You’ve got to go up there with a plan and pretty much have better at-bats,” said veteran first baseman Justin Smoak, whose majestic solo shot in the ninth got the Blue Jays on the board. “I’ve been through it so many times – and still go through it – when you struggle, you get in between. As a young guy, I was in between a lot. The biggest thing is to get on one or the other, sit hard, or sit soft. Like tonight with (Jon) Gray, I mean he pitched well, but pretty much everything he throws is hard so you can stay hard the whole at-bat, really. Being better at that, as a whole.”
The Blue Jays weren’t good at that as they kicked off June by going 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position, including consecutive strikeouts by Danny Jansen and Jonathan Davis after Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Cavan Biggio pulled off a double steal to put men at second and third.
In the sixth inning, Smoak lined out to right field to strand a Vladimir Guerrero Jr., double. Then in the seventh, Davis hit into a fielder’s choice after consecutive walks by Biggio and Jansen.
They didn’t score until the ninth, when Smoak’s 12th homer off the season came off Carlos Estevez. A Jansen double to cash in Biggio, who reached on an error, brought the tying run to the plate before closer Scott Oberg came in to retire pinch-hitter Rowdy Tellez.
Give Gray credit for keeping things in check until then. But, at some point, the Blue Jays have to make some pitchers pay, too.
“I think it was a combination of him pitching well and us not making an adjustment,” said manager Charlie Montoyo.
In some ways, more important than the results is the process at the plate that’s led to them.
Per Fangraphs, the Blue Jays’ swing rate at pitches outside the strike zone of 32.4 per cent is fifth highest in the AL. Their contact rate of 74 per cent is 12th, while their swinging strike rate of 12.1 per cent is fourth.
Little wonder, then, that the types of contact they make breaks down like this:
|19.4% (3)||43.2% (14)||37.4 (9)|
Now, it’s not unreasonable for a lineup regularly featuring four rookies, plus another player who just surpassed rookie eligibility limits last year, to endure growing pains. There is upside for the Blue Jays on the position-player end of things but right now it’s not showing.
And the struggles are hard to take.
“It’s frustrating,” Stroman said of a couple balls sneaking through during a three-run first that was enough for the Rockies. “I work extremely hard every single day. I hold myself to an extremely high level and we’re losing – a lot – so it’s not fun. This is not fun. It’s not a fun atmosphere. I’m a winner. I hate losing. I can’t put that into words enough. It’s tough. It’s tough. I’m trying to do everything in my power to not let up runs every single inning.”
Among the many challenges for Blue Jays’ young players is in enduring the regular beatdowns as they work to successfully transition from the minor-leagues. Losing is new for many of them. Guerrero and Biggio, for instance, won championships at single-A Dunedin in 2017 and double-A New Hampshire in 2018.
These are developmental times with long-lasting impact.
“You don’t want to create a losing culture in this clubhouse, so it’s hard to kind of break that stigma or kind of break that mould going into every single day having losses. I don’t know what else to say, to be honest with you,” Stroman replied when asked how the young players were handling the current grind.
“Staying even-keeled and as level-headed as possible. That’s all you can do. Like I said, I hate losing. I hope every person in this clubhouse hates losing as much as I do. I just hope that. We have a losing atmosphere right now and it’s not fun.”
Perseverance through the misery of individual struggles is hard enough, but doing it with the team collectively going through the wringer only adds to the difficulty.
“I know we’re struggling right now, it is what it is,” Guerrero said before the game through interpreter Hector LeBron. “I’m going to keep working hard and try to help the team win.”
And that’s really all there is to it right now. Neither the hitting nor the pitching is strong enough to carry the team for any length of time. Defensively, there are issues, too, as errors by Davis in centre and Biggio on the relay at second turned a fourth inning Raimel Tapia double into the second Little League home run allowed by the Blue Jays this week.
Free runs are tough to stomach in the midst of nine losses in the past 10 games, and without consecutive wins since a three-game sweep of Oakland April 26-28.
“That can only make you stronger,” Montoyo said of trudging through the morass. “And that’s my and our coaches’ job just to keep a positive vibe. That’s why we don’t quit. That’s why we see these guys, until the end, we keep playing hard.”
This year was always going to be about the future for the Blue Jays, but a season on pace to be bad enough for a top-five draft pick in 2020 wasn’t supposed to be a stop along the way.