TORONTO — Saturday, two days shy of the all-star break, the Toronto Blue Jays held the second-worst rotation ERA (5.45) across MLB. That went along with the highest WHIP (1.54), fifth-lowest K/9 (7.3), and highest BB/9 (3.9). The starting staffs of only two teams had a higher batting average against. Only six, including the visiting Baltimore Orioles, had allowed more runs.
That right there is where things have gone most awry for the 2019 Blue Jays through 90 games. Of course, it’s not all the pitching. The club’s offence is still below-average in the aggregate. But the bats have at least gotten more productive as the season’s worn on. Toronto came into Saturday having scored the second-most runs across MLB since the entirely-arbitrary-yet-still-substantial date of June 12. The Blue Jays were first in home runs and fourth in extra-base hits over that span, as well.
As young, still-developing players like Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Cavan Biggio, and Danny Jansen have come up with big moments over the last six weeks or so, the run production has come around. The run prevention, meanwhile, has not.
“The kids are playing good. They’re getting better. Jansen’s improving. Our offence is playing good. Our team is playing good. But the pitching’s struggling,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said prior to his team’s 8-1 loss Saturday to Baltimore, the worst team in baseball. “Our starting rotation has struggled since June. So, that’s why we haven’t won many games.”
And Saturday was another example. The five hardest-hit balls in the game all came off of Blue Jays starter Clayton Richard, which says one thing about how frequently the Orioles were squaring him up, and another about how much Toronto’s hitters struggled against Baltimore starter Andrew Cashner.
Richard actually came away with a quality start, allowing three earned over six innings. But not too many quality starts feature a bat-around fourth inning.
Richard was cruising right along until that fourth, when Trey Mancini reached on an error before Renato Nunez punished a 90-m.p.h. first-pitch fastball, driving it 419-feet over the left field wall. Pedro Severino took Richard’s next pitch off the wall in right-centre for a double, and eventually scored on an Anthony Santander single a batter later.
By the time Richard got his first out of the inning, striking out Stevie Wilkerson on three pitches, there were already four runs in and two runners in scoring position. Richard finally got things under control from there, getting out of the inning on two groundballs. But another run scored in the process, giving the Orioles a five spot, with only two of them earned. Richard allowed another in the sixth, before giving way to the bullpen.
“I felt there was a couple pitches that I executed poorly,” Richard said. “You make a couple mistakes to a big league lineup, and they’ll hurt you.”
The start followed a trend for Richard this season. Coming into Saturday’s start, he’d held opponents to a .213 batting average his first time through the order. But that number had ballooned to .344 his second time, and .435 on his third trip.
“I think a lot of it goes to particular at-bats where I get behind or walk a guy I shouldn’t walk. Or sometimes their first at-bat I show them too many pitches and then that second time through, that guy comes up in a key opportunity that I’ve walked the first time, they’ve seen everything, and they’re able to put the ball in play,” Richard said. “It’s about aggressively attacking hitters the first time through. When you don’t do that, they see more pitches. And later in the game, that hurts you.”
Cashner, meanwhile, retired the first 10 Blue Jays he faced — Keon Broxton robbed Freddy Galvis of extra-bases with a leaping grab at the wall for the 10th out — before Vladimir Guerrero Jr. lined a single back up the middle in the fourth. (Guerrero left the game after the seventh inning with a stomach ailment)
A wild pitch and a Cavan Biggio single later, the Blue Jays had themselves a run. It was the only one they’d get, and only their second in two games this weekend against baseball’s worst team.
“Vladdy made a couple of good plays, he played good defensively,” Montoyo said, searching for positives in a game that didn’t provide many. “It was good to see J.D. Davis come off the bench and hit a line drive to right field. There was some good things, you know? Not as many today. But there’s always good things. I’m always going to find good things, that’s just who I am.”
Anyway, the pitching. It hasn’t been great. And it remains to be seen whether it’ll get any better. As things currently stand, the Blue Jays hope to start Aaron Sanchez, Richard, and Marcus Stroman, in order, against the division-leading New York Yankees in their first series on the other side of the break. That would set up Trent Thornton to pitch the opener of a four-game set in Boston on Monday, July 15, with a still undecided fifth starter taking a turn Tuesday.
All four of those named pitchers carry quite a bit of uncertainty. Stroman came out of his last start due to injury, was skipped in the rotation going into the break, and will almost certainly be traded sometime in the coming weeks. After Saturday’s outing, Richard now has a 6.23 ERA over 9 starts, after posting a 5.33 ERA over 27 outings last season in a less hitter-friendly ballpark.
Sanchez’s results have been even worse, as he carries the second-worst ERA (6.16) and worst BB/9 (5.48) among qualified MLB starters into the break. And Trent Thornton’s currently working through a second bout of pitch-tipping this season, which has led to him allowing 12 runs over his last two starts.
Saturday morning, Montoyo described his fifth starter as “a kid from the minor-leagues” which would suggest one of Jacob Waguespack, Sean Reid-Foley, or Thomas Pannone. The spot will be Ryan Borucki’s eventually, but he’s still getting built up as he returns from an elbow issue that has robbed him of half a season.
The best and most consistent of the bunch by far has been Stroman, and the Blue Jays could make a trade removing him from the rotation at any time this month. While relievers often don’t move until right at the deadline as teams wait out that market, starters can move sooner if an acquiring team has a pressing need and the trading club receives the value it’s looking for.
Every team looking to add a starter this season is well aware of Stroman’s availability, and has almost certainly checked in on what Toronto’s price would be. It would take only one of those teams inching close to meeting that price to rapidly accelerate the Stroman market and encourage the Blue Jays to pull the trigger.
Stroman will attend the all-star festivities next week in Cleveland as Toronto’s lone representative — his availability in trade will no doubt be a topic. As he continues to recover from a pectoral issue that the Blue Jays were worried might alter his mechanics, Stroman won’t pitch in the game itself. He’ll likely throw a bullpen sometime during the break or in New York immediately after it to confirm that he’s sound enough to return to game action.
Any team looking to acquire him will no doubt want to see Stroman healthy and effective on the other side of the break. So, he’ll more than likely be making at least one more start in a Blue Jays uniform. But from that point forward, each start could potentially be his last.
“I would say this — Marcus has put himself in an incredible position throughout his career,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said when asked if he expected to move Stroman at the deadline. “He has been durable. He has performed at an exceptionally high rate. He has been one of the better pitchers in baseball over the last three years. And, because of that, he is in a great position for his future with the Toronto Blue Jays — and there’s 29 other teams that are thinking the same way
“They’d love to have someone that has been durable and has been productive. So, we’ll see. With another year of control, for us, that’s attractive. And that’s extremely attractive to other teams, as well. But he’s put himself in a remarkable spot and earned all of that respect.”
So, an already struggling Blue Jays rotation is about to lose its best and most reliable option. The pitchers slated to start the first two games out of the break each hold ERA’s north of six. The fourth starter is tipping his pitches; the fifth starter is currently unknown. And 72 games remain in the season.