With the start of a fantastic ‘Fall Classic’ this past weekend, Blue Jays fans have had a front-row seat on some lessons that will need to be learned for Toronto to progress to the next level in their competitive window.
What are some of those early lessons from the World Series so far?
Lesson #1: Anything Can Happen
As the 2021 Atlanta Braves and the 2022 Philadelphia Phillies are proving, you just need to get into the postseason, where anything can happen. As Mark Polishuk of MLBTR noted in his recent Blue Jays’ focused offseason online chat here, “As long as a team can get into the [playoff] bracket, they have a chance.”
The Phillies finished in third place in the NL East this year with an 87-75 (.537) record, a full 14.0 games back of the 101-win Braves and Mets, with a pedestrian, run differential for a playoff team of +62. That was just good enough for a one-game edge over the Milwaukee Brewers for the final NL Wild Card seeding.
Unlike the 106-56 (.654) Astros, who ran away with the AL West with the best record in the American League and a +219 run differential, the scrappy Phillies have had to advance through a Wild Card series against the 93-win St. Louis Cardinals (2-0), before dispatching the defending Champion Braves 3-1 in the NLDS. They then dominated the San Diego Padres 4-1 in the NLCS to advance to the World Series.
The Astros, as expected, had a much easier time running the table against Seattle (3-0 in the ALDS) and New York (4-0 in the ALCS), the third time in the last six seasons they’ve advanced past the Yankees to play in the World Series.
In fact, ahead of Game 1, oddsmakers put Houston as the significant favourite to win the World Series. The Astros entered Friday night’s Game 1 at -190 at BetMGM and -200 at WynnBET to win the team’s second World Series in the last six years.
But that didn’t prevent Philadelphia from drawing first blood on the road, winning game one 6-5 in extra innings in an improbable comeback against likely AL Cy Young award winner and Houston ace Justin Verlander.
Houston counterpunched with an impressive 5-2 win in Game 2 behind 6.1 strong innings from Framber Valdez, so the series heads to Philadelphia all tied up at 1-1. Again, just get in; it’s baseball, and anything can happen.
Lesson #2: Lockdown Bullpens Matter
While the Jays match up well with both the Astros and Phillies in terms of their one-two punch at the top of the starting rotation, it’s no secret that their bullpen is just okay… but not one of the best in baseball. GM Ross Atkins noted in his season-ending press availability that the Jays will look to add another power arm to a bullpen that was average (16th) at 8.92 strikeouts per nine innings.
Houston’s bullpen led the MLB with a stingy 2.80 ERA and 3.05 FIP this season. Jays relievers were 13th in ERA at 3.77 and 19th in FIP at 4.03. But as we’ve witnessed this postseason, the Astros and Phillies have multiple “swing and miss” arms that throw hard and can provide lockdown, impenetrable relief pitching.
As Mitch Bannon of Sports Illustrated wrote recently, “Atkins called the Blue Jays’ relief group “one of the better bullpens” in the league at points in the season, but admitted that playoff success is reliant on that group becoming one of the best.”
Well, “best” looks something like this:
Houston’s bullpen led baseball this year with 10.45 K/9 innings. Philadelphia was 5th at 9.75. The World Series features two teams with multiple hard throwers who can generate “swing and miss”, while the Blue Jays bullpen ranked 16th at only 8.92 K/9.
Phillies set-up man Seranthony Dominguez, who averages 98mph on both his four-seam fastball and sinker (two pitches which he throws about 70% of the time), leads all relievers this fall with 18 Ks (17.4 K/9) against ZERO walks, to go with a 0.96 ERA in seven appearances covering 9.1 innings.
He’s often preceded by Andrew Bellatti (12.6 K/9 this postseason, and in the 96th percentile in MLB on strikeout rate this regular season at 33.8%), and lefty José Alvarado who averages 99.6mph on his sinker which he throws 54.5% of the time (10.0 K/9 in the playoffs after a 37.9% strikeout rate in the regular season). Closer David Robertson is averaging 15.4 K/9 in the playoffs (after a 30.7% strikeout rate in the regular season versus the MLB average 22.1%).
