108: Similar record early-on but different storylines for Jays in 2016

UNLIKE LAST SEASON, IT HASN’T JUST BEEN THE BLUE JAYS’ OFFENCE KEEPING THE TEAM AFLOAT IN 2016 (PHOTO: SPORTSNET.CA)

UNLIKE LAST SEASON, IT HASN’T JUST BEEN THE BLUE JAYS’ OFFENCE KEEPING THE TEAM AFLOAT IN 2016 (PHOTO: SPORTSNET.CA)

Apr. 20, 2016

By: Tyler King

Canadian Baseball Network

The American League East winning Toronto Blue Jays were 8-7 after 15 games a year-ago, the same record they held in 2016 (literally as I write this catcher Josh Thole is being charged with a game ending passed ball, costing the Jays their ninth win in 16 games. It wasn’t even a damn knuckleball for cryin’ out loud!). 

But as similar as the Jays’ record is compared to this point last season, how they’ve gotten here is completely different.

Everybody - myself included - just went ahead and assumed the identity of this club would be to hit the crap out of absolutely everyone and everything. Once the Jays lost out on the David Price sweepstakes during the off-season (let’s be honest here, they never even bought a ticket) many fans were bracing themselves for more than a few inevitable 10-8 ball games. 

Just like last year, hitting was the only way the Jays were going to have a chance - or at least that’s what all the baseball pundits were saying.

I suppose you can’t really blame the experts for putting the Jays hitters on a pedestal. When you have that kind of lineup a pedestal is exactly where it belongs. After-all, the 2015 Blue Jays did win predominantly by out-slugging the universe.

They scored nearly 130 more runs (891) than the next highest scoring team, the Boston Red Sox. They also led the league in home runs (232), extra-base hits (557), and just about every other major offensive category other than batting-average, where they finished second to the Detroit Tigers by .001.

Aside from swapping Ben Revere for Michael Saunders, the lineup hasn’t changed from the second half of last season, when the team did nothing but win and score a ton of runs. They scored 405 after the All-Star break alone. Oh happy days.

Yet it’s three weeks into the 2016 campaign and the Jays are (barely) winning and (barely) losing ball games in entirely new and unexpected ways: 

They’re pitching! But not hitting ... not like they used to.

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You don’t have to memorize a bunch of Bill James equations to know that the Jays hitters - at least the ones not named Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, or Edwin Encarnacion - have not gotten off to the same ridiculously hot/streaky/weird start that they did last year. 

In the first 15 games of 2015, the Jays had already scored 87 runs, meaning they averaged 5.8 runs per game. As a team they hit .263/.334/.449 and had also mashed 21 home runs by that point (they were leading the league by 10 homers on May 1st).

So I guess the only logical question is, how were they not 15-0 last year?

Answer: their pitchers also gave up 69 runs. Which isn’t all that surprising considering their team ERA ended up being 4.78 in the month of April - good enough for 29th in the league. 

Now I know it’s hard to recall any negative memories from last year, especially with the hazy euphoria that was the 2015 playoff run. But if you can push past all the post-season beers and somehow remember back to the start of the season, you’ll realize that it wasn’t always easy for the eventual division champs. 

The 15-game mark was right around the time the concern over the team’s inability to win close ball games began to fester. And it would continue well into the dog days, right up until a man they call TULO came in and settled things down.

The Jays managed to stay relevant in the early going only by putting up crooked offensive numbers in the games they won, while simultaneously going ice-cold in the ones they lost.

The early incarnation of the 2015 Blue Jays had absolutely no middle-ground. In their first seven wins they scored six or more runs in each, including four games where they scored 10 or more. Yet they also scored two or less in five of their first 15 games.

In 2016, the offensive numbers are much more balanced - yet far less exciting. And the results are still the same - essentially an underachieving, .500 ball-club.

Six of the Jays' eight wins this year have come by a margin of two runs or fewer. They have yet to score more than seven times in a single game, and they’ve scored seven only once. 

In total, the Jays have managed 60 runs in their first 15 games (27 less than a year ago). They’ve also *only* hit 14 home runs ... emphasis on “only because they are still fifth in the American League in that respect, but when compared to their home run total at this point a year ago, 14 dingers is trash.

Prior to Wednesday’s game, Jays hitters have gone .231/.310/.373 - not really close to the 2015 line posted above.

The reason the Jays were somehow a game above five hundred up until, oh, about six minutes ago (curse you, Josh Thole, curse you), is partially due to the benefits that come from a more balanced offensive attack.

However, there’s no denying that a lot of credit for keeping the season from unraveling has to go to the starting pitching - a positive change compared with how they started last season. 

(And OK, maybe a little props goes out to Roberto Osuna too.)

They Jays' team ERA was a very respectable 3.50 prior to Wednesday’s game, while it was 4.30 after 15 games last year. Opponents are hitting just .238 off Blue Jays pitching this season, compared to .248 in 2015.

And when you isolate the starting pitching, my god what a difference from a year ago. I guess ol’ Alex Anthopoulos was right, and you really can’t under-estimate a healthy Marcus Stroman.

The Jays boast 3.32 starter ERA (a full run better than at this point last year), and if it weren’t for RA Dickey being notoriously bad until June, that number could rival some of the league’s top rotations.

Seven of the 14 pitchers on the current roster have ERAs under 3.00. Three of which happen to be starters - J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, and Aaron Sanchez.

It’s like somebody said, Happ may be the best fourth starter in all of baseball. Hell if he continues to post anything close to the 1.89 ERA he’s sporting now he may be the best ACE in baseball.

But what’s arguably even more crazy than Happ’s success is that Jays Nation was having a serious “Sanchez in the rotation or bullpen” debate just one month ago. Imagine trying to have that conversation with someone now ... they'd think you're a lunatic.

As a starter, Sanchez has allowed just three earned runs in 20 innings, spread out over three games. Provided his arm doesn’t fall off from all the extra innings, I think he’s fine right where he is.

But as hard as it is to imagine Sanchez in the bullpen, it’s even harder to imagine Osuna NOT being there. Right?

Well at this time a year ago the Jays actually had an even younger 20-year-old closing out ball games. Miguel Castro ... remember him? 'Cause I sure don’t!

The stone-cold Osuna already has five saves to go with his 2.45 ERA. And he’s been nearly un-hittable early-on, with opponents batting just .154 off the young right-hander.

So sure, it would be nice if the Jays were hitting home runs and scoring at last year’s impeccable pace. With the quality starting pitching they’re getting now, they’d probably never lose again.

But at the end of the day, their record isn’t much different from this point in 2015 ... 

And we all know how well that turned out.

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Follow Tyler and #Section108 on twitter: @TylerJoseph108