Blue Jays’ rotation now earning respect

R.A. Dickey (Jim Cowsert/AP)

Not only did the Toronto Blue Jays have one of baseball’s worst starting rotations in 2013, they did nothing to improve it last off-season. It’s safe to say that they could have replicated last year’s 4.81 ERA without surprising too many people.

Instead, like so many elements of the 2014 Blue Jays, the rotation has been a surprising source of strength for a team that has worked its way to the top of the American League East standings. The way the Blue Jays are hitting home runs, it’s easy to miss that their rotation ERA has improved by more than a run to 3.75. R.A. Dickey, Toronto’s opening day starter, won’t mind a bit if the starters’ success stays undetected.

“We stink,” R.A. Dickey joked after his most recent start. “We’re going to keep stinking, too. We’re happy to be under the radar. We’re happy that people don’t, as a staff, give us any respect. It’s OK.”

That might change soon. With the fifth-best rotation ERA in the American League, the Blue Jays starting staff has provided much-needed stability.

“I think we’re just pushing deeper into games and I think collectively we’re throwing more strikes,” Dickey told Sportsnet. “I think a lot of it has to do with momentum, too. We all have a little confidence.”

As a result, the Blue Jays are positioned to make a playoff run, one year after their current core was first expected to.

“I’ve always known we had a good team. I thought the same thing last year, so obviously I was wrong last year,” Mark Buehrle said. “Everything’s coming together.”

Big Three

Despite the efforts general manager Alex Anthopoulos made to bolster Toronto’s rotation with a frontline starter, the Blue Jays stayed quiet when trades fell through and Ervin Santana preferred the Atlanta Braves.

Yet the top of the rotation has been effective nonetheless thanks in large part to their success limiting home runs. In Dickey, Buehrle and Drew Hutchison, the Blue Jays have three starters with ERAs below 3.95 in 65 innings or more.

Buehrle has been the staff’s most effective starter so far. Even if we set aside the gaudy 9-1 win-loss record, he has been one of baseball’s best pitchers this year with a 2.33 ERA through 11 starts.

Not convinced that a 35-year-old with an 83 mph fastball can dominate? Consider that in the last calendar year he has a 3.09 ERA in 210 innings and ranks 15th in MLB with 4.2 wins above replacement. Look beyond Buehrle’s hot start, and we’re still talking about an excellent starter.

“The larger picture for me is much more important than the present. Just the consistency. The innings, the starts. Consecutive starts,” Dickey said. “Regardless of what his numbers end up at, at the end of the year, you know that he’s going to be pushing 200 innings and you know that he’s going to pushing, who knows how many wins and how many quality starts, which I think is a really good measurement for consistency.”

By that measure, Dickey has also produced, with eight quality starts in his 11 outings. Part of his recent success comes from increased velocity on his knuckleball and fastball thanks to some improved health. He has also worked to keep the ball down, which has helped reduce home runs.

“When I had the lower velocities last year when I was a little bit under the weather, it was tough to get away with mistakes,” he said. “I’ve gotten away with a few mistakes this year, simply because the velocities are high.”

Then there’s Hutchison, the 23-year-old right-hander whose hard-throwing approach couldn’t be much more different than those of Buehrle or Dickey. With a 3.88 ERA through 11 starts, he has impressed against some tough competition.

“Overall I think I’ve thrown the ball well,” Hutchison said leading up to his most recent outing. “If I continue to go out and try to go deep into the games, I can keep giving our team a chance.”

Back of the rotation questions

For all the improvement, the Blue Jays still have questions at the back of the rotation. At his best, J.A. Happ induces weak fly balls and swings and misses by pitching up in the strike zone. It sure worked against the Oakland Athletics Sunday, and the left-hander deserves credit for his 3.34 ERA.

But when Happ struggles, opponents go deep, as evidenced by a career home run rate of 1.1 per nine innings. A fly ball pitcher, he’s not a natural fit for the stadium John Gibbons has called ‘home run heaven.’

In Liam Hendriks, the Blue Jays have a pitcher who was consistently hit hard in three seasons with the Minnesota Twins. Despite his respectable Toronto debut and fantastic triple-A ERA of 1.48, he has allowed 208 hits, including 32 home runs, in 167.2 career innings. That’s got to be worrisome for the Blue Jays.

Improved depth

Even with questions at the back of the rotation, the Blue Jays have better starting depth than they did a year ago. As Anthopoulos pointed out leading into the season, the 2014 Blue Jays won’t have to rely on fringe starters such as Dave Bush and Ramon Ortiz the way they did in 2013.

Brandon Morrow could provide a mid-season boost if rehab from a strained right index finger goes as planned (even if he returns, he must show improved command). Marcus Stroman looms as a potential mid-season contributor, though his bullpen debut showed there are no guarantees. Sean Nolin, now on the minor league DL with a groin injury, could also contribute.

Going forward

While the Blue Jays have improved considerably, they still can’t be completely sure what they’ll get from their fourth and fifth starters. Plus, advanced metrics such as a 4.33 xFIP suggest Toronto’s rotation is due for some regression when opponents start connecting for a few more home runs. There’s no doubt that trade speculation surrounding Jeff Samardzija and others will continue.

But none of that should take away from the success that the current rotation has enjoyed under pitching coach Pete Walker. They’re keeping the team in games and then some, and have helped turn the Blue Jays into a contender. Keep pitching like this,  and they’ll get their share of respect, too.

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