Toronto Blue Jays: Midseason record a reason for optimism?

The Toronto Blue Jays head in to the All-Star break at 50-41, nine games above .500 and tied with Houston for a wild card playoff spot. That’s their best record at this point since 2016, the last time they went to the ALCS. Is that a reason for optimism?
Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox
Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox / Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/GettyImages

At 50-41, the Toronto Blue Jays are nine games above .500 heading in to the All-Star break, their best record at this stage of the season since the 2016 team at 51-40. That team went on to play in the American League Championship Series (ALCS), so is this a reason for optimism about a deep postseason run?

After a 5-1 road trip against weak opponents in Chicago and Detroit, the Jays head off for the mideason break with a bit of a spring in their step. The solid return of starter Alek Manoah on Friday was a nice jolt of energy, and 36-year old lefty Hyun Jin Ryu continues to progress in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, tossing four shutout innings for the Single-A Dunedin Blue Jays on Sunday in his second rehab start. Assuming he continues to progress, he could be back by August.

Four players were selected as reserves for the 2023 All-Star Game - Kevin Gausman, Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Whit Merrifield. Gausman, who The Athletic (subscription required) named as the 1st half AL Cy Young winner, has decided not to participate after a busy last month of starting on short rest following the Manoah demotion, and will be replaced by closer Jordan Romano instead.

As things stand today, the Blue Jays are tied with Houston for a wild card, 5.0 games behind Baltimore, who lead the wild card standings. They’re also suddenly only 7.0 games back of Tampa Bay in the AL East after the Rays stumbled into the break by losing seven of their last eight games.

In fact, a string of injuries to Rays’ starters like Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs - now both out for the season - as well as ace Shane McClanahan and Tyler Glasnow, means that Tampa could struggle further after a scorching first three months of the season. Could Toronto catch them to win their first AL East pennant since 2015?

While some issues remain, like a terrible 7-20 record against AL East opponents and a 23-31 record against teams >.500, as well as a clear lack of MLB-ready pitching and bench depth, the Blue Jays appear poised to be buyers again at the trade deadline, and add some potential playoff difference-makers to bolster the lineup by August 1st.

General Manager Ross Atkins has said, “The obvious area would be adding a starting pitcher. We need to balance that with the progress of Alek Manoah and Hyun Jin Ryu." Whether they have to prospects available to swing a big deal like the José Berríos trade in 2021 remains to be seen.

The Blue Jays have remained relatively injury free so far this season, and hopefully that continues down the stretch. Only six pitchers, including opener Trevor Richards, have started for Toronto this year. And apart from the usual bumps & scrapes with catchers Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk, the everyday hitting lineup has remained remarkably consistent, with six regulars appearing in at least 82 games, or over 90% of games played in 2023.

That’s helped the team to a run differential of +34, and top ten MLB rankings for BABIP, batting average, on-base percentage, wRC+ and fWAR in terms of team batting. The pitching staff fWAR of 9.5 ranks 8th in MLB so far, and the team defense has been outstanding with a Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) of 40, which trails only the Texas Rangers at 42.

One cloud on the horizon could be their head-to-head record against the eight teams still vying for the three wild card slots in the American League. That record matters as the tiebreaker in the wild card standings should teams finish with identical regular season records. Of those opponents, the Blue Jays only hold one tiebreaker so far over Houston with a 4-3 season series win.

They’ve already ceded a tiebreak to Boston (0-7), would need to go 6-1 in their remaining seven games versus Baltimore to win a tiebreak versus the Orioles, and 4-2 in their remaining six games versus both Tampa Bay and the New York Yankees in the second half of September.

So all in all, a solid first half is in the books for the Jays. Another 42+ wins in their remaining 71 games (.591 winning percentage) should guarantee at least a wild card, and a continued collapse by Tampa Bay could mean an AL East pennant should the Blue Jays have another strong second half like they did in 2022 (.609 winning percentage) and in 2021 (.613). Let’s go Blue Jays!