The Toronto Blue Jays just completed a very impressive three game sweep of the AL Central division leading Detroit Tigers with a 7-3 victory Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park. The Jays flexed their offensive muscles and really roughed up the suddenly terrible Justin Verlander – 7 innings, 5 earned, 4 walks and 4 strikeouts.
The Jays walked into Detroit and pretty much laid the smack down on a perennial powerhouse. They earned the sweep with three straight victories against Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander. The Jays got solid starting pitching, stellar bullpen work and their deep offensive attack continued its league leading performance.
With the sweep on the road in Detroit (did I mention they swept Detroit in Detroit?) and last night’s series opening victory over the St. Louis Cardinals the Blue Jays now sport a 38-24 record and lead the AL East by six full games. The baseball season is brutally long and it is wise not to get too high or too low with any one series victory, or loss.
I was pretty excited when we took the first game and I texted my buddy who responded the same way he has all season “Good win. Now let’s keep it up”. In other words, relax, there is a long way to go. Is the Blue Jays success sustainable with the currently assembled roster?
Let’s have a look at the offense and pitching staff to see if there are any major red flags in terms of impending regression.
The Blue Jays lineup has been an absolute beast to opposing pitchers all season. They are tearing the cover off the ball and wearing out opponents pitching staffs. When I looked at the Blue Jays in the preseason I thought the team had serious downside risk and also to the upside. I think that most pundits while mostly concerned with starting pitching actually underrated the lineup a tad.
The Blue Jays have depth up and down the lineup and at first glance nothing really stands out and screams regression. Let’s take a look at the starting lineup:
Catcher – Believe it or not but Erik Kratz leads the Blue Jays in WAR (0.2 fWAR) despite playing only about half the games of Dioner Navarro (0.0 fWAR). The Blue Jays are not getting much production out of the catching position so the threat of regression at this time is low.
First base – Edwin Encarnacion (2.4 fWAR) and Adam Lind (1.1 fWAR) have both hit very well thus far. Edwin Encarnacion responded to a sub-par April with a monstrous May but his overall stat line (273/361/606) is right around his career levels. Adam Lind is only playing against righties for the most part (383/458/628) and has been aided slightly by an elevated BABIP so he could see a dip in overall production.
Second base – Brett Lawrie and Steve Tolleson have provided solid value. Lawrie will shift to third base against righties and has given team solid pop and great defense. Tolleson has hit lefties well in the past and can play an adequate second base.
Third base – Juan Francisco has actually been worth more (1.4 fWAR – 39 games) than Brett Lawrie (1.3 fWAR – 55 games) thanks to a stellar offensive start. Francisco has slashed 262/343/579 and has been ever deadlier against right handed pitchers (298/381/654). I wouldn’t expect Francisco to continue at such a torrid pace the rest of the season but I don’t think the power will suddenly disappear.
Short stop – Jose Reyes has actually underperformed his preseason ZIPS projections and has only slashed 259/330/400 thus far. ZIPS projects 283/338/424 for the rest of the season and Blue Jays fans would be happy with that type of production.
Outfield – Jose Bautista has been his usual awesome self but probably even awesome-er to start this season. He is currently slashing 318/444/565 and has absolutely destroyed lefties (434/531/849) so any regression there could be slightly offset against right handers. ZIPS projects a solid 281/400/536 the rest of the way.
Melky Cabrera has bounced back very nicely and has added a new element of depth to the Blue Jays lineup. He welcome prized rookie Mashiro Tanaka with a leadoff homerun early in April and has continued hitting all season. He has slashed 305/345/490 and ZIPS projects 294/334/448 the rest of the way.
Anthony Gose has done a great job filling in for Colby Rasmus. He has shown great speed, defense and an improved patience. Kevin Pillar has done a great job in late game pinch running and defensive replacement situations.
Colby Rasmus has begun a rehab assignment and could return in the next few weeks from his hamstring injury.
This is where things get a little dicier. Let’s have a look at our rotation pitcher-by-pitcher.
RA Dickey – He has been about as expected – mid 4.00 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP. He has had his share of troubles when he hits the sixth inning but with a team with so many question marks in the back end of the rotation he will be a key component of any division title run. Given the strength of the lineup the Blue Jays do not require Roy Halladay like precision on the mound.
ZIPS projects 122 IPs, 4.25 ERA, 7.47 K/9, 1.28 WHIP.
Mark Buerhle – I really expected to see career numbers across the board but I was actually relieved when I saw that his K/9, K/BB, WHIP and batting average against are not really that far from his career averages. Yes his 2.10 ERA has been heavily aided by an 80% strand rate and 2.4 HR/FB% and it would be foolish to not expect regression. However he will still eat innings and give our stellar lineup a chance to win ballgames.
ZIPS projects 109 IPs, 4.07 ERA, 5.71 K/9, 1.31 WHIP.
Drew Hutchison – In the preseason quiz I picked Hutch to ‘out-WAR’ Ervin Santana (for those curious Hutch leads 1.2 to 1.0). He has been very consistent this season and looks like he could join the conversation of one of the division’s better young pitchers.
This is where I have serious concerns – innings pitched. One year removed from Tommy John surgery will he have the stamina and team blessing to pitch the required 175-200 innings to actually finish the season? The most innings he has thrown in his professional career was in 2011 when he tossed 149.1 IPs.
In 2012, one year after his surgery the Washington Nationals (also in pennant chase) limited their ace Stephen Strasburg to 159 innings and shut him down. Will the Blue Jays risk injury to Hutch? What if they actually make the playoffs? It is hard to envision Hutchison finishing the year without being shut down.
JA Happ – I almost hate to mention him fearing I will jinx him but Happ has been pretty solid. His value gets a slight bump as he is really a guy the Blue Jays will have no problem using and abusing if need be. They have replacements in the system and free agency can always fill his spot for the next few years but milking his value this year will be crucial down the stretch.
Marcus Stroman – Watching him start got me pretty excited about his potential. He has a very live arm, athletic build and delivery and I think size concerns are overblown. But like Hutchison how many innings will the Blue Jays allow him to make in what is his first major league season? He threw a total of 111.2 IPs in the minor leagues last season.
I didn’t include the ZIPS projections for 3 out 5 of the Jays rotation because the projections are either awful or don’t include much in the way of expected innings. Which is sort of the point. Alex Anthopoulos is no fool. He knows the Toronto Blue Jays will require at least one or two veteran starting pitchers to complete this roster. There are too many question marks surrounding age, experience and past performance. The baseball world will be watching and Blue Jays fans will be hoping.