With another Blue Jays’ season in the books – the most disappointing in a recent memory that only goes back three or four years – the time has come to tie the final bow on 2017.
Retrospectives are being written, questions are being asked and answers are being unearthed, but while all that goes on, the Blue Jays themselves looked back on their season and chose their stand-out teammates.
As the end of each season approaches, I go up to every Blue Jay – all uniformed personnel, including coaching staff, as well as members of the front office – and ask for his anonymous vote in four different categories: Most Valuable Player, Pitcher of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Most Pleasant Surprise of the Season.
As always, I was impressed and encouraged by how seriously everyone took their ballots, especially in a year where most of the award winners seemed to be such slam dunks. To a man, they took their time and seriously considered where their votes were going.
It should be noted that because the Blue Jays finished the season on the road, voting began early in the final homestand of the season. At that point, Richard Urena was off to a terrific start to his September and Teoscar Hernandez wasn’t. The vagaries of small sample sizes meant that Hernandez did not receive any votes. Had the balloting been done later, he might have had a shot at Most Pleasant Surprise and would probably have managed a few Rookie of the Year votes.
The only balloting rules are that one vote is allowed per person (no rankings, first, second, third or anything like that), though that vote can be split. Players are also not allowed to vote for themselves in any category.
Most valuable player: Justin Smoak (40)
Others who got votes: Josh Donaldson (1), Kendrys Morales (1), Marcus Stroman (1)
It’s no surprise that Smoak was the overwhelming winner in this category, despite his late-season struggles. For the longest part of this season – outside Kevin Pillar’s April, Jose Bautista and Devon Travis’ May and Josh Donaldson’s August and September – Smoak was the only Blue Jay who was a steady offensive performer.
Smoak played in 158 games and led the team with 38 home runs and 90 runs batted in. He was an all-star for the first time, and even with his rough August and September, when he hit just .212/.312/.409, Smoak’s season OPS didn’t fall under .900 for good until the final week of the season. That’s because he built up an outstanding .300/.379/.595 mark over the first four months.
It’ll be interesting to see if this was a one-off for Smoak, or if he becomes a Bautista-esque late bloomer. Only 2018 will answer that question, but his teammates said he was their best in 2017.
Pitcher of the Year: Marcus Stroman (33 ½)
Others who got votes: Dominic Leone (5 ½), Ryan Tepera (3) Roberto Osuna (1)
Stroman got off to a great start as a rookie in 2014, was phenomenal in recovering from what was supposed to be a season-ending injury in 2015 and had a strong 2016 save for a rough month of June. He put it all together from start to finish in 2017.
The 26 year-old led the team in ERA, innings pitched, wins and WHIP, didn’t miss a start and reached 200 innings for a second straight season. His 13 wins were a career-high and his 3.09 ERA – fourth in the American League – was also a career-best.
The righty was remarkably consistent, not posting an ERA over 3.70 in any of the season’s six months, while battling a hotspot on his right hand that never turned into a blister for almost the entire second half.
Rookie of the Year: Danny Barnes (42)
Others who got votes: Richard Urena (1)
This was about as slam-dunk as an award can be. Barnes was a key member of the Blue Jays’ bullpen all season long, posting an outstanding 1.091 WHIP in 60 appearances covering 66 innings, with 62 strikeouts, while establishing himself as a big-time contributor in late-inning, high-leverage situations.
Those numbers would likely have stood out even if it had not been an especially weak field of rookies for the Blue Jays. Though 19 players with rookie eligibility appeared in games for the Jays this season, Barnes was the only one who was around for even the majority of the season. Carlos Ramirez, Teoscar Hernandez and Matt Dermody made very nice impressions, but in very limited time.
The best Blue Jays’ rookie in 2017, of course, was Darrell Ceciliani, who hit .400 with an OPS of 1.600, but in only five at-bats. He separated his shoulder while hitting a home run in his final at-bat, on May 18th in Atlanta, and never made it back.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Justin Smoak (13)
Others who got votes: Dominic Leone (12), Ryan Tepera (12), Danny Barnes (1), Joe Biagini (1), Kevin Pillar (1), Carlos Ramirez (1), Richard Urena (1)
This was easily the most difficult decision for most voters to make, and there was one abstention (he said he saw it as a negative thing, no one surprised him because he always has faith in his teammates), but ultimately, Smoak squeaked by the pair of relievers to earn his second piece of non-hardware for the season (coveted awards these, but there are no physical manifestations).
You really can’t fault anyone for voting for any of the top three. Smoak had his breakout season, nearly doubling his career-high home run total (20 going into this season), posting an OPS over 100 points higher than his previous career-best and hitting .270 after coming into this year never having posted a batting average above .238.
Leone came to the Blue Jays from the Arizona Diamondbacks, and he’d been a nondescript journeyman reliever since his big rookie season with Seattle in 2014. Leone threw only 42 big-league innings in 2015 and ’16 combined, posting an ERA of 7.07 and a WHIP of 2.024. The righty was outstanding this season, appearing in 65 games, with a 2.56 ERA and 1.052 WHIP in 70 1/3 innings. Leone, along with Barnes and Ryan Tepera, more than ably filled the late-inning high-leverage void created by the departure of Joe Smith, the ineffectiveness of Jason Grilli and Joe Biagini’s move to the starting rotation.
As for Tepera, he led the Jays’ relief corps in appearances (73) and innings pitched (77 2/3), finishing up his season with a perfect 8th inning in the finale, earning his team-leading 17th hold of the year (Joe Smith, traded at the July 31st deadline, finished second on the Jays with 13). The hard-throwing righty finally established himself as a go-to late-inning reliever, fulfilling Jays manager John Gibbons’ prophecy. At the end of spring training, Gibby said he expected Tepera to have a big year, saying that it was his time to step into the greater spotlight, and he did.
Tepera had three blow-ups out of the ‘pen this season, combining in those games to allow 11 runs (9 earned) while recording just a total of four outs. Outside those three poor outings, Tepera posted a 2.59 ERA and 1.009 WHIP. Even including the poor outings, his numbers were terrific, and it feels as though going into 2018, the Blue Jays’ bullpen is in very good hands with Tepera, Leone and Barnes setting up closer Roberto Osuna.