Can Toronto Keep Rolling?

I decided to do a little experiment today and put the first third of the season under a microscope. I thought, what better way to compare MLB teams then by using a fantasy baseball format? Using seven offensive stats (AVG, wOBA, BABIP, OBP, ISO, K%, BB%) and seven pitching stats (BB/9, HR/9, BABIP, HR/FB, ERA, WHIP, K/9) I compiled the numbers from around the league. After getting the numbers, I went through and noted where each team stood in the overall standings for each stat. For every top-10 a team had in a given category, I gave them a point; the teams with the most points, theoretically, should be in the mix for the 10 playoff spots this September. Three teams — the Cardinals, Dodgers and Tigers — had the highest scores with 10 overall points. The next highest was the upstart AL West leading Astros and the red-hot Blue Jays. Both teams are interesting cases but with the Blue Jays sitting in third place in a, let’s say, competitive AL East, I have to wonder, how good are the Blue Jays and how far can they go?

This isn’t the Blue Jays of old; with the addition of Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin and the emergence of young, productive players like Kevin Pillar, Devon Travis (before he got hurt), Chris Colabello and Danny Valencia, the Blue Jays have a balanced and deep offense. We know teams that live and die by the home run generally have trouble staying consistent throughout the season. This has been the problem with the Blue Jays in the past, waiting for Bautista and Encarnacion to heat up and then when they do, watch out. This year however, has been much more of a consistent team effort. With the top offense in baseball the Blue Jays are third in AVG, first in wOBA, 10th in BABIP, third in OBP, second in ISO, seventh in K% and seventh in BB%. All of that adds up to scoring runs, which they do very well, leading the league with 5.47 RPG. In my fantasy reality projections, the Blue Jays received a point for every offensive stat, the only team to do so. It’s the pitching categories however that raise my questions.

Although they had a total of 8 points, the Blue Jays were in the top 10 of only one pitching category: they’re third in BABIP. This isn’t to say that their pitching has been bad, as they’ve actually been pretty decent so far this year. Mark Buehrle has been his same old self, Drew Hutchison with his 5.33 ERA is 6-1, Aaron Sanchez has recovered nicely from a rough start of the season, Marco Estrada is a nice piece to have and although R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball hasn’t been as good as in years past, he’s still keeping them in the game and at least saving the bullpen. Speaking of the bullpen, it’s been a lot better as well this year. Brett Cecil, Roberto Osuna and Liam Hendricks all have K/9 above 9.0 and the bullpen as a whole has an ERA of 3.38, lower than the league average of 3.50. But is all of this enough to win the division or at least get a wild-card birth?

The AL East has been a mixed bag this year. Every team, besides the Red Sox, seems to be a hot or cold streak away from dominating or falling off the face of the earth. The Rays are currently leading the AL East by 1 game over the Yankees and 2 games ahead of both the Orioles and Blue Jays. The Rays are pretty much the opposite of the Blue Jays, as they don’t hit a lot of home runs and where the Blue Jays lead not only the division but the league in runs scored per game, the Rays are last in the division and 26th in the league with 3.73 RPG. The Rays have an AL East best 3.26 ERA and the Blue Jays, of course are at the opposite end of the spectrum, ranking fourth in the division at 4.26. These numbers bring into to play run differential, where the Blue Jays lead the division at +69 and the Rays are fourth with a +7 run differential. Anything is possible but it just feels like the Rays won’t be able to hold on throughout the season, especially facing the offenses in the AL East. Speaking of the other teams not named the Red Sox, let’s look at the Yankees and Orioles and see how their success may impact Toronto.

Both the Orioles and Yankees have mostly played good baseball throughout the season. The Yankees have definitely exceeded expectations and the Orioles have been a streaky team but are still hanging right in there. I think these two teams pose the biggest threat to any potential Toronto success. With the AL Central as loaded as it is, it’s entirely possible that two AL wild-card teams come from that division. It’s also highly possible that one could come from the AL West — the Rangers are playing better, the Angels have a similar record to the Blue Jays, Yankees and Orioles and I know it sounds crazy but I’ll never count the A’s out until it’s mathematically impossible.

All that being said, I think it will be hard for Toronto to secure a wild-card birth; I think they have to win the division. The Yankees and Orioles are second and third in the AL East in RPG with 4.53 and 4.50 respectively and both have a better team ERA than the Blue Jays do. The Orioles have a run differential of +35 and the Yankees are at +12, so it’s certainly possible if the numbers stay where they’re at that the Blue Jays can just outscore everyone more often then not. But pitching wins championships — just ask the Giants — and if the Blue Jays want to have the success they’re looking for, they’ll need to improve their starting rotation.

The question then becomes, where do they get the help? We saw what happened to the A’s last year when they went for everything and broke up a successful offense to secure their starting rotation. I’m not suggesting the Blue Jays do exactly that but I do think they need to make a move to get a proven starter. Toronto is invested in young starters Hutchison and Sanchez who have performed well but not great, and veterans like Buehrle and Dickey are a good presence for a young staff, but they seem to lack that workhorse, front-of-the-rotation guy. Filling the void from within is always the preferred method but it doesn’t appear that the Blue Jays have anybody waiting in the wings.

Perhaps R.A. Dickey can regain his form and become the ace that he was with the Mets, but that’s a lot to hope for. Toronto’s farm system was ranked 19th in MLB going into the season, making it difficult to trade for a top-tier starter without dealing major-league talent but surely they could put something together for a major-league starter without breaking up their core players. If they can make a move, I think they’ll greatly increase their chance of winning the division. If they don’t, they’ll have to hope everyone stays healthy and the offense keeps rolling. One thing is for sure, it’s baseball and anything can happen at any time. For now we’ll just have to wait and see, and of course, enjoy the dingers.

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