What to expect from Blue Jays starting pitching rest of the season


When the 2014 season began, one of the weaknesses of the Toronto Blue Jays was expected to be their starting rotation.

The year prior, Blue Jays starters posted the American league’s second worst ERA at 4.81, which trailed only the then lowly Minnesota Twins. More advanced metrics didn’t paint a much rosier picture – their FIP and xFIP were both third worse in the AL.

So when GM Alex Anthopoulos did nothing over the offseason to upgrade what was a mediocre rotation the year before, many wrote off the 2014 campaign before it had even begun. Admittedly, I was among the group that wasn’t the most enthusiastic about the Blue Jays chances.

However much to my surprise, the Blue Jays’ rotation has been solid in 2014. Playing in the hitter’s paradise that is the AL East they’ve held it together with a 3.93 ERA, which puts them a respectable ninth in the American League. By FIP they are eighth and xFIP twelfth, which isn’t great but two of their starters, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, primarily pitch to soft contact so their so their FIP-based numbers must be taken with a grain of salt as both players’ ERAs have outperformed their FIPs over the course of their careers.

Using fWAR, the Blue Jays’ starters have put up the seventh most wins above replacement and are essentially tied for sixth with the LA Angels, who they trail by just percentage points and are within shouting distance of every other AL rotation outside of the Detroit Tigers. To put this fWAR number in perspective, the Blue Jays’ starters have been worth a full win more than the rotation of the mighty Oakland Athletics.

Prior to yesterday, the last four starts made by Blue Jays pitchers have been especially encouraging. All four were considered quality starts and three were borderline breathtaking.

Marcus Stroman – 9.0 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 4 SO
R.A. Dickey – 6.0 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 6 SO
J.A. Happ – 8.0IP, 5 H, 2 ER, BB, 12 SO
Drew Hutchison – 8.2 IP, H, ER, BB, 8 SO

Two of the four, Happ and Stroman, didn’t break camp in the rotation and essentially surplanted Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan later in the season. Happ has been around the block a few times and has teased us with glimpses of brilliance in the past, only to fall flat by running up pitch counts and failing to get outs.

As Kyle broke down for us yesterday, Happ has done a better job mixing up right-handed batters with pitches up and also down and away. He’s also throwing his hard stuff harder and with more movement, which combined with decent control has made him look nearly untouchable at times, like he was four days ago against the Baltimore Orioles.

Stroman may very well be a prodigy with an ability to spin a baseball like few others and the competitive makeup to match. He may not possess the height of an ideal starting pitcher but thus far his live arm has been the ultimate equalizer.

He’s had tremendous success since implementing a two-seam fastball, which was part of Lucas Silva’s featured post last week. He rarely used the pitch previously saying he couldn’t control it but, according to John Lott of the National Post, found a grip that worked after “playing with it in several [bullpen sessions].”

Not to mention Drew Hutchison, who started the season strong but was fading hard prior to his near complete game, one-hit masterpiece. And even after a stretch of poor starts, his FIP of 3.88 is second best on the team to the aforementioned Stroman (who sits at 2.88).

Now the question becomes, can they keep it up? Using ZiPS and Steamer rest of season projections here’s what we find:

Buehrle – 4.45 ERA/4.55 FIP (Steamer), 4.26 ERA/4.23 FIP (ZiPS)
Stroman – 3.78 ERA/3.67 FIP (Steamer), 4.05 ERA/3.85 FIP (ZiPS)
Hutchison – 4.27 ERA/4.33 FIP (Steamer), 4.23 ERA/4.15 FIP (ZiPS)
Happ – 4.36 ERA/4.50 FIP (Steamer), 4.61 ERA/4.36 FIP (ZiPS)
Dickey – 4.07 ERA/4.31 FIP (Steamer), 4.08 ERA/4.27 FIP (ZiPS)

Besides Buehrle and Dickey, Happ’s projection is the only one we can put much stock in as he has enough of a track record to know that even as good as he’s looked lately, he’s never shown enough consistency to be considered anything more than a back of the rotation type arm. However I’m also tempted to believe he could very well exceed that benchmark for the rest of this season and pitch a bit closer to a ERA of 4.

According to FanGraphs rest of season projections, the Blue Jays rotation is projected to be worth about 2.8 wins above replacement the rest of the way, which ranks them as sixth best in the American League. And other than Buehrle, who still could be in line for severe regression, other than a below average home run per fly ball rate, overall the numbers at quick glance seem sustainable enough, especially if Stroman is able to continue to outperform his projections.

So for the most part it appears that, as long as everyone stays healthy, the Blue Jays rotation should remain a pillar of strength for this club. Mind you, it’s not elite or even that much above average. Maybe a better way to put it is that the rotation is no longer a weakness. The bigger question now seems to be whether the Jays will be able to score enough runs or keep teams from scoring once their inconsistent bullpen enters the game.

All stats courtesy FanGraphs and do not include yesterday’s games.