The Blue Jays are developing new ways to win ballgames

Feb 28, 2023; Dunedin, Florida, USA; Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Santiago Espinal (5) steals
Feb 28, 2023; Dunedin, Florida, USA; Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Santiago Espinal (5) steals / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Like horses on a carousel, the Blue Jays just kept going around and around.

By the time the Detroit Tigers recorded the third out of the fourth inning in their Spring Training game against the Blue Jays on Saturday, the Blue Jays had rounded the bases 13 times. They did it with eight hits, four walks, and a stolen base that led to a Tigers error. It would’ve been the highest-scoring inning in Blue Jays franchise history had it occurred during the regular season.

It also illustrates a trend through the Blue Jays' first 11 games of Spring Training: they are a club that’s going to be aggressive and look to go the opposite way, proceeding down their deep lineup in a methodical fashion. The Blue Jays scored 18 runs against the Tigers but hit only one home run, something the franchise has only done once before in their history. The next day at TD Ballpark, facing Philadelphia Phillies ace Zack Wheeler, they scored 16 runs, again hitting just one ball out of TD Ballpark in Dunedin.

The Jays scored 34 runs over those two games on the weekend, stringing together 33 combined hits, 13 walks, and stealing four bases. They’ve employed their own brand of small-ball. In 2022, the Blue Jays scored 43 percent of their runs off home runs; so far in spring, homers account for only 31 percent of their total runs scored.

Manager John Schneider has the club adopting the new rules adopted around the league for this season to their advantage. Bases have been increased in size from 15 square inches to 18 square inches. Pitchers must deliver a pitch within 15 seconds of receiving the ball back from the catcher, and 20 seconds with a runner on base. They’re allowed only two throws over to hold a runner on. Infield shifts have been completely eliminated.

The rules have had the desired effect. Games are dramatically shorter as all the dead time in between pitches is now eliminated. Teams are running more. There is more action and excitement on the bases. Baseball so far in 2023 more closely resembles something from a bygone era than it did just a year ago. Teams are stealing an average of 1.92 bases per game in Spring Training, a dramatic increase from 1.02 last regular season.

The Blue Jays have bought into the new revolution. They’ve attempted 16 steals in Spring Training. Santiago Espinal has three stolen bases, half the total amount he stole all of last season. Daulton Varsho has two in his first spring with the Blue Jays. Whit Merrifled stole second on Tuesday against the Pirates, then took off for third two pitches later. And Schneider says this new approach isn't going to end anytime soon.

“I think that guys who steal bases are going to steal bases. Whether it’s 18 inches or 15 inches, whether there’s a pitch clock or not pitch clock, guys are going to get their bags. But I think it opens it up more for guys like Matt Chapman and Varsho to add on a little bit,” he told at the start of Spring Training.

“We definitely have the personnel that can do that. It’s something I’ve always liked, not just stealing bases but being aggressive first to third, first to home or second to home. Those are the things that we’ll be focused on.”

The Blue Jays are also putting an added emphasis on hitting balls to the opposite side of the field, putting more pressure on opposing teams to cover the entire field. During their 13-run outburst against the Tigers, the Jays had four of their eight hits go the other way. In a six-run second inning against the Phillies that blew the game open, they had two hits to the opposite field. The Blue Jays have 31 opposite field hits so far in spring, 31 percent of their total. That’s an increase from 25 percent in 2022. Varsho hit an opposite-field double off Wheeler on Sunday, a batter after Bo Bichette hit a single to right field. Cavan Biggio already has five of his seven hits this spring go the other way.

Ten games is a small sample size. The opposition is mostly minor leaguers and backups. But the Blue Jays are taking advantage of the new rules and the abilities of their players to create opportunities that just weren’t there in previous years.

The last three spring games have shown just how effective that can be in 2023.

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