The Blue Jays may have a starting pitching problem

Apr 17, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Kevin Gausman (34) reacts
Apr 17, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Kevin Gausman (34) reacts / Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

​​The Blue Jays have developed an unwanted, unexpected habit so far in the 2023 season: burying themselves in a big hole right from the start of a game.

On Tuesday night in Minute Maid Park, Kevin Gausman took the mound to open a series against the reigning world champion Houston Astros and looked to steady the rotation after a rough weekend outing from Alek Manoah. By the time Gausman even recorded two outs, José Abreu had lined a double off the center field wall, Jake Meyers took a fastball the other way for a three-run homer, and Gausman and the Blue Jays were staring at a seven-run deficit after just one inning.

It was the worst outing of Gausman’s two-year stint with the Blue Jays. He had never allowed as many as seven runs in any inning over his 11-year Major League career. He managed to last into the fifth inning before being pulled after surrendering eight runs, his most in a start since 2019, as the Blue Jays dropped the first game against the Astros 9-2.

It also continued a troubling trend that has puzzled manager John Schneider through 17 games this season: why his rotation full of talented arms can’t seem to get out of the first inning unscathed. Blue Jays pitchers have an 11.65 ERA in the first inning, tied with the Red Sox for worst in the league. Every Jays starter has at least a 9.00 ERA. Opponents have a .980 OPS against Blue Jays pitching in the first inning.

Already five times this season a Blue Jays starter has given up at least three runs before the fans have even settled into their seats. Gausman allowed seven runs to the Astros yesterday. Manoah gave up three runs to the Rays on Sunday. Chris Bassitt got hit for four runs in the first inning of his Blue Jays debut on April 2. Yusei Kikuchi surrendered three runs to the Angels on April 9, while José Berríos did it on April 3 against the Royals.

“I think it’s a coincidence. We’re two weeks in and I know it’s happened to a few guys now,” Schneider said after witnessing another poor start by one of his top-of-the-rotation pitchers. “I think it just comes down to execution. Hopefully, that can get sorted out and give us a little bit more of an in-line bullpen. It’s tough when it’s kind of happened once to every guy so far.”

The outings by the other pieces in the rotation could be expected. But the fact it was Gausman, with a 1.35 ERA in three starts coming into the game, who became the first Blue Jays pitcher to allow seven runs in the first inning since 2015, came as a total shock. His pitching repertoire relies on his usually-devastating splitter, getting opposing hitters to chase it as it drops out of the zone. The Astros weren’t biting on Monday. Gausman threw 16 splitters in the first inning. The Astros took nine of them for balls and swung and missed at only two; Gausman had a 43 percent whiff rate on the pitch this season.

A day earlier, Manoah had another start when he couldn’t find the strike zone or keep the opposing lineup off the bases. In 2022, when he blossomed into a Cy Young candidate in just his second year in the big leagues, Manoah got opponents to swing and miss outside the zone 30.4 percent of the time; This year, his whiff rate is down to 24.4 percent over four starts. He now has the second-worst walks per nine innings rate among qualified starters (6.98) and the fourth-worst ERA. Manoah has walked at least four batters in each of his last three starts. He's allowed more than four earned runs in a game twice already; he didn't do that once all of last season. He’s gone from Opening Day starter and staff ace to Steve Blass in just over two weeks.

Pitching woes have covered up some other glaring areas of concern for the club this season. The power has largely dried up, with just three homers in the last six games. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is still putting up a high average but doesn’t have an extra-base hit in 10 straight games. There is no obvious cleanup hitter; the second base job is still in flux.

But it’s the pitching that needs to be cleaned up if the Blue Jays want to fulfill their potential and challenge for the AL East crown. Too many times already this season they’ve found themselves facing a big deficit barely after a game begins. Their offense can put up runs in a hurry, but even that is too much to ask, too often for a club with so many aspirations at the start of the year.

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