BOSTON – As the Toronto Blue Jays finish up their regular season trying to scratch and claw their way to a playoff berth, a tradition continues.
Every year since I’ve started on this beat, I’ve taken an anonymous poll of the Jays’ players, coaches and support staff and asked them to select that season’s Most Valuable Player, pitcher of the year, rookie of the year and most pleasant surprise.
This year, as always, I’ve been impressed by both the participation (near 100 per cent, with only two abstentions – one because he tore a calf muscle before I could ask him) and the legitimate thought almost every voter puts in to making their selection. It’s never just a throwaway thing, it’s always given a great deal of consideration, and since occasionally someone just can’t make a decision, split votes are allowed.
The results were revealed on Sunday’s radio pre-game show, with interviews of all the winners having been aired.
There are four categories, but this year there were only three winners.
Rookie of the year/most pleasant surprise
Joe Biagini was the near-unanimous selection as rookie of the year and easily won most pleasant surprise, as well.
Biagini, a 25 year-old who was selected by the Blue Jays in the Rule 5 draft this past December, had never pitched above AA and was touch-and-go to not just make the Jays’ roster out of spring training, but to stick around longer than the first week of the season.
As it turned out, Biagini wound up not only being a contributor in the Blue Jays’ bullpen, but a reliable and dependable one when, for a large part of the season, such a thing was a very difficult thing to find.
Biagini will wind up second on the Blue Jays in pitching appearances, relief innings and (minimum 30 innings pitched) relief ERA, all behind Roberto Osuna. He didn’t give up a home run until September, went into the final game of the regular season holding opponents to a .167/.286./194 mark with runners in scoring position and in 16 appearances when asked to pitch in the ninth inning or later, posted an ERA of 1.20.
Hardly numbers one would expect from someone who had never pitched above double-A and who had only made three relief appearances in his four years as a professional heading into this season.
Rookie – Biagini 44, Barnes 1
Surprise – Biagini 25, Sanchez 4, Travis 4, Grilli 3, Saunders 3, Carrera 2, Encarnacion 1, Happ 1, Osuna doing what he’s doing and only 21 – 1, entire pitching staff 1.
Pitcher of the year
When the Blue Jays brought back free agent J.A. Happ as their first major addition of the off-season, the fan reaction was tepid, at best. Happ had been arguably the best pitcher in the game over the final two months of 2015, but nobody was buying it, remembering instead the mediocre lefty who nibbled his way through too many outings that saw his pitch counts rise into the 90s by the fifth inning.
The Jays were on him early, taking an aggressive shot at signing him right away and it worked – and are they ever thrilled with what they got.
The 2016 version of Happ is a steady veteran artist on the mound. He attacks with a confidence we hadn’t seen before and has transformed himself from a fly ball pitcher to a ground ball machine. As a result, Happ became only the sixth 20-game winner in Blue Jays history, joining Jack Morris, Pat Hentgen, Roger Clemens, David Wells and Roy Halladay.
Happ posted a career-high 195 innings pitched over 32 starts and set career lows in ERA (3.18) and WHIP (1.17), pitching at the head of the best starting rotation in the American League. For those reasons he was the overwhelming choice among the Blue Jays as their Pitcher of the Year.
Happ 34 1/3, Sanchez 9 1/3, Osuna 1, Estrada 1/3
Most valuable player
The biggest surprise in the voting came in the race for team MVP – the surprise being that it wasn’t really a race at all. Edwin Encarnacion was the clear choice among the electorate. Shockingly, on a team that had the defending American League MVP who followed up with another very good season, Encarnacion nearly ran the table, votes-wise.
Going into the final game of the regular season sharing the league lead in RBI with David Ortiz at 127, tied for third in the league with a career-high-tying 42 home runs and hitting .264/.356/.531, Encarnacion was the driving force behind an offence that, while it could sputter with the best of them, will still finish in the top five in the league in runs scored.
Streaky as always – his one otherworldly month this season was June, when he hit 11 home runs and drove in 30 in 26 games, posting an OPS of 1.185, but he only had one month with an OPS under .800 and three with an OPS over .900 – Edwin was nevertheless a steadying and, most importantly, a constant presence in the middle of the Blue Jays’ lineup.
Sunday’s regular-season finale will be his 160th game of the season, and he needs just two plate appearances to reach 700 – both those totals lead the team with Josh Donaldson close behind.
Encarnacion finished second on the team to Donaldson in WAR among position players, as well as OPS, OPS+ and WPA, but was the near-unanimous winner of the team’s MVP award, as voted by his peers.
Encarnacion 41, Happ 3, Donaldson 2