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Defense the Key for Blue Jays to Keep Up in AL East

Defense will be the key for Toronto in a tight AL East race.

The Toronto Blue Jays came into 2022 with top-tier aspirations in a top-tier division. Having to stare down the likes of New York, Boston, and Tampa Bay in the American League East is no small task; each team has won at least one division title in the last four seasons. Toronto last took the crown in 2015, and prior to that, they hadn’t taken the division since 1993.

But an influx of young talent and a handful of high-profile additions have improved the Jays’ trajectory. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette have developed into stars. The team added José Berríos prior to last year’s trade deadline before signing Kevin Gausman and trading for Matt Chapman during the offseason. And you’ve got a host of quality players in between, both in the field and on the bump.

As such, it isn’t difficult to see why the Blue Jays feel they can not only keep up with the class of their division but surpass it. In many ways, they already have. As things stand right now, the Yankees, the Rays, and the Blue Jays are the upper tier of the five-team set. Despite recent runs by both New York and Tampa Bay, Toronto has managed to hang in there on both sides of the ball.

 

Toronto vs. New  York vs. Tampa Bay: The Bats

 

Toronto has featured a wRC+ of 103 as a team, to the Yankees’ 117 mark. Tampa is at 118. Their ISO trails New York by 12 points, coming in at .155. Toronto trails New York by the tiniest of margins (22.9 vs. 22.6) and has a leg up on the Rays (24.2) in K%. While the Jays are walking a bit less, at 7.3%, it’s another narrow gap to their pair of division rivals. The Blue Jays and Yankees are elite in the hard contact game, with Toronto at a 32.4 percent HardHit%, against New York’s 34.0. You have to go farther down the list to find the Rays, at 29.8. Overall contact rates are extremely similar, with Toronto trailing New York by a whole 0.4 percent at their 75.2. The Rays are at 73.9%.

There are a few other things worth noting on the offensive side. The nature of it still being early May is that the numbers shift heavily each day, depending on single-game output. It also doesn’t help that Toronto has been the worst team in baseball with runners in scoring position (.187 average), which serves to drag down their overall numbers. It’s also worth noting that the Yankees have the more hitter-friendly park, which could speak to their noticeable power edge. In any case, it certainly seems as if the Blue Jays have the offensive chops to keep up with their primary competition in the division.

 

Toronto vs. New York vs. Tampa Bay: The Arms

 

Pitching-wise, it’s more of the same. The Yanks’ pitching staff has gone for a 9.44 K/9 clip and 2.93 BB/9. The Jays, in contrast, haven’t punched out hitters at quite the same rate (8.21/9), but have also been able to limit the free passes a little more (2.68/9). Tampa Bay is at 8.95 and 2.78, respectively. The larger discrepancy in their respective ERAs shrinks when you look at FIP, with the Yankees at 3.08 against Toronto’s 3.56. Tampa Bay is a bit further down, at 3.76.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that the three teams are very close. The Yankees have a bit more dynamic of a pitching staff and more pop at a friendlier park. The Rays are, well, the Rays. But those small gaps that exist could easily be rectified with the right move, something Toronto has shown a willingness to make. Assuming the season continues on in the same fashion, with the three teams remaining as close as they are, it’s going to come down to a different facet entirely: defense.

 

Toronto vs. New York vs. Tampa Bay: The Difference?

 

Defense currently represents the largest disparity among the three teams (despite my earlier claim that these figures can change daily). In terms of FanGraphs’ Def rating, the Blue Jays currently sit 20th in the league, at -3.2. The Yankees are in 10th, at 1.8, while the Rays sit three spots ahead of them, at 5.0. The Jays do, however, hold a slight edge in Defensive Runs Saved, with 15, to the Yanks’ 13 and the Rays’ three. The Rays lead the trio in Outs Above Average, with seven. The Blue Jays are at three. The Yankees are slightly below average there, sitting at -1. While not a super strong measure of defense, the Yankees have committed the fewest errors in the league, at just seven to date. For comparison, Toronto has committed 13 and the Rays are at 16.

It’s not the only defensive metric that features a positional adjustment, but Def represents a very comprehensive one. And given the gap between the Blue Jays and their compatriots in the AL East, it represents the most ground the team has to make up in the race, especially given how close the gaps are in the other facets of the game. When you look at individual performances according to this metric alone, Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and George Springer all fell on the positive side in 2021, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at exactly average. All four are on the below-average side of the threshold thus far in 2022.

In positive news, Santiago Espinal has filled in admirably for Gold Glover Marcus Semien at second base, while the addition of Matt Chapman has done exactly what it’s needed to defensively. The onus now falls on the other members of the lineup, Bichette in particular, to get their game trending in the right direction. Especially if the three squads remain this close in other regards.

Offense and pitching are quick fixes. It’s more a matter of personnel than anything. And, again, there’s a willingness from Toronto to upgrade if necessary. But with how close the gap is, they might not need to. Which would mean that this lineup looks very similar as the year progresses. If that’s the case, the defensive side will have to show marginal improvement in order to genuinely keep up in the race. Toronto likely doesn’t want to reach a point that it did last year, where they make a run at the end but it ends up not being enough in a loaded division.

That’s not to say the Blue Jays have been bad on defense. They’ve been better than Tampa and only marginally worse than the Yankees. Plus, defensive metrics need a large sample and are volatile to begin with. With how closely the three teams stack up on paper, though, the defense could be the key. And if that’s the case, the Blue Jays still have a bit of growing left to do.

 

Leslie Plaza/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Matt Fletcher (@little.gnt on Instagram)

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. A former high school English teacher, Randy now works in the corporate world and resides in Arizona.

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