Blue Jays have potential to make speed part of their game again in 2020

Toronto Blue Jays' Bo Bichette sliding into third base in a game against the New York Yankees. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

If you were asked to describe the Toronto Blue Jays’ style of play in recent years, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a satisfactory answer.

That’s partly because it’s difficult for a losing team to forge a strong identity, and also the result of roster turnover that hasn’t allowed the club to field a consistent cast of characters.

Far easier than identifying a quality the Blue Jays have displayed with any consistency of late is finding ones they’ve lacked. Since the erosion of the 2015-16 outfits, this franchise has repeatedly suffered from unreliable starting pitching, an inability to get on base, and subpar defence.

Another quality that has been missing – perhaps more frequently unnoticed – is a severe lack of speed. Over the last four seasons, this team has been near the bottom of the league in both stealing bases and FanGraphs’ Base Running metric.

A lack of wheels isn’t the most important factor holding this club back by any means, but it has hurt both their entertainment value and offensive options. The 2020 season – whatever form it takes – could be the first time in recent memory the Blue Jays wield speed as a legitimate weapon.

Below is a list of the Blue Jays presumptive starters at each position as well as their Sprint Speed percentile from 2019:

In that group, you only have two real slowpokes in Shaw and Guerrero Jr., but neither is in the Justin Smoak category of immobility. In fact, Guerrero Jr. is right between old friends Gio Urshela and Ryan Goins on the Sprint Speed leaderboards, and Shaw easily clears both Smoak and Rowdy Tellez, who manned the position last year. The designated hitter spot remains an open question, and while Tellez could get some run there, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of the outfielders occupy it with regularity.

We don’t know exactly what a bench for this 2020 team would look like – especially with rosters potentially expanding to 29 players – but you can be relatively sure it would include Derek Fisher (92nd percentile Sprint Speed) with guys like Anthony Alford (96th percentile), and Jonathan Davis (83rd percentile) possibly in the mix.

Now, it’s important to distinguish speed from base stealing here. Teoscar Hernandez is the perfect example. He’s posted elite Sprint Speed numbers for years, but he’s totalled just 11 steals in his big-league career and been caught 11 times. Last year, the Blue Jays coaching staff actively encouraged him to swipe bags and his stolen base total at the end of the season was six. Similarly, Fisher’s elite speed has resulted in all of 10 steals through 152 big-league games.

For most of these guys, speed is a base-running aide, not something that results in swiping bags. Even so, the ability to take the extra bases should help this team avoid costing itself runs on the bases and post its first positive BsR since 2015.

The steals should also come at a higher clip than we’ve seen recently. Bichette’s first foray into MLB-level larceny didn’t look too promising (four steals against four times being caught), but ZiPS projects him for a 28 stolen bases pace based on his minor-league work. Considering his elite speed and all-around aggressiveness as a player, that’s not too hard to believe.

A full season of Biggio – whatever that means – could also result in a high rate of steals. The 24-year-old showed a serious knacky for thievery in 2019, and while his projections aren’t as kind as Bichette’s (ZiPS has him at a 14-steal pace) it’s not hard to imagine him building on a year where he managed 14 steals without getting caught.

Beyond those two, the team would be looking for players like Fisher (who ZiPS pegs for a 12-steal pace), Hernandez and the outfielders to take a step forward in that regard, but that’s definitely within the realm of possibility. The sum of those parts is unlikely to be a team that leads the league in stolen bases, but it could be enough to avoid living at the bottom of that leaderboard once again.

When the Blue Jays return to action, if they return to action, they will seem enormously entertaining simply by virtue of the baseball deprivation we all will have suffered to that point. Beyond the unprecedented circumstances that have affected all teams, this club in particular has upgraded its rotation well into the realm of watchable, and the development of its young stars promises to be a lot of fun.

Although it won’t be as critical to the franchise’s future, one of the best quality-of-life improvements for Blue Jays fans might be the ability to tune into a club that can make something happen on the bases for the first time in a long while.

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