The Toronto Blue Jays have entered the final third of their season as something of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: there’s the good, the bad and the ugly. So as we settle in to the dog days of summer when the living is easy, why does this team remain so puzzling to figure out?
The first local corn and peaches are appearing on the shelves of grocers in the GTA – always an early sign that meaningful Blue Jays fall baseball is either just around the corner, or something to dream about for another year.
With 51 regular season games remaining, the 2022 edition of the Jays sits at 60-51, good for second place in the AL East, ten games back of the suddenly slumping Yankees. They have the fourth best record in the American League, good for the second wild card spot, a half a game back of the surging Mariners and +1.5 games ahead of the surprising Orioles.
The oddsmakers are pretty certain this is a playoff team; FanGraphs puts the Blue Jays playoff odds at 91.5%, with 4.7% odds of winning the AL East pennant, and a 5.6% chance at World Series glory. Baseball Reference puts those odds at 76.6% to make postseason, 2.8% to win World Series.
The team is now 14-9 (.609) under interim Manager John Schneider since he took over on July 13th; that’s better than the Yankees at 9-16 (.360) over that stretch. And the Jays +51 run differential is the best of any of the seven teams still bunched around the three wild card slots in the standings.
Jays fans have also been treated to some outstanding individual performances, with All-Star Game selections for ace Alek Manoah, closer Jordan Romano, catcher Alejandro Kirk, 1B/DH Vladimir Guerrero Jr., CF George Springer and 2B Santiago Espinal, who was an injury replacement for Astros 2B Jose Altuve.
Vlad Jr. is back to doing Vlad Jr. things, slashing .287/.358/.504/.862 with 23 HR and 68 RBI. While he’s unlikely to be in the MVP conversation this year with Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani doing what they’re both doing, he will merit Gold Glove and Silver Slugger consideration for sure.
Catcher Alejandro Kirk has emerged as one of the best young players at his position in the game as well, slashing .302/.384/.457 with 12 HR and 43 RBI.
RF Teoscar Hernandez, Springer, 3B Matt Chapman and LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr., are all more than 20% above the MLB average based on OPS+ which takes a player’s on-base plus slugging percentage and normalizes the number across the entire league.
And the Jays lead the AL in batting average at .264, are second in runs scored at 529, as well as 2nd for on-base percentage (.326), slugging percentage (.434), and on-base plus slugging percentage (.761). They’ve hit 143 home runs, which ranks them 3rd in the AL.
Alek Manoah will garner lots of Cy Young votes thanks to an outstanding 12-5 record and 2.56 ERA so far in his 22 starts and 137 innings, good for an ERA+ of 154. And Jordan Romano will certainly be in the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award conversation with his 25 saves and 2.59 ERA over 41.2 innings pitched. Kevin Gausman, Ross Stripling, Adam Cimber, Yimi Garcia, Tim Mayza and David Phelps have all been well above average in ERA+ as well.
Fans have been showing up at the gate to see their Jays, with home attendance running at 1,764,173, good for 4th highest in the AL. Surely the ‘Victory Vlad’ Bobblehead Giveaway today will help add to that total? And Jays fans have returned to ballparks around the US as well, with games in Seattle, Minneapolis and Detroit conspicuously full of Toronto blue!
Shortstop Bo Bichette has been hitting better since moving to fifth in the batting order, but his season to date has to be called a disappointment coming off the year he had in 2021. He’s slashing .262/.302/.433 with 17 HR and 64 RBI, but that’s way below his .298/.343/.484, 29 HR, 102 RBI pace of last year.
Injuries to key players like Springer, Stripling and Mayza have exposed issues with the Blue Jays MLB depth. General Manager Ross Atkins was able to backfill for Stripling with his trade deadline acquisition of Mitch White, and Strip’s rehab start last night in Syracuse for Triple-A Buffalo was encouraging, with five shutout innings. Manager John Schneider called the outing “vintage Strip.” The rehabbing Julian Merryweather also pitched the 7th inning last night for the Bisons, tossing 19 pitches, including ten for strikes and two strikeouts. He’s seen as being close to being reactivated and recalled from the minors according to Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.
The George Springer elbow injury might also be worse than originally feared given the Jays have now added Whit Merrifield and Jackie Bradley Jr., to their centre field mix, with Raimel Tapia and Bradley Zimmer both on the active roster as well. Springer was placed on the 10-day injured list retroactive to August 5th with right elbow inflammation which would make him eligible to return next week. He’s reportedly on the field doing some baseball activities on Saturday here, and the Jays hope to get him back early next week, even if he’s limited to spending most of his time as the DH at first.
