Nicholson-Smith: Examining Blue Jays’ struggles

Mark Buehrle and the Toronto Blue Jays are off to a 9-17 start.

As Toronto Blue Jays fans determine what to expect during the remaining five months of the season, a number of theories are circulating as potential explanations for the club’s struggles.

While some of these theories seem valid, others are suspect, based primarily on guesses and impressions rather than facts and precedent.

Here’s a closer look at some commonly held views about the 2013 Blue Jays:

The Blue Jays depend too much on home runs:

The Blue Jays rank second in the American League in home runs, yet their offence has faltered, averaging just 3.65 runs per game. The home runs aren’t enough — they never are.

That said, the homers aren’t the issue. The problem lies with the Blue Jays’ inability to reach base. Their team on-base percentage of .291 ranks second-last in the AL.

That figure should rise when Blue Jays hitters such as Brett Lawrie and Jose Bautista return to their career norms (the Jays rank last in MLB in batting average on balls in play, an indication that they’ve been unlucky). More players should reach base soon, and when they do there won’t be so many solo homers.

Verdict: The home runs help. The team just needs some singles, doubles and walks to go along with the homers.

There’s not enough starting pitching:

No one expected J.A. Happ to be leading the team in ERA at the end of the season’s first month. While R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow and Mark Buehrle should pitch better, they have disappointed so far — both as individuals and as a group.

Furthermore, the club doesn’t have a clear candidate to step in as a sixth starter. Ricky Romero continues working in the minor leagues, and Aaron Laffey wasn’t the answer.

Dickey and Johnson have both battled nagging injuries in the early going and if either pitcher requires time on the disabled list, the Blue Jays’ depth could be tested and, potentially, exposed.

Verdict: It’s true — the rotation has struggled badly and there’s not a clear sixth starter in place.

The Blue Jays strike out too much:

The Blue Jays strike out often. But they strike out less frequently than the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox, and those two clubs rank among the top five in MLB in runs scored, far ahead of Toronto. Teams that strike out a lot can score often if they do other things well.

The Blue Jays don’t generate many singles, doubles or walks, however. If you’re looking for reasons to pick on the Blue Jays’ offense, start there.

Verdict: This team is going to strike out a lot, yet the Ks shouldn’t prevent the team from scoring.

Too many stars, not enough chemistry:

There’s no doubt that team chemistry matters. Those closest to the game say as much every year.

The Blue Jays are playing poorly. They’re 9-17 — enough said.

But it’s not reasonable to look at the Blue Jays’ record and infer that they’re struggling because of poor team chemistry. There are other reasons for their struggles.

It’d be difficult to argue that chemistry caused the Blue Jays’ MLB-worst batting average on balls in play. Jose Reyes ankle injury didn’t have anything to do with chemistry, nor did R.A. Dickey’s back spasms, Jose Bautista’s nagging injuries or Josh Johnson’s triceps issue.

Verdict: The Blue Jays are 9-17 because they have played poorly. There’s no reason to believe their team chemistry led to the slow start.

Mark Buehrle can’t handle the AL East

When the Blue Jays traded for Mark Buehrle, many wondered how he would pitch in the AL East. So far, he has a 6.35 ERA with six home runs and 37 hits allowed in 28.1 innings.

His strikeout and walk rates are comparable to what they were in 2012, he continues generating ground balls and swings and misses as often as he did last year, and peripheral stats suggest his ERA will drop to an extent.

But Buehrle’s performance has done little to quiet doubts about his ability to perform in the AL East. With a fastball that sits below 85 m.p.h. more often than not and more line drives allowed than ever before, Buehrle’s ERA could remain well above the MLB average of 3.86 (only eight qualified starters allow line drives more frequently than Buehrle, according to FanGraphs).

Verdict: Buehrle’s numbers will improve, but there’s reason for some concern.

If the Blue Jays recover from their slow start to reach the postseason, they’ll be in select company.

The Blue Jays  lost their 17th game of the season Sunday, when the Yankees swept them in New York. At 9-17, the Blue Jays are eight games below .500 as they prepare to host the Boston Red Sox in Toronto starting Tuesday.

A total of 146 teams have made the postseason since baseball introduced the Wild Card nearly 20 years ago. Just one of those 146 teams reached the postseason after losing 17 games or more in April.

The 2001 Oakland Athletics overcame an 8-17 start to make the playoffs. The 9-17 Blue Jays have work to do if they intend to be the second team to overcome so many early-season losses.

The introduction of the second wild card spot definitely helps the Blue Jays’ chances, but it’s clear that the pressure is on.

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