Blue Jays Players, Coaching Staff in Search of Consistency
By Ty Hudec
The Toronto Blue Jays opened up the 2021 regular season with an impressive 3-2 win over the New York Yankees back on April 1st. What stood out from that victory was how rock solid the team performed defensively, and also their ability to deliver in the key moments of the game.
Marcus Semien saved a run with a beautiful diving stop to end the fifth, then in the bottom of the ninth Cavan Biggio gunned down the would be winning run at home plate before Jordan Romano struck out Aaron Judge to escape the jam. After a Randal Grichuk go-ahead double in extras, Julian Merryweather locked down the win by striking out the side in the 10th. That type of hard-fought, high-pressure win showed the fanbase what this team can be when everyone is locked in and pulling their weight.
Fast-forward four weeks and the rest of the Blue Jays opening month has not gone according to plan. Many of the same problems that plagued Toronto over the past two seasons have reappeared and led to a number of frustrating losses in games that could easily have gone the other way.
The Jays are making way too many errors, many on routine plays. Bo Bichette‘s struggles have been well documented, but he’s far from the only one who hasn’t met expectations. Lourdes Gurriel Jr continues to make some big time throws, but too often takes poor routes to track down fly balls, making life more difficult than it needs to be. Biggio has also made a number of errors as he transitions to a new role at third base, leading to speculation surrounding how long he’ll stay at the position.
Those struggles led to both Santiago Espinal and Joe Panik getting the starts defensively at third and second base respectively in Sunday’s series finale with the Tampa Bay Rays. While the two players lack the high-end skill of Toronto’s other infielders, they show up each day and deliver solid defence when called upon.
Espinal has made a number of nice plays in limited action at the hot corner, while Panik ended both the sixth and eighth innings on Sunday with big-time stops, then calmly delivered the final out to Vladimir Guerrero Jr to end the ninth. That low event ending was a welcome sight coming off the litany of errors on Friday and Saturday. Even Friday’s win ended with a Bichette throw that was off the mark at first, forcing Guerrero Jr.. off the bag to apply the tag on Yandy Diaz.
At the plate, high strikeout rates continue to be a problem throughout the lineup, the catcher position has provided next to nothing in terms of offence, and apart from Guerrero Jr and Grichuk, virtually everyone is struggling to hit consistently. At 10-11, there is still plenty of time for the team to reach its potential but to do so they will need to get back to basics and re-commit to the fundamentals of the game.
Now to be fair, injuries have certainly taken their toll thus far. Once George Springer and Teoscar Hernandez return to the lineup, everyone will be able to slot into roles more suited to their game. Nevertheless, the team still needs to find a way to clean up their defence in the field and take a better approach to the plate. As Dan Shulman pointed out during Sunday’s broadcast, the Rays were exploiting the outside of the zone against right-handed hitters all series long, as not enough Jays batters have shown an ability to shorten up and cover all areas of the plate.
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With that in mind, the pressure is starting to mount on Charlie Montoyo and his coaching staff to prove that they are indeed the right group to maximize the potential of this young core over the long term. We are into year three with this group and it’s time to see their work behind the scenes start to pay dividends on the field. If another summer goes by with the same problems arising over and over, Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro will need to take a long look at the current coaching staff they have in place.
The pitching staff has also seen their fair share of injuries, but that hasn’t stopped Pete Walker’s group from exceeding expectations. The Toronto bullpen threw 5.1 scoreless innings in Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay and now lead the Majors with a 2.10 ERA. Steven Matz and Robbie Ray have both proven to be found money for the rotation in the early going, and Hyun Jin Ryu continues to be rock solid as the team’s ace (and thankfully appears to have avoided serious injury after leaving Sunday’s start early).
Walker was one of just two holdovers from John Gibbons staff from 2018 and it’s easy to see why the Blue Jays kept him around. He was instrumental in getting career years out of Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ during the Blue Jays ALCS runs in 2015 and 2016, and the early returns are good with Matz, Ray, and many of the young arms in the pen this season.
It will now be up to the rest of the staff and the Blue Jays position players to start pulling their weight on a more consistent basis. Mistakes can be tolerated from a young team provided that they appear alongside signs of growth. Through 21 games this season we’ve seen far too many mistakes and not enough progress.
The Blue Jays will look to take the next step towards being a more consistent ball club against some unfamiliar opponents over the next three weeks, as teams from the NL East and AL West make up the next six series on the schedule. First up will be a pair of meetings with the Washington Nationals at TD Ballpark beginning on Tuesday.