Despite an ugly loss today, it’s pretty exciting to be spending Labour Day with the Jays in first place, a lofty 19 games above .500. The last time we could say that was back in that mystical and almost mythical year, 1993. With a full month to go, it appears close to a done deal that the team will end their 21-year run of futility and make the playoffs (at very least as a Wild card team) and that they’ll blow past my spring prediction of 81 wins for them this season. Of course, that’s one prediction I don’t mind seeing going down in flames, nor does it make me feel particularly bad… if they play only .500 for the remainder of the year, the Jays will hit the 90-win mark. I personally didn’t see anyone in any Spring Training time blog or publication predict more than 86 for the Blue Jays this year. So, what went right?
Many things, as must be the case for any division leader. The team’s been reasonably healthy, all things considered, which is a huge and unpredictable plus. The trades for Tulowitzki and Price have revitalized the players and fans and seemed to turn the year around. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are having very good years- again! John Gibbons didn’t panic in May when people (myself included) were calling for his head when the blue train derailed, so to speak. He stayed the course and the team righted itself, which might not have happened under a new manager. But most of all, 4 players stand out to me that have made the team “over-achieve”, four big surprises. (Note that word– of course, for example, Bautista has been important and excellent, but that he has 96 RBI and counting is almost what we expected of him by now, not a surprise.)
Marco Estrada– a pitcher most fans didn’t know much about when he was sent over from the Brewers in return for Adam Lind. Most fans felt a bit cheated. I expected a run-of-the-mill Todd Redmond clone; a respectable long man for the bullpen who could make a spot start or two but wasn’t going to be much of a factor at all. Instead we have a guy who’s flirted with two no-hitters, has a stellar 3.18 ERA and is getting better as he gains confidence. Since July 25, he’s 5-2 with a 2.74 ERA.
I’m not too surprised that others are surprised by the 32-year old Mexican as well. His 23 starts so far ties his career high and his dozen wins make it his first double-digit win season. His ERA is about half a run better than his previous best and , assuming he doesn’t get blown out of the water in the first or second, his next game will see him top his previous best of 150 innings.
Athlon Sports considered him “trade bait” and too prone to giving up homers to win in Toronto back in spring. I would have shuddered to think of going into the playoffs with him being the #3 or 4 starter. Given his second-half performance, I’d now feel OK with him on the mound in a Game 7. Estrada has kept the at times sketchy rotation afloat this year.
Roberto Osuna– the youngest pitcher in baseball, he wasn’t listed on most spring rosters for the Jays and barely on anyone’s radar. Why would he be? despite having some good power and raw pitches, he’d never pitched above A-ball and last year, he made all of 8 appearances (as a starter, it should be noted), averaged less than 3 innings a game and was hit to the tune of a .308 opponents average. Who saw him becoming one of the most confident, lights-out big league closers by August??
I thought it was audacious for Alex Anthopoulos to try Miguel Castro as a closer in the early-going. He, we’d at least heard of. No one really expected Osuna to take the job and run with it after Castro was demoted and Cecil seemed incapable of handling the stress. But run with it he has. He leads all rookies with 16 saves (only C.Smith of Seattle have more than two among other rookies), set a franchise record for consecutive saves and has a pretty dazzling 2.11 ERA helped out by a 67:12 K to BB ratio. More importantly, the 20 year-old looks Mariano Rivera-confident in close games staring down the Yankees, Orioles or Rangers. The closer’s role was a big question mark for the team this year. it looks like Roberto is the big answer.
Josh Donaldson– sure, when the surprising trade was made to get the 29 year old Auburn alumni from Oakland, we knew he was good. I said, like most others at the time, that he’d make us forget about Canuck Brett Lawrie. We figured, based on ballparks in the East and on his own comments about balls he hit last year that almost flew out, that he’d get 30 homers for the first time. maybe 35.
What we didn’t figure is that he was going to be the leading candidate for AL MVP. that he’d run away with the RBI lead, despite hitting second in front of the “big bats.” That when TV commentator Gregg Zaun suggested he was good but not the best, that he (Josh) would drive in 9 runs over the next two nights. With a month to go, his 38 doubles, 37 homers, 115 RBI are all career highs as are his .306 average and .963 OPS. Given that his career average pre-Toronto was .267 and he’d hit one HR per 22.4 at bat (compared to one every 14 this year), who could have imagined? His 10 sac flies this year is already equal to the total from the past two years combined. And while he’s made a few too many throwing errors, he has visibly improved the already solid defence at third for the Jays compared to Lawrie (who was above average to begin with.) We knew Donaldson could add to the club- we didn’t know he could carry it on his back!
Kevin Pillar – in March I wrote that he was a “serviceable backup” outfielder. by late April I noted he was “off to a hot start” and that he “could shift to center” if Michael Saunders got healthy . Saunders didn’t, which might be a blessing in disguise, since it’s given Kevin a chance to be an everyday player.
Pillar’s been OK at the plate, but that hasn’t been the big surprise. His numbers this year (.267 average, .379 slugging) are very close to his numbers last year; 10 HR is a nice bonus but not remarkable; only his 18 SB is truly surprising with his offense… unless we consider the fact that he’s kept up his totals over 500 at bats, more than the past two years combined. Where he shines is with his defence.
In the past, Pillar looked decent in left field. At times he’d make a noteworthy catch, but his range, throwing arm , even his apparent effort were pretty ordinary. something’s happened to the 26 year-old this season and as a result, he’s pretty much a fixture on the “Plays of the Week” segments, even for fans watching in far-flung places like Texas. Pillar’s stealing the homers, making the dives, running down the balls in the gap- finding ways to keep the opponent’s off the board and keep his pitchers happy. The stats show it- this year,he’s third in the AL in fielding percentage among CF , behind only Mike Trout and the under-rated rifle-armed Leonys Martin of Texas. His range factor (as quoted by mlb dot com) is better than those two though, and in fact is the best in baseball among regular outfielders. Ten outfield assists show that he has quite an arm too.
With comparisons abounding between this year’s Jays and the greats of ’92-93, Kevin Pillar really turns heads. Not Black, skinny or Jamaican, Pillar still manages to remind one of Devon White from those teams. Consider that White, in 1992, hit .248 with 17 HR, 60 RBI and a .693 OPS. Pillar sits at .267, 10, 46 and a .681 OPS. More importantly, White, often considered the franchise’s best-ever defensive CF, had a.985 fielding percentage, 8 assists and a 2.97 Range Factor in ’92. Pillar’s has topped the fielding percentage and number of assists and has a 2.93 range.
We may not have the new Roberto Alomar yet, but with Pillar we have the new Devon White. Bring on October!