Disappointments litter Blue Jays landscape at the one-third mark of schedule
Jays second 54G offers a chance to right the ship
Disappointment, thy name is Blue Jays. The Jays over the first third of the ’23 schedule, stand at a mediocre 28-26, still a couple of games above .500 and ranked tied for 8th in the American League. Some of the surprise teams ahead of them in the race for a post-season berth, are the O’s, Red Sox, Rangers and Angels. But so much more was expected of this Toronto team when the 2023 season began.
Coming off consecutive seasons of 91 and 92 wins, the mantra being preached by manager John Schneider, in his first full season, as the team left spring training for St. Louis was “Attention to detail”. For a while, through the first month, the team’s performance seemed to back up Schneider’s claim.
Following a stumbling 1-3 out of the gate, to begin a lengthy 10-game road trip, the Jays roared to 17 wins over the next 23 games, topping off at an impressive18-9, through April 29. Then came a large dose of AL East-induced reality. Consider that after the first 54 games, one-third of the schedule, through Minnesota, the Jays have clearly been the worst of five teams in the AL East, 5-16 within the division, but an impressive 22-11 against the others. Mixed signals, for sure.
Why the Jays’ second third can be better
When the Jays built the roster for 2023, the focus of spending was on starting pitchers, a quintet of individuals that can go to the mound every five days and keep you in the ballgame until what the team still believes is a talented group of hitters can step up and produce enough runs to win. It’s a simple formula. Consider that five of the top six Jays salaries for 2023 belong to starting pitchers – Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman, Hyun Jin Ryu, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi.
You can argue about whether that group has earned its salaries, with Ryu still on the IL recovering from Tommy John surgery and a certain inconsistency from others, but you can’t argue about their willingness and ability to take the ball every five days and give their best. The Jays are now the only team in MLB to have used just five starters to handle all their games. The biggest pitching concern through the first third of the schedule has been opening day starter, 25-year-old Alek Manoah, whose struggles with lack of command and control have been well-documented.
The Jays in this portion of the schedule have a chance to re-find their groove, with a better mix of opponents over the second 54 games that includes 21 inter-league games vs. National League teams and just nine against the uber-tough meat-grinder that is the AL East. Through Monday, the Jays, in games contested outside the division, ranked second to the Rays among AL East teams against the rest of baseball.
The current problem that is Manoah
Where would the Jays be in the standings if Manoah was pitching like an ace? What if at the front end of the season, the big righthander had posted first-third numbers like other aces, the Rays’ Shane McLanahan (8-0, 1.97 ERA), Yankees’ Gerrit Cole (6-0, 2.93 ERA), Twins’ Joe Ryan (7-1, 2.21 ERA) or Angels’ Shohei Ohtani (5-1, 2.91 ERA). Those are the numbers that coming off Manoah’s first two seasons, fans would have expected. That the Manoah “ace” status has not become reality trickles down to reflect on the entire team. The hitters need to hit more, the bullpen needs to pitch more and the coaches need to coach more. But before one puts too much blame on Manoah, remember, baseball is a beautiful game of failure.
There has been a groundswell on social media suggesting a minor-league stint in Buffalo might be the cure for Manoah. That is a ridiculous solution to what is a crisis of confidence. Manoah is not just working on the one of every five days that fans see him toe the rubber for his next start. He does not disappear between starts. The Floridas native on those off-days is studying video, throwing side sessions, working in the weight room and being attended to by the best group of trainers, therapists and high-performance experts in the organization.
To send him to the minors would suggest taking him away from the Blue Jays’ best environment for physical and mental success to send him out to face minor-league hitters for a couple of weeks, working out with inferior facilities with the second tier of support staff. That does not make much sense. At 25-years-old, the organization has to have faith that this is part of his growing process and stick with him until he finds a solution, mostly mental and some physical. He also has to perhaps think less about manipulating the pitch clock, what opponents think of him and if and when the MLB Network wants his analysis.
What’s wrong with the offence?
The first third of the Jays season and the dramatic difference in run production from April to May is evidence that any MLB team needs three or more players operating on all cylinders to carry an offence. In April, the Jays were led by an AL Player-of-the-Month performance by third baseman Matt Chapman, combined with superior contributions from shortstop Bo Bichette and first baseman Vlad Guerrero Jr. It carried the Jays to an 18-10 record in the first month.
However, in May, Chapman’s numbers dropped dramatically and Vlad’s performance has been head scratching, as he expands the strike zone, chases pitches and visibly shows his frustration resulting in numbers that do not befit one of the game’s acknowledged young superstar. That leaves Bo to carry the offensive load.
More issues? Over the first 54 games, two players that went to the All-Star Game a year ago, catcher Alejandro Kirk and infielder Santiago Espinal have been disappointments, while the Jays’ bench (not including the second catcher) has combined for 31 hits in 54 games, a .171 batting average, five homers and 14 RBIs.
Projecting numbers forward, with the one-third mark of the schedule as the baseline, here are what the final offensive totals would be for the big four in the Jays’ lineup:
Bichette … .338 BA, .912 OPS, 33 HR, 111 RBI.
Guerrero Jr. … .284 BA, .812 OPS, 24 HR, 102 RBI.
Chapman … .285 BA, .851 OPS, 21 HR, 81 RBI … with 57 doubles.
Springer … .260 BA, .726 OPS, 21 HR, 66 RBI.
The rest of the offence is led by 2B/OF Whit Merrifield who is on pace for 42 stolen bases, plus centre fielder Kevin Kiermaier and outfielder Daulton Varsho. But, they are followers and need to be led by the big four in the batting order.
As for what it might take to turn Vlad’s season around to where he should be as one of the game’s elite young players? Maybe Schneider should move Vlad to two and Bo to three in the batting order. Guerrero, more than Bo, needs protection behind him in the order. When opposing pitchers decide, as they have, that they would rather face Varsho, Chapman or Brandon Belt hitting fourth and fifth than to challenge Vlad, that’s when he chases pitches outside the zone and helps get himself out.
With Bo batting behind him, hitting third, there is no pitcher that would rather face Bo than Vlad. The first baseman would be back to getting better pitches to hit. It would then be up to him not to miss them. As for Bo, he is elite with two strikes and the ability to spoil a pitcher’s best offerings.
For the Jays, the second third of the season begins with the Brewers and the Mets and they will have a better chance to get the season righted in the next 54 games.