ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As the curtain comes down on every Blue Jays season — successful or otherwise — one of my great pleasures is to seek out every player on the team, every member of the coaching staff, the manager and the general manager, and ask each one to vote for the End of Season Awards.
Votes are allowed to be split — if you can’t decide on one winner, you can pick two and they each get half a point — and the only restriction is that a player cannot vote for himself.
Every year, those polled impress me with how thoughtful they are about their responses, how seriously they take the questions, and how much time they take to come up with the right answer, because they know that to win an award is one thing, but to win one that’s bestowed upon you by the people you “go to battle with” every day is a serious honour.
This wasn’t a great year for the Blue Jays on the field, no question, but we did see some historic things: Lourdes Gurriel Jr. broke Shoeless Joe Jackson’s all-time rookie record by getting multiple hits in 11 consecutive games. Kendrys Morales fell one game short of the all-time record, but still set a big-league mark for switch-hitters by homering in seven straight. Rowdy Tellez burst onto the scene with six doubles in his first eight at-bats, along the way becoming the first player in the modern era to get an extra-base hit in each of his first three career plate appearances.
There were more lows than highs, but some pretty cool stuff happened in this Blue Jays season that had never happened before, and may never happen again.
Here’s how the voting went down for the Blue Jays’ annual End of Season Awards. Compiled by me, sure, but selected by the players, coaches and front office staff:
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Winner: Justin Smoak
.242/.350/.407. Tied for club lead with 25 home runs, club leader in RBIs (77), walks (82), bWAR (2.3), OPS+ (122), WPA (2.6). Was one of only two qualifying AL first basemen with an OPS over .800 and the other one, C.J. Cron, had more at-bats as a DH than as a first baseman.
|Lourdes Gurriel Jr.||3|
Smoak wins the MVP by an overwhelming margin for the second straight season, though last year none of his teammates garnered more than a single vote. Many players took a long time to come up with the answer — it was a tough year to pick an MVP — but almost all of them landed on the same name. One of the reasons some of the younger Blue Jays gave was that the switch-hitting slugger was the veteran rock in the middle of a lineup that kept getting more and more youthful as the season progressed.
Smoak found that odd.
“It’s weird to hear that,” he said, “because my first two years here I felt like the young guy.” Which would be natural, considering he was a part-time player in a line-up that included such luminaries as Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion. But, clearly, the times are changing.
Smoak had his breakthough season in 2017, belting a career-high 38 home runs and making the all-star team for the first time. Most baseball observers went into 2018 wondering if Smoak had established himself as a consistent middle-of-the-order threat.
“Honestly, I didn’t feel any pressure to do it again,” said Smoak. “You look at guys across the big leagues and they have those really, really good years and then in the years that aren’t great years for them, they still have good years. That’s something where you have to be consistent day in and day out, and I feel like I was able to do that this year, especially after the year I had last year.”
He was. Though Smoak didn’t reach the heights of his big 2017, he was a consistent middle-of the-order threat who played almost every day for the first five months of the season, until Tellez came up to share some time. Still, Smoak was the club leader with 147 games played.
And those late home runs. Smoak’s walk-off shot against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 20 capped a seven-run rally in the bottom of the ninth. It was the last home run he would hit this season, and his fifth of the year that came in the ninth inning or later, including a pinch-hit grand slam in Miami on August 31st.
Smoak has hit 15 home runs in the ninth inning or beyond over the past two seasons — no other big-leaguer has hit more than eight. What’s his secret?
Smoak doesn’t know.
“Those guys coming in for the last two or three innings, they’re no joke,” Smoak said. “I feel like it’s just a matter of having an approach or being able to barrel a ball in a big situation, and hopefully I can continue to do that.”
PITCHER OF THE YEAR
Winner: J.A. Happ
10-6, 4.18 with the Blue Jays in 2018. Even though he was traded to the Yankees at the end of July, Happ finished tied for third on the team with 20 starts, led the team in most strikeouts per nine innings and fewest walks per nine innings, and was second in ERA, FIP and bWAR behind Ryan Borucki.
For the first four months of the season, the classy veteran lefty was the cornerstone of the Blue Jays’ brittle rotation. The only one of the original five starters to avoid the disabled list, Happ was the Jays’ lone all-star representative. He was a great mentor to the younger pitchers even as he knew his days in Toronto were dwindling.
Reached via text in New York as his new team prepared to host the AL Wild Card game, Happ said learning that he’d won the award was “awesome.”
“I’m proud of that,” he continued. “It feels good to earn that from the players and coaches. Having their support and confidence always means the most to me.”
The young man who finished second in the voting, Ryan Borucki, was effusive in his praise for his teammate-of-a-couple-months.
“He meant a lot,” said the rookie southpaw. “You‘re just trying to be comfortable in a new environment and to have a guy like that take you under his wing is amazing.”
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR/MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE OF THE SEASON
Winner: Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
These awards get combined because the same guy won them both. .286/.314/.453. 11 HR, 30 runs scored, 35 RBIs in only 64 games played. 106 OPS+, 103 wRC+
Rookie of the Year Voting:
|Lourdes Gurriel Jr.||21.5|
Most Pleasant Surprise of the Season Voting:
|Lourdes Gurriel Jr.||12|
|“The Young Pitching”||1|
The youngster from Cuban baseball royalty didn’t start the season with the big club, having missed all of 2016 fleeing Cuba and establishing residency elsewhere in order to get to the major leagues, and then suffering from various injuries that cost him most of 2017.
He arrived in the big leagues for the first time in late April and was optioned back down to Buffalo in mid-May. He returned briefly in June to cover a paternity leave, but didn’t get back to Toronto for good until July 2nd. He hasn’t looked back.
“It’s been very, very, very hard, my journey since I left Cuba,” said the 24-year-old through translator Josue Pelay. “But I worked really hard for it. You never expect to have a good season after all of that, and you never expect that most of it will be in the big leagues, but like I said, I worked very hard for it and I’m pretty proud of my accomplishments so far.”
The biggest accomplishment was an 11-game run in late July in which Gurriel had at least two hits in each contest. Over the course of the streak, which broke Shoeless Joe Jackson’s rookie record of 10 games and threatened the all-time record of 13 held by none other than Rogers Hornsby, Gurriel was as locked in as it’s possible to be. Over the course of the streak, he went 25-for-50 with three doubles, three home runs, six runs scored and eight RBIs — and he spent seven days on the concussion disabled list in the middle of it.
Gurriel had his patented big smile on his face the whole time (except for the concussion part), but “it wasn’t easy at all, because you have to strike the balance between helping your team win and having everybody tell you every day about these legends and that you might break a record.”
“It’s something that’s pretty, pretty hard,” Gurriel continued, “because sometimes you’re very anxious. You get out there and think, ‘I gotta get a hit, then I gotta get another one if I want to keep going.’ But at the same time, I gotta make sure that my team is winning, because if we’re losing I don’t want to get too excited about it. So having that happen to me for the first time was very difficult to handle at that time, but I’m not gonna lie, I was very impressed and very happy about it, too.”
And as far as winning two of the four End of Season Awards?
“I feel very happy,” beamed the rookie, “knowing that it’s the players and coaches that gave their votes. But I have to thank them first because it’s because of them that I had a good season. Because they supported me and they helped me a lot, not just with stuff on the field but also off the field.”