It’s hard to believe but we’re heading into the homestretch of the very shortened 2020 season. The Jays host the Mets this weekend (in Buffalo of course) and after that series is done, there are a mere two weeks left before it’s a wrap and the hefty post-season sched begins. The good news is that Las Vegas oddsmakers now have Toronto at 90% likely to be a part of those festivities. So will that come true? Can the Blue Jays surprise and make it into the playoffs, perhaps even hold off the mighty Yankees for second place in the AL East? Chances are decent but which half of the glass you look at will make your choice.
There’s lots for the Glass Half Full crowd to like right now. Start with the standings. Sure they change from day to day but the fact is, here we are on Sep. 11 and the Jays are in second place in the division, fifth overall in the AL, trailing the ever-surprising Rays by 4 but two games ahead of the quick-falling Yankees who only three weeks back seemed a lock for one of the top two posts.
Toronto is 24-19 and the story gets better. Because of the problems with immigration due to Covid preventing the team from playing in Toronto, a plan to play in Pittsburgh which fell through and a few issues at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, the Jays have played only 16 home games compared to 27 road ones. While it’s not fair, those issues will result in the team playing an unbalanced schedule with more road games than home ones this season, but still, 11 of their remaining 17 games are home ones, and yes, they’re playing better in Buffalo than on the road, having a .625 winning percentage there.
That’s a plus, so too is the schedule. They won’t face an opponent with a better record than them (currently) for the rest of the year. No more games against Tampa, or Atlanta. The statistically toughest opponent coming up is Philadelphia, currently at 21-18. As expected, Toronto do better against teams at or below .500 (13-8, .618) than teams above .500. One could speculate using purely mathematical terms, that given the opponents and home games left, Toronto could realistically win 36 this year , which would give them a shot at catching Tampa and certainly a strong berth in the playoffs.
Adding to that optimism is the fact that the hitting (which, yes we raked over the coals earlier this year) is starting to come around and what’s more, that seems to be translating to a renewed sense of determination on the field not seen since 2015. In their first ten games this year, the Jays scored a mere 31 runs. In the last ten, they’ve scored 57 (including an awesome 10 in one inning against a stunned New York crew) By now their 212 runs scored is only one behind Tampa for tops in the division and their run differential is a nice +20, due to pretty good pitching. The staff ERA of 3.90 is eighth best in the majors and behind only those pesky Rays among the ten “eastern” squads.
Other pluses are expected returns. Bo Bichette’s shaping up to be possibly the best of the crop of young players to have premiered in the last couple of seasons and Bo could be back in the lineup tonight after missing about a month – which is a huge chunk when dealing with a 60-game sched. In the last four games before he injured his knee, he was 9 for 16 with 7 RBI, and one of those games was a five-hit one. On the season he’s knocking out a .361 average with a .672 slugging percentage and 13 RBI in 14 games. Needless to say, his return would be huge both with the bat and (if his knee allows) in the field where trade deadline acquisition Jonathan Villar has struggled, to put it kindly, unexpectedly.
Likewise, last year’s closer Ken Giles is pitching in simulated games in Rochester and should be back to bolster the bullpen within days.
So that part of the equation is rosy. But let’s not get too arrogant. The Glass Half Empty crowd see other shadows lurking. To begin with, injuries. Granted New York’s season has been nearly derailed by injuries (big boppers Stantion and Judge both out right now, last year’s unexpected hero Gio Urshela having a bad elbow; stud pitchers Luis Severino and now James Paxton out for the year) but again… they’ve been falling hard because of all that. Toronto’s hold on health – and a good playoff spot – seems to be precarious due to that.
Remember just in the last week Teoscar Hernandez went out with a ribcage injury (hopefully back in time for the post-season but not likely before) when he was tied for the league lead in homers at 14. Now lefty Rowdy Tellez, getting hot for the first time in his career really, has hurt his knee and could be done for 2020. Ouch. In 35 games so far, Tellez is hitting .283 with 8 HR and 23 RBI . His average in up nearly 60 points from last year and his slugging percentage, up 100. Two of his past four games were three-hit affairs. It will be hard to replace those two, even if Bo is back and picks up where he left off.
