The unruly Bat Flip Boys are at it again. A year after bashing their way through the AL East and into the hearts of scalawags everywhere, the Toronto Blue Jays have made the playoffs (or at least the watered down, expanded version of the playoffs) in consecutive years for the first time since winning back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993.
It wasn’t easy, though, nor was it quite as fun as last season. The Blue Jays finished tied for second in the division with the Baltimore Orioles—whom they face in the wild card game tonight—and they’re probably lucky to even have achieved that: According to Elias Sports Bureau, Toronto is only the third team in baseball history to “make the playoffs after finishing last in the majors in runs per game (3.7) in September/October.” If you are a one-year-old who is reading this, these aren’t exactly your father’s Blue Jays.
Well okay—they’re still mostly the big, bad boppers we’ve come to know and love. Despite down years from several recognizable faces, including reigning bat-flip world champion Jose Bautista, the Jays still finished fourth in the majors in home runs. (In first place, by a wide margin, were the Orioles, so tune in tonight if you like baseball that resembles surface-to-air warfare.) Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion combined for 79 homers on their own, and even those flickering stars—Troy Tulowitzki, Bautista, and Russell Martin—smacked 24, 22, and 20 dingers apiece. Finally healthy, outfielder Michael Saunders chipped in with 24 jacks. There will be blood.
Still, this year’s iteration of the Jays was comparatively more balanced—per Fangraphs, the team was 7th in hitting WAR and 6th in pitching WAR. Unlike last season—in which Toronto went into the playoffs with David Price at the top of its rotation and not much else—this Jays’ staff was relatively anonymous but solid and deep. You might not go to a game specifically to see any of Aaron Sanchez (an All Star), Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, or Marco Estrada, but they formed the nucleus of one of the most effective rotations in baseball.
We all go to sleep at night dreaming of the Rude Blue Dudes launching moonshots deep into the black sky, but the Jays have a few notable role players who help keep the roster from being dangerously top heavy. Chief among that group is centerfielder Kevin Pillar, who, by Fangraphs’ calculation of WAR, was more valuable this year than every Jay outside of Donaldson and Encarnacion. He also couldn’t be more different. This season, Pillar yakked up a .679 OPS, but was probably the very best defensive outfielder in the game. He routinely risks his personal safety for our astonishment, as much Evil Knievel as centerfielder. Here is but one stunning catch that very well could have left Pillar as a sack of bones on the turf.
As valuable as anyone to Toronto’s wheezing playoff push was second baseman Devon Travis, who returned to the lineup in late May and promptly hit .300 with with 11 homers and solid defense over the remaining 100-plus games. He is short and squat and powerful, and you will want to give him a hug.
But for tonight’s purposes at least, the most important guy to know is also arguably Toronto’s best young talent: starting pitcher Marcus Stroman. Despite being just 25 years old, Stroman is battle tested. He started twice in last year’s ALDS against the Rangers, striking out nine in 13 innings while allowing a good-enough five earned runs, and then picked up a win versus the Royals in the ALCS. Though he isn’t an overwhelmingly dominant force, Stroman is listed at just 5' 8", which means not only do I hope that he and Travis go to concerts together so they can sit on each other’s shoulders, but also that he is pound-for-pound one of the most fun pitchers to watch in all of baseball. Rookie of the Year wasn’t real life, but Stroman will make you believe that it could be. Plus, he’s got some ‘tude.
I’ve chosen J.A. Happ not because his chin looks like it’s covered in butt hair, but because it’s strong and dimpled. The man has a chin’s chin. All the other Blue Jay chins applaud this chin.
Sports are good when they start to resemble wrestling just a bit—when they are theatrical, hilariously dramatic, and have storylines piled up like kindling. The Jays, more than any other team, push baseball into the realm of the delightfully absurd. They fly all over the field and hurl bats into other galaxies. Upon homering, Encarnacion rounds the bases like a pirate who takes the act of plunder very seriously. They might throw Orioles starter Chris Tillman into a coffin tonight for all we know. The Blue Jays are sick and they can’t hide it.