After rebounding in May after their rough April, the Blue Jays look to one enigmatic pitcher and better plate discipline to keep the wins coming.
Expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays were high after they reached the ALCS in 2016, where they lost to the Cleveland Indians. The Blue Jays were expected to ride their deep rotation and high-powered offense led by Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin to another postseason appearance.
Toronto cracked under the pressure early on in the season, as they had the worst April of any team in Major League Baseball. The Toronto offense, which ranked ninth in the league last season, struggled early. Most troubling for the Blue Jays was their lack of run production. They averaged 3.56 runs per game in April, which ranked 28th in the majors only in front of the San Francisco Giants (3.35) and the Kansas City Royals (2.74).
Their pitching staff, which was stellar in 2016, was mediocre in April, allowing 4.4 runs per game. Their starting rotation compiled a 3.77 ERA. The Blue Jays also had well-documented bullpen woes starting with a 4.70 ERA for their relievers, one of the worst in the Major League. Adding to their misery was their closer Roberto Osuna. He blew just six saves in 2016, but blew three of his first six chances in April to cost the team three wins.
However, in May, the Blue Jays had a remarkable turnaround from their cumulative 8-17 record at the end of the month. They climbed back to a 26-27 record, concluding a 18-10 month that saw contributions emerge from both their pitchers and batters. Their offense scored more runs, and Roberto Ozuna solidified the backend of the bullpen by not acquiring a blown save during the entire month.
To maintain their recent success, the Toronto will need to receive more quality starts from Francisco Liriano, who just returned from the DL. Before Liriano’s trip to the DL because of a sore shoulder, his FIP and SO/BB ratio were both uncharacteristic, not truly demonstrating what he is capable of:
The Blue Jays are counting on Liriano to post numbers that rival his 2015 numbers with the Pirates. Liriano’s first start off the DL was a hopeful sign that he can show a newfound control of his breaking pitches and less reliance on his fastball. At his best, Liriano works the fastball down and his slider down and to the glove side. Research has shown that Liriano pitches better when he increases the use of his slider and shortens up his pitching motion while throwing breaking pitches to both left- and right-handed batters.
The problem with Liriano right now is that batters are hitting the ball hard off of him. Liriano’s hit hard ball percentage is 36%, way up from his 24.3% in 2015. This is increasing the likelihood of him allowing baserunners, as there is less time for his teammates to react to the ball in play. Right-handed batters are especially having an easy time getting on base against Liriano. Although Liriano’s fastball has been decent this year, his change-up, which is his primary breaking pitch against right-handed batters, has been inconsistent and his most ineffective pitch thus far.
This is a problem that he has encountered during his career. Per 100 pitches, Liriano has been giving up an extra 0.9 runs above the league average. As a result, Liriano’s change-up has not fooled batters, which may explain why his hit rate per nine innings and hard hit ball percentages are up this year. Therefore, Liriano needs to find a way to control the delivery of his change-up and, as past history shows, him throwing an effective change-up would increase his strikeouts and decrease his opponents batting average off of him, saving runs in the process.
In regards to the hitters, Toronto should get a boost from the returns of Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki. The Toronto offense, usually so potent, has been pedestrian this year. Their team offense statistics suggest they are an average offense at best, ranking 19th in runs scored, 21st in batting average, 23rd in on-base percentage, and 15th in slugging percentage.
This is a far cry from their 2016 statistics when they were ninth in runs scored with 759. Although their 2016 batting average (.248), on-base percentage (.330), and OPS (.755) were not the best in baseball, they were better than what the Blue Jays are currently producing. Although the Blue Jays have been unlucky with balls in play this year, their low offensive output can be attributed to simply striking out too often.
The Blue Jays are striking out nearly 24% of the time, which has caused them to not be able to get runners on base. Their walk rate is problematic as well at 7.8%. They have also seen some of their established veterans go through rough stretches early in the season. Devon Travis went 0-for-29 before he got his first hit. Russell Martin went 0-for-20 before breaking out of it with a double. And Jose Bautista had a rough start to the season as well, not hitting his first homerun until late April.
Toronto had a terrific May. However, to keep winning ballgames, their veteran core of Bautista, Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Martin, and Morales must continue to perform to their offensive capabilities and hope that Liriano can right the ship after trips to the DL. If they cannot, the Blue Jays may become deadline sellers.
(All data has been retrieved from ESPN.com, Baseball-Reference.com, and FanGraphs.com)
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