Other injured relievers who could help the Jays down the stretch include lefty Tim Mayza (right shoulder dislocation), who Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet reports threw from a mound yesterday, as well as big Nate Pearson (Mononucleosis), who Zwelling says, “has also progressed to throwing from 150-feet on flat ground at Blue Jays player development complex in Dunedin.”
As Manager John Schneider noted in his postgame press conference last night:
“The way the guys are coming out every day is great. It’s just not clicking right now. We’ll be the first ones to tell you that. I’ll be the first one to tell you that. We’re playing kind of shitty. It is what it is. You come tomorrow, you look to win.”
Yes, the Blue Jays are the 4th best team in the AL and tied for 10th best record in the majors with Milwaukee, but it sure doesn’t feel like it right now after a 4-6 stretch with three straight losses.
Perhaps the 29-39 (.426) record against teams with a winning record is to blame? As Shi Davidi notes, that’s “worse than Seattle, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Minnesota, the four teams closest around them [in the wild card standings].”
They also don’t hold the wild card tiebreakers against Seattle (2-5 head-to-head record in 2022) or Minnesota (3-4), and their 1-4 record against Cleveland going in to Saturday’s game means they’ve already lost that seven game season series, too. Toronto also currently trails the season series versus AL East peers Tampa (4-6), Baltimore (2-4) and New York (4-8).
Or the 5.61 ERA on the season for José Berríos, the worst of any qualified starter in MLB, to go with the Hyun Jin Ryu season ending UCL injury, and the ongoing Yusei Kikuchi failed experiment/disaster? Note that if he qualified based on innings pitched (one inning per game played by their team to be qualified starter), Kikuchi would have the second worst ERA at 5.13, and would be one of only three qualified starters over five.
Or the continued inability to drive home more runners when they’re in scoring position? The Jays rank 25th in MLB with 3.49 runners left in scoring position per game.
Or maybe it’s just an impending sense of doom, with Seattle (7-3 in their last ten to vault past Toronto into the top wild card spot), Baltimore (8-2 and 1.5 games back of the Jays) and Cleveland (7-3, now leading the AL Central) all playing better baseball right now?
In addition to the now almost weekly misadventures when Kikuchi and Berríos take the mound, the Blue Jays continue to carry a collection of non-competitive arms in the bullpen. Like last year, we’ve seen a parade of “see what sticks” dumpster diving with the likes of Jeremy Beasley, Anthony Banda, Andrew Vasquez, Sergio Romo, Shaun Anderson, Casey Lawrence, Matt Peacock, and now currently Trevor Richards and Trent Thornton.
The starting pitching depth at the back of the rotation behind Kikuchi consists of the recently acquired Mitch White, Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay and Max Castillo… err, ooops, he was traded along with prospect Samad Taylor for Whit Merrifield.
The farm system is ranked bottom third in baseball with four more top 30 prospects just traded away. For example, RHP Nick Frasso, 23, who was part of the trade package for Mitch White, now ranks as the 26th top prospect in the Dodgers system according to MLB pipeline, but he’s ranked #16 with a rocket in the latest Baseball America midseason prospect update. The other prospect in that trade, 20 year old LHP Moises Brito has thrown 32.0 innings since being signed as an international free agent in June, with a 1.97 ERA and 0.75 WHIP, with 36 Ks against only one walk. So the Jays control 27 year old swingman White, who throws in the mid-90s, while the Dodgers get two 6’5” lottery tickets with 100 mph gas who can now develop in their system.
And the luxury tax payroll is close to $200 million already without any of the young, homegrown stars signed to a contract extension; not one. Spotrac puts the Jays competitive balance (or “luxury”) tax payroll at $193 million. And that doesn’t include the $4 million performance bonus the Jays will now owe the newly acquired Whit Merrifield in 2023 for staying off the IL for >110 days in 2022.
The luxury tax threshold is $230 million this year and $233 million next year. The Jays and their ownership are going to have to commit to go above that to extend Vlad Jr., Bichette, Teoscar, Chapman, Gurriel Jr., Kirk, and Manoah. The only UFAs of note this year are Stripling, Phelps and Bradley Jr. Next year it’s Teoscar, Chapman, Ryu, Merrifield, Tapia, Cimber, Anthony Bass and Yimi Garcia.
So yes, sure, the odds of making the wild card playoffs are still in the Jays favour, but they won’t be for long if they keep playing like this and the injuries keep piling up. The MLB quality pitching depth is precarious. And the team continues to struggle mightily against their peers with a winning record.
They’ll need to beat those teams to advance in the postseason. But based on strength of schedule rankings for the remainder of the regular season, teams currently neck-and-neck with the Jays including Seattle, Cleveland and Minnesota have easier opponents, while Tampa and Baltimore both have a tougher remaining schedule.