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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

2015 Playoffs: The Toronto Blue Jays

Josh Donaldson leads the Toronto Blue Jays' collection of very good, yet very surprising hitters.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison
(note: this was written in between games 3 and 4.  As it goes live, I have no knowledge of the outcome of today's game...edit: and after watching it, all I can say is wow.  Cliff Pennington pitching in October?  Really?)

After several consecutive years of enticing promise and ultimate failure, the Toronto Blue Jays finally reached the playoffs this year for the first time since 1993.  It was an exciting season from an outsider's perspective: the Jays basically seemed to be treading water through the end of July, once again hovering around .500 despite preseason optimism.  On July 28th, they were 50-51, and 8 games behind the NL East-leading Yankees.  But the front office was active at the end of July, netting the Jays both David Price and Troy Tulowitzki near the trade deadline.  And while you can't attribute it entirely to those moves (Tulo did not hit well, and missed half of September with injuries), they proceeded to go on an unbelievable tear as the calendar turned to August, including an 11-game winning streak that took them all the way to first place.  After another couple of weeks of back and forth, the Jays took the division lead for good, and by mid-september had pulled well away from the Yankees.  It really was the stuff of storybooks:

They "only" won 93 games, but this looks like a monster team.  They led the league in position player WAR, despite only average fielding ratings.  Their offense was just unreal.  They were better at almost every aspect of offense than anyone else.  Cumulative measures like wRC+ and wOBA?  They were the outlier leaders.    On-base percentage?  Best.  Slugging?  Best.  ISO?  Best.  Home runs?  Best.  Walk rate?  #2, barely behind the Dodgers.  Strikeout rate?  5th-lowest (which is amazing given their power).  Baserunning?  5th best, just behind the Reds.  Added to that offensive greatness is a solid-enough rotation (though note the xFIP-ERA split...doesn't really follow from their fielding data, but sequencing and knuckleballers, maybe?) and an effective bullpen (despite the turnover).  The result?  A really good team.

Position Players

This is the best collection of position players on one team that I've seen in quite a while.

The Josh Donaldson trade of this past offseason continues to be one that confuses me.  The justification, of course, was that Oakland thought that they could acquire a reasonable approximation of Donaldson in Brett Lowrie, along with a nice set of young arms, in exchange for their MVP-candidate Donaldson.  Maybe they thought he was bound for a significant regression.  Ultimately, Donaldson went on to have the best season of his career, and is basically tied with Mike Trout for the WAR-based AL MVP honors (I'd give the nod to Donaldson, just for variety's sake).  And he's still under team control for (I think?) another three seasons.  Pretty big miss by the Athletics.

The Jays added Donaldson's brilliance to the "typical" seasons by Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion (hurray for EdE!).  Those two will go down as two of the most amazing transformations by batters in baseball history.  Both were former mid-tier prospects.  Bautista had basically been a non-factor in his early goes at the league. Encarnacion showed some promise early in his career with the Reds, but seemed to have petered out.  Both were plagued by severe fielding problems at third base.  And both were basically waiver-bait.  Toronto picked up Bautista for a player to be named later in a mid-August trade in 2008.  They originally did trade for Encarnacion (from the Reds, of course) in 2009, but later let him go via waivers to the Athletics in 2010, only to sign him again a month later into that offseason.  Both players somehow, almost magically, took an enormous leap forward with their offense that easily overcame their defensive struggles.  They are the kind of player that I will always be at least a year behind the public in embracing and believing in.  For that, I find them frustrating.  But at the same time, I love them for it: players with pedigree can always take a big step forward.  And they are the ultimate counter-point to the arguments against players trying to swing hard and pull the ball: that very approach is what allowed them to take that step forward.

And then there's the ever-excellent Russell Martin.  He may have slipped a bit from his career year with the Pirates last year, but he remains an excellent hitter and an outstanding defender (#7 on the catcher framing board this year at +12 runs).  Why the Jays would start Dioner Navarro in a playoff game is beyond me, and that's not a dig against Navarro.

Right there with Bautista, Encarnacion, and Martin on the WAR leaderboard is Kevin Pillar, who has been the big surprise to me this postseason.  Himself a mid-tier prospect, he had a really nice season.  He previously seemed to have a reputation as a platoon-type guy, a lefty-masher, who could hold down center field in a pinch.  This year, thanks to good-enough offense along and superb defense, he cashed in a 4+ WAR year in his first full season as a starter.  His on-base skills could be better, but he has nice power for a speed-and-field oriented outfielder, and has been hot in October.

So, with those five in hand, this is already an excellent team.  Troy Tulowitzki, yesterday's home run (and my long-standing man-crush) notwithstanding, may be more of a piece for the future than an immediate solution.  Tulo is apparently playing hurt, and while he is clearly still capable of making nice plays in the field, his bat been roughly average for a shortstop this year, with a huge drop-off in his walk rate.  As I wrote back in July, that's weird.  Perhaps because it is known that he's not himself, he has seen more pitches in the zone this year, and has increased his swing rate on both those pitches and pitches out of the zone (with poorer contact rates to boot).  I'd like to think that the home run was a sign of good things to come, but the most likely scenario seems to be

The rest of the team is a little scrubby.  Ryan Goins is having a great postseason, but on the season demonstrated himself as a good-fielding second base option with an at-best adequate bat.  Left field has been a rotation between the all-fielding, light-hitting Ben Revere and the all hitting, awful-fielding Chris Colabello (Colabello, it should be noted, is an amazing story: he played independent ball for nine years--nine years!!--before finally getting a shot in pro ball with the Twins.  Now, he's starting at first base in the NLCS).  Justin Smoak didn't fare much better in hitting-friendly Toronto than he did in pitcher-friendly Seattle, and shares time with Colabello at first base.  But when you have the stars this team has, you can afford a few positions with lower production.

Starting Pitchers

Mid-season, this was where the Blue Jays really seemed to struggle.  But the trade deadline brought them a rental of David Price, who has been masterful in Toronto.  And Marcus Stroman returned late in the season from an ACL injury, and has picked up where he left off as a promising top of the rotation starter.  Now, suddenly, the Blue Jays aren't looking so bad.  We know Price as a fairly prototypical top-tier pitcher, with a combination of both stuff and control.  Stroman is fun because he is more extreme: while his strikeout rate isn't much to look at, he doesn't walk batters and induces a tremendous ground ball rate.  If he qualified (and at 27 IP, he certainly does not), his 64% ground ball rate this year would rank second in baseball behind only Brett Anderson.

The remaining postseason starts seem to be slated to aging (or ageless?) knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and my man Marco Estrada.  I won't even try to offer analysis of Dickey, other than to note that his strikeout rate fell quite a bit this year (and I'm not even sure if that's a bad thing...probably?).  Estrada has long been a favorite of mine because I felt he was overlooked, and I had great success with him in my fantasy league one year.  He doesn't throw hard, but has good breaking stuff and historically has posted good strikeout rates.  He is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and seems like the kind of guy who could go from something to nothing almost overnight.


Despite posting good numbers overall, the Toronto bullpen was much-maligned this year.  Nevertheless, they seem to have pieced together a decent staff at this point.  Roberto Osuna was solid in his role as the closer, and failed starters Liam Hendricks and Brett Cecil (now injured) turned in excellent seasons.  The quartet of Aaron Sanchez, LaTroy Hawkins (picked up in the Tulo trade), Aaron Loup, and Mark Lowe round out the rest of the staff, and all turned in solid performances in limited work.  It's probably the weakest part of the team, and didn't inspire confidence last night.  But everyone throws hard, most of them get good strikeout rates and avoid walks, and generally look pretty solid.  I don't see the pen as particularly problematic.

All told, this is my favorite team in the postseason.  I love--love!--their offense, and their pitching seems competent enough to play in October.  I don't know if they are the best team in October, or if they match up well to some of their competition.  Their lack of a quality left-handed bat might make them struggle against a team like the Mets, for example.  But they are unquestionably a fun team to watch, and have already turned in some amazing moments the postseason.  I'm hoping there's plenty more to come.

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