Houston sets up their closer Ryan Pressly (12.3 Ks/9 in the playoffs, 35.9% strikeout rate in the regular season) with a steady stream of hard-throwing “swing and miss” arms in Bryan Abreu (14.6 Ks/9 on a devastating 97mph fastball and 88mph slider mix, that led to a 35.5% strikeout rate in the regular season), Hector Neris (12.5 K/9 after a 30% strikeout rate in the regular season), and Rafael Montero, who averages around 96mph on his fastball/sinker mix which he throws almost 70% of the time.
Returning to the lesson for the Blue Jays, GM Ross Atkins clearly stated in his season-ending press conference that the Jays need bullpen arms like those we’re seeing in this World Series:
"I do think we can improve our ability to get strikeouts and get swing and miss, and we saw that going into [Game 2 of the ALWC]. We knew that we had some pitchers that were more contact-oriented and it didn’t work well for us for much of the season."
Lesson #3: You Need Lefty/Righty Balance in Your Everday Lineup
As the Phillies and Astros are showing, having big left-handed bats in your everyday lineup matters. The Phillies have slugger Kyle Schwarber – who led the NL with 46 home runs this season – leading off in the postseason, with Bryce Harper batting .392 with 5 home runs, 11 RBIs and a 1.230 OPS in 55 plate appearances this postseason from the cleanup spot.
The team they’d dispatched in the NLCS, the Padres, featured Juan Soto and Jake Cronenworth from the left side of the plate, as well as switch-hitters Josh Bell and Jurickson Profar in their starting lineup.
The Astros counter with big left-handed power bats in Yordan Álvarez, who hit 37 HRs and trailed only Aaron Judge in the AL this year at an OPS of 1.019, plus RF Kyle Tucker, who hammered two home runs off Phillies starter Aaron Nola in Game 1, after connecting for 30 homers in each of the last two regular seasons.
The Blue Jays are heavily right-handed with their everyday lineup when the regulars are healthy. In fact, all of their left-handed bats this year were bench players, including Raimel Tapia, Cavan Biggio, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Bradley Zimmer.
As GM Ross Atkins alluded to in his season-ending press conference, “there is something to having similar types of hitters and game-planning for them that we need to dig deeper into and how we can account for that and offset that.” In other words, like the more balanced lineups we’re seeing with the Astros and Phillies, the Jays’ hitters likely need to be more diverse.
In addition to forcing opposing managers to game plan, and for both them and opposing pitchers to make more “in-game” decisions and pitch differently to hitters from each side of the plate, the Blue Jays can always make better contact as a team overall given new manager John Schneider likes to be aggressive on the base paths with hit-and-runs.
Certainly, Blue Jays prospect Gabriel Moreno should help there, but guys with high strikeout percentages like Teoscar Hernández (28.4% vs. the MLB average 22.2%) and Matt Chapman (27.4%) might need to take a more disciplined approach in 2023. Especially given LHH Raimel Tapia, who was one of the best contact bats the Jays had in 2022 (85.1% zone contact, 66.8% chase contact) after Alejandro Kirk and Santiago Espinal, is a non-tender candidate this offseason due a projected $5.2 million in his last year of arbitration eligibility.
Lesson #4: High EQ Managers Required
As Astros Manager Dusty Baker and Phillies Manager Rob Thomson (the first Canadian to manage in the World Series) are proving, baseball lifers with high emotional quotient (EQ) leadership abilities can often get the best out of their players.
The 59-year-old Thomson, from Corunna, Ontario along the St. Clair River just south of Sarnia, actually was a candidate for the Blue Jays’ Manager vacancy in the fall of 2010; John Farrell ended up getting that job.
Like John Schneider, Thomson was appointed interim manager during the season this year. After Joe Girardi was fired on June 3rd, he led the Phillies to a 65-46 finish, clinching the final NL Wild Card spot before series wins against St. Louis, Atlanta and San Diego to reach the World Series. He now has a chance to join Jack McKeon (2003) and Bob Lemon (1978) as the only managers to win a World Series after taking over midseason.
When Thomson first spoke to his players as their Manager after being promoted from his role as Girardi’s bench coach, he told them “he had their backs and that they are a talented group.”
As Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told reporters earlier in October after removing the interim tag from Thomson and handing him a two-year deal:
"… you never know until somebody gets in that job, when they’re a No. 2 person, how they’ll respond until they are a No. 1. You just don’t know that. You think, but you see hirings all the time where somebody comes up and is an outstanding co-ordinator in any sport, and then you put them in that role and it’s not quite the same. [Thomson] was not overmatched whatsoever. He stepped in right away, dealt with everything, dealt with issues. Felt very comfortable in communication in that regard."
