This past off-season, the Toronto Blue Jays broke the bank. For a team that will likely play a second-consecutive season without a single loonie’s-worth of actual home gate revenue, you have to hand it to the higher-ups at Rogers Communication and team President Mark Shapiro. In dropping