In the midst of the worst start in franchise history, there’s no shortage of areas for improvement on the Toronto Blue Jays. But even before the team stumbled out of the gate, the offence should have been a concern for most interested parties.
This well-earned apprehension stands in stark opposition to the generally positive feeling toward the bats that existed at this point a year ago. Before the 2016 season, most of the concern was directed toward the state of the starting rotation.
With the 2015 team’s league-leading output of 891 runs fresh in our minds, the message was clear: "Don’t worry, they’ll plenty of runs." However, a similar group of players managed 759 runs in 2016, dropping to ninth one year after leading the league.
At the time, the distinction between the two teams didn’t seem so massive that it should precipitate such a drop-off. In retrospect, losing Chris Colabello’s production (.886 OPS, 142 wRC+ in 2015) early in the season should have seemed like a greater concern, though his ignominious exit and his 2-for-29 start likely obscured this fact.
One would assume a team with the reigning AL MVP and two of the most fearsome home run hitters in recent years should have been more than enough to continue to assail opposing pitching staffs, especially with a full season of Troy Tulowitzki. But the 2016 team was characterized by cavernous slumps at the beginning and end of the year that nearly scuttled the entire season.
A further comparison between those two rosters should give us some pause for this year’s team.
The 2015 team had many of the same marquee players, but also saw league average or better contributions from players such as Danny Valencia (127 wRC+), Justin Smoak (108) and Ben Revere (102) in addition to Colabello. Moreover, Russell Martin posted an above average season (114), and Devon Travis shone (135) in his injury-shortened debut.
In 2016, the Blue Jays had six players with at least 100 plate appearances who posted a wRC+ of 100 or better, whereas the 2015 team had nine. This includes Martin slipping just under league average (99), as well as Smoak falling back (90) and Kevin Pillar regressing (93 to 80) in the space of a season.
Most any team will have a rogues gallery of players whose production falls beneath the level of league average. Part of what makes baseball entertaining is the scarcity of star players, and the novelty of seeing those players perform at exceptional levels.
The hope is that those other players can contribute in other ways, but there’s a balance to this, especially in an era of two wild card teams per league and relative parity. If Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Kendrys Morales are expected to carry the offence while we worry over Devon Travis’ health and Troy Tulowitzki and Martin hover around league average, that leaves three spots in the order where the production could create a drag on the rest of the lineup.
When a team hands out thousands of at bats per season to below average hitters, it doesn’t take much time before the marginal distinctions begin to add up. As we’ve seen in the early part of the season, a timely hit or walk versus an out here or there could often mean the difference between a win or loss. Imagine one game every two weeks where that’s the case, and suddenly an 85-win team starts to look more like a 72-win team. It’s the difference between contending for the division, and being the Los Angeles Angels.
Again, this is similar to the predicament that almost every team faces, but the Blue Jays seem to be leaning especially hard on players who have rarely shown themselves to be of major-league calibre. And they certainly aren’t allowing much latitude for their stars to regress.
The sports cliché says that a team needs their best players to be their best players. But even Mike Trout hasn’t been able to singlehandedly lift his team out of their doldrums, despite historic efforts. If the Blue Jays are to prosper at all this year, they’ll need the bottom of the order to exceed expectations. Or they’ll need to find someone who can.