Shi Davidi of Sportsnet noted the trend towards high EQ intelligence in the dugout as well:
"In recent years, the industry trend of hiring young, inexperienced newer-age, high IQ coaches as managers has shifted back toward experienced, high emotional quotient or EQ coaches. The dugout matchup in the World Series in Thomson versus Dusty Baker of the Astros is reflective of that and has been the case in the Fall Classic for several years now."
As for the 73-year-old Dusty Baker, he has a chance to become the oldest-ever manager to win a World Series title after the Marlins won in 2003 under McKeon at age 72.
As McKeon said last week, it wouldn’t bother him if Baker – still looking for his first title in 25 years as a manager – becomes the oldest to win one. “I love Dusty’s perseverance,” McKeon said. “He follows his dreams of winning a World Series. I was lucky. I was one for one. Dusty has been at it a few times, but things didn’t work out. He is a good guy. He is a great baseball man. He loves the game and he is really a credit to the game of baseball.”
As NY Post writer Jon Heyman noted, “A lot of folks in baseball would love to see Dusty win.” Baker has led a record 5 different clubs to 12 postseason berths, three World Series appearances, and is the 9th winningest MLB Manager in history.
As USA Today’s Bob Nightengale notes, in the wake of the 2017 cheating scandal which led to the firings of GM Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch, the Astros desperately needed someone to calm the uproar and lessen the hatred; Baker has been the perfect man for the job. “He was just what we needed,’’ Astros 3B Alex Bregman says. “He calmed everything down. He’s as good a manager as there is in this game.’’
Astros owner Jim Crane says, “I interviewed a bunch of guys, and you could tell he was a communicator. I was just so comfortable with him. There were a lot of young guys I liked, but they didn’t have the experience. We needed a guy with experience to get everybody focused, and Dusty was the right fit.’’
Or as Baker’s former teammate in Atlanta and veteran Braves scout Ralph Garr, who attends every Astros home game, says, “Dusty did a wonderful job putting this team in position to make them great. They play solid baseball, better than anybody… He was the perfect guy for this job.”
In Baker’s own words from an interview this past April,
"It ain’t that easy to coach. I don’t mind some of the [new-school coaches], but there are a lot of guys that gave life, limb, bones, joints buried on that field out there that deserve a job and to be a coach because they know what it feels like. Somebody can tell you, ‘I think I know what it feels like.’ But the game is still played by people. I believe in stats. I believe in Sabermetrics. You’ve got to combine the two because nothing is more important than the human element… The coach that’s been up there, he can tell you what it’s like to be up there. He can tell you what it’s like to fail in the ninth inning and above all, a lot of people that are telling you what to do – and what not to do – have never failed a test. Baseball is a game of how you deal with failure, not how you deal with success."
Hopefully, the Blue Jays got this part of the equation right by removing the interim tag from high EQ Manager John Schneider. As Shi Davidi notes, “The Blue Jays, in removing John Schneider’s interim tag [after the season], bet on his EQ as much as his high in-game IQ acumen.”
Lessons to be Learned for the Blue Jays
The Blue Jays players and management certainly have some lessons to learn. This is a club in the thick of its competitive window, with Championship aspirations. This will be a key offseason to apply some of these learnings. Indeed, there was some frustration with trade deadline moves in 2022 that didn’t seemingly do enough to improve the team for a deep postseason run.
As franchise star first baseman Vlad Guerrero Jr., 24, said through translator Hector Lebron after the historic game 2 collapse, “I always focus on what I can do, trying to help my teammates on everything. The other things, I just let the front office take care of that.”
So let’s hope the lessons on high leverage, hard-throwing “swing and miss” bullpen arms to help avoid historic late inning collapses in playoff games, as well as on a better hitting balance including left-handed hitters as everyday regulars, are being studied and learned.
Going through another season with just an average bullpen and a right-handed hitting skewed everyday lineup, while expecting a different result, would likely be frustrating for players and Blue Jays’ fans alike. While 90+ win regular seasons are nice, another failure to win games and go deep in the 2023 playoffs would surely leave Blue Jays players, fans, management and ownership even more bitterly dissatisfied.