And one of the elephants in the room decided to bellow on Wednesday night. A few think manager Charlie Montoyo a baseball-Einstein baptised by the holy waters of Tampa Bay, where he got his coaching skills. More feel Toronto is winning in spite of him, not because of him or his whimsical pitching choices.
When it comes to pitchers, Montoyo seems to manage like a grade two teacher would kids at recess: “let everyone have a turn.” Toronto at times have carried 14 pitchers this year and Charlie seems determined to let every one get a few batters in every night. No starting pitcher has pitched in the seventh yet this year, nor come close to let alone exceeded 100 pitches. The team, good ERA and all, have had 211 appearances to the mound over 43 games, or 5 pitchers a game on average. Cleveland pitchers have delivered 30 “quality starts” this year. Toronto’s, seven. Are the Indians that much better? Perhaps, but more likely, that disparity comes from Montoyo getting bored seeing the same arm on the mound after three innings. Poor Roy Halladay is turning in his grave.
The situation came to a head in the team’s last game, a 7-2 loss to the Yanks. Starter Tanner Roark wasn’t allowed back out to start the fifth inning, after going 4 innings, and 68 pitches. He’d given up just two hits, but as they were both solo homers, hence two runs.
By all reports, he was steaming after the bullpen (and shoddy “D”) cost the team the game after he was pulled. He led off an online press scrum after the game saying “I was taken out too soon” and calling Montoyo’s managing something akin to “cow crap”… several different translations were printed in various sources to fit differing sensibilities, i presume.
“I’m what you would call a diesel… I start off slow, then get better as you go on throughout the game.” He added, “now I’ve got six days to sit on that, which doesn’t sit well with me. I’m old school. They signed me here for a reason, not to go three or four innings.” That part is clearly true. when he was signed as a free agent, GM Ross Atkins clearly said one of his main appeals was his ability to pitch deep into the game and give innings that spared an overworked bullpen.
Is he right though? We looked at the numbers and found… they were inconclusive. By today’s standards, he does pitch a good number of innings, or has. Last year, he hurled 165 1/3 in 31 starts; the year before 180 1/3 in 30. In his banner year of 2016, he logged 210 innings. So clearly he can go beyond four innings easily. But should he?
Here’s where it gets a little gray. Roark’s not been getting better with age. Opponents slugging percentage against him have risen – .422 in ’18, .467 last year, .593 this year. and his ERA reflects that, entering this year with a career number of 3.71 but being over 4.3 the past two seasons and an inflated 5.60 this year. Perhaps Charlie was right in not wanting batters to see him too many times in a night.
As to his claim of building up as the game goes on… well, again, the numbers are inconclusive. Last year in the third inning, he limits opponents to a 2.90 ERA. Int he fourth, 3.10. By the fifth, that skyrocketed to 6.00 and wasn’t much better in the sixth at 5.68. However, 2018 Tanner showed he was good early, had trouble in the fifth (6.58) but could usually steady the ship afterwards if he was still there, posting 2.95 and 2.25 ERA in the sixth and seventh.
Bottom line – it might have gone either way. No guarantees Roark would have shut them down had he gone back out for the fifth, but his arm was up to it and the bullpen didn’t do a bonzo job of keeping the team in the game as it happened. However, the overall issue is real . Montoyo’s lack of confidence in his starters is annoying them and putting a lot of pressure on those bullpen arms, including some very good ones and some entirely redoubtable ones like Wilmer Font and the just-released Sam Gaviglio. If it doesn’t bite him in the butt this season, it could this winter when Toronto will have a harder time luring in a free agent pitcher or two if the reputation for dissing them gets much more play.
So bring on the final 17 games, look through that liquid and while you’re at it, why not top it up? Cheers, Blue Jays.