One of the more frustrating things in baseball over the past few years has been watching the perpetually okay Toronto Blue Jays continue to be nothing more than just okay, because in a sports landscape populated by mountebanks who preach the virtues of losing, they’ve actively been trying to win, which shouldn’t stand out, and does.
At the beginning of the decade, the Jays ranked in the bottom half to lower third of teams in the majors in payroll, spending about as much as the Miami Marlins in 2011 and 2012 and getting (okay) results to match. In 2013, they decided (as they do every so often) to act like a team in a big, rich city whose market takes in an entire big, rich country. They brought in good, entertaining players like R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes and increased their spending so that it ranked in the upper third of the league, on par with that of the Los Angeles Angels. It’s remained there, and they’ve mainly remained okay.
Rather than shrug and burn everything down, Jays brass, charmingly, tripled down at this year’s trade deadline, snaring Troy Tulowitzki and David Price; delightfully, it’s actually worked out for them. The Jays won their first game after the former deal was announced and everything since, going 14-1, taking a half-game lead on the New York Yankees in the American League East, and making fans who tend to sleep through the mid-August baseball doldrums look at the standings and say, “Christ, how the fuck did that happen?”
All of this is at least a little bit unexpected, because while the theory behind big late-July trades is that bringing on a star or two will change a team in fundamental ways, it rarely actually works out that way, which is just a function of the basic math of the sport. Even a legitimate MVP candidate is generally only going to be worth two or so wins over the last two months, so even two great players are only going to do so much over two weeks. And of course what the Jays are doing isn’t really down to their two new guys, granted that they’ve been terrific; it’s down to the pieces the Jays have been lining up all along falling right in place.
An excited Jose Bautista; photo via Getty
This doesn’t have much to do with any change in their offense; since the Tulowitzki trade, the Jays have hit for an .808 on base-plus-slugging, which isn’t all that different from .769 they hit before it. Instead, the change—at least so far as it hasn’t had to do with a weak schedule and a lot of games at home, where the Jays enjoy a decided and famously dubious advantage—is in the pitching. The topline number is that during this run they’ve halved their ERA (it’s been 1.96 over the last 15 games, vs. 4.06 coming into it), and beneath that are decreased walk and home run rates—the former has dropped by a third, the latter by nearly half—but what’s telling isn’t so much what they’ve been doing but who’s been doing it.
The biggest change the Jays have made lately has been replacing Felix Doubront, who’s ass, with David Price, who’s one of the best starters in baseball. But they’ve also reconfigured their bullpen. In the 15 games leading up to July 29, five relievers—Ryan Tepera, Bo Schultz, situational types Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil, and closer Robert Osuna—pitched at least six times. (Schultz, who’s pitched very well this year, is a former journalist who once played in a Williamsburg beer league; this has nothing to do with anything but seems worth pointing out.) Of them, Osuna is the only one who’s pitched more than twice since, with the elderly LaTroy Hawkins and Aaron Sanchez, who in his brief career as a reliever has a 1.05 ERA, picking up most of the slack.
This isn’t a straight swap of bad pitchers for good ones, but it and the Price trade have left the Jays’ pitching looking not just imposing at best, but deep—and presumably soon deeper, with starter Marcus Stroman coming back from a knee injury—which is how you’d describe a lineup featuring Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion, among others, and what you’d actually expect of a team that’s invested the way they have over the past few years. Starting tonight, the Jays play their next three against the Yankees, who they smacked last weekend, at home, where they smack everyone, giving them their first chance to get a little distance in the race. Who knows—perhaps trying to win will work!
Top photo via Getty