We like markers. Pole position … halfway home … final stretch … quarter-pole. It’s early(ish), and nobody should bother looking at the standings yet, but on Wednesday night we passed a marker of sorts for the 2021 Toronto Blue Jays: 41 games out of 162.
And for me at least – someone who figured them for 83 or so wins - it’s gone better than expected.
The game itself is in an odd place, weirdly off-kilter with six no-hitters, still way too many feast or famine at-bats (the Seattle Mariners are hitting .198 as a team), too many hit batters, a sense it’s skewed too much towards pitching, and injuries. Dear lord … the injuries.
The New York Post reported that through Tuesday there had been 351 non-Covid related uses of the injured list compared to 281-291 from 2017-2019. Anecdotally, there are stories of organizations whose minor leagues are in even worse shape, as the economic dislocation of a lost 2020 has run head-first into a new, scaled-down minor league structure. But that’s OK. I think we’re in the initial stages of organic overhaul where some stuff will work out and other stuff won’t. It’s going to be wonky.
The pandemic has taken our sports teams away from us, for the most part. The Blue Jays will shift to Buffalo following this weekend’s series against the Tampa Bay Rays in Dunedin, and there is a sense that we might see them at the Rogers Centre in the Fall, maybe even August.
I can’t wait, because the growth of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the excitement being generated by Alek Manoah has reinforced the major difference between this group and the 2015 and 2016 playoff teams: this is a team we can grow with; a potential World Series winner developing before our eyes with players who may not be at their peak by the end of the year.
Those two previous playoff teams gave us a lot of excitement, to be sure, but there was a sense of one-off about them. We knew the lineup built on late-bloomers such as Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson; knew David Price was only going to be here for a few months, suspected that Troy Tulowitzki never really bought in and knew Russell Martin was on his last legs. It was a team that came together by trades and bargain free-agent luck, less by design and development.
With that as a backdrop, here are some thoughts on the Blue Jays they go past the quarter-pole and prepare to come tantalizingly north.
1. THE DIVISION
We’re now seeing why the Boston Red Sox were fancied by many predictive models, while the rest of us wondered about their starting pitching.
Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez are a strong, beating heart offensively and, I don’t know, maybe there was something to Martinez’s suggestion last season that he was hurt by a lack of access to in-game video – a combination of Covid-19 restrictions as well as reaction to the Houston Astros cheating scandal.
“It’s cooled my anxiety,” Martinez told reporters in April.
There’s a lot of Nick Pivetta happening here, just as there’s a lot of Corey Kluber happening with the New York Yankees and Robbie Ray with the Blue Jays.
Something to note: the Blue Jays have played a tougher schedule so far than any team in the division. They still have 19 games remaining against the Baltimore Orioles, a series with the Detroit Tigers, and they’ve already played 11 of 20 interleague games against teams in the pitching-rich National League East, taking advantage of some early-season injuries and lack of performance to go 9-2.
Don’t be surprised if the AL East race is settled in the NL East – and for the Blue Jays, so far, so very, very, good…
2. THE FIRST BASEMAN
Anybody out there once doubt Vladimir Guerrero Jr. could be an everyday first baseman, go to the All-Star Game and be a Most Valuable Player candidate? I’ll admit it – I did coming out of last season.
Look, there’s still plenty of baseball to play and a lot of stretches to be made and errant throws up the line and into the base-runner to be dealt with, but we have reached a point in Guerrero's development as a fielder when we are no longer surprised when he makes a difficult play look routine.
Smart people always thought he’d hit but I’d like us to think about something else: he was one of just 15 players in the Majors to appear in all of his team's regular-season and playoff games last season – after showing up in summer camp looking a little jiggly – and he has made good on his promise to get in better shape this off-season.
He’s played every day, managing to avoid some of the sharp objects in the team's high-performance department that have hampered other players, and if you can’t play every day you can’t be an elite offensive player. It’s time to start giving him credit for what he’s done, beyond the numbers…
3. THE LINEUP
It’s going to be fun watching manager Charlie Montoyo figure out what to do with Marcus Semien once George Springer gets healthy, operating under the assumption Springer leads off.
In three of the four games Springer has played, Semien hit sixth three times and that would seem to make the most sense. Montoyo has rightfully settled on a 3-4-5 of Guerrero, Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk – with cameos from Cavan Biggio.
At any rate, it’s a sign of the team's growth that the batting order has been largely settled. All that’s left is seeing which outfielder will be the odd man out.
In the meantime, a veritable cottage industry has sprung up infatuated with the manner in which Blue Jays hitters have become shift-busting, oppo/middle hitting machines. Astros manager Dusty Baker spoke after a game against the Blue Jays and said the explosiveness of the lineup created havoc with his bullpen because stuff can come undone so quickly…
4. THE DEFENCE
Remember all that talk in the off-season about improving run prevention? The answer turned out to be adding a free-agent centre-fielder and asking a veteran infielder to move out of position while shifting your second baseman to third base.
There was no greater point of worry early in the season when it seemed as if Bo Bichette and Biggio had developed a bad case of happy hands to the point where Guerrero was being put in dangerous situations. But it seems as if it’s all stabilized.
The Blue Jays turn double plays and while fielding percentage is a ‘meh’ statistic, it’s a lot less ‘meh’ when you’re not among the worst teams in the league in that category. The Jays are upper tier in that figure while being 21st in Defensive WAR.
Here’s the thing: with this lineup, I’d settle for an infield that plays league-average defence behind a pitching staff that’s going to have the ball put in play a lot. There are signs that is happening. Good enough for me.
1. A FALSE SPRING
We know Springer is a Blue Jay, mostly because of his place atop the team's payroll and all those shots of him in the dug-out.
The fact that the Blue Jays are winning in his absence has so far pretty much kept the paranoia to a minimum – the fear that his contract is the offspring of Vernon Wells’ worst contract in the history of baseball exists mostly in the outer regions of single-digit Twitterati – but, yeah, it would be nice to get a longer look at this lineup with him at the top.
The positive is the Blue Jays are more than merely holding the fort without him, and if nothing else Springer should be well-rested for the summer. I’m sure the high-performance department will take care of that, no?
2. THE PITCHING PROSPECT
I hate to say I told you so – actually, no. No, I really don’t. I’m quite comfortable in reiterating what I’ve believed since last season: that the right approach with Nate Pearson is to take whatever you’re going to get in 2021.
If the Blue Jays don’t think pitching out of the big league bullpen is an option or will help his development, I’ll have to go along with it. They have the technology, etc., etc.
In the very least, I’d like to see them use some type of piggyback system once he gets up here - get him on a five-day schedule with somebody like Anthony Kay or Ross Stripling backing him up - but mostly at this point, I want to see his next setback happen at Triple-A.
The organization doesn’t have to come out and publicly say that Manoah and Thomas Hatch have passed him in the pecking order, but it is surely time to operate under that assumption…
3. THERE’S A CATCH
I throw this out only for balance. In a perfect world, it would have been nice to see James McCann sign as a free agent but the organization has a great deal of minor league catching depth and has a pseudo-No. 1 in Danny Jansen who has really got it going on with Hyun-Jin Ryu.
As long as he and Reese McGuire and, when he comes back, Alejandro Kirk can do something out of the eighth or ninth spot and not make any game-killing mental errors, we can all probably live with it…
4. THE BULLPEN
You know it’s been a decent start when you can take an area of strength and list it as a weakness much less due to performance than the level of worry.
Look: the Blue Jays love analytics, and analytics have turned relief pitching into the games ‘gig economy,’ in the words of Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci. So it’s no surprise that despite injuries to Closer No. 1 Kirby Yates and Closer No. 2 Julian Merryweather the Blue Jays have done considerably more than simply keep together body and soul. Still, a lot of fungible assets are being asked to shoulder a serious load and, well …
So here we are. This is a team that’s far from a finished product, although I’ve gone from thinking it’s two starting pitchers shy from being the real deal to being just one really good starting pitcher away. Give me a Luis Castillo type or a Pablo Lopez or some such arm to round out Ryu, Ray, Steven Matz and a home-grown option and I’m good to go. Just throwing names out there, but you get the drift:
It’s my guess that Wednesday night won’t be the last time this Blue Jays team finds themselves in position to move into first place this season. I’d like to think we’ll see it in August or September, and I’d rather it not be Ross Stripling on the mound again, thank you very much.
Mostly, though, I want it to be here. In Toronto. Where this team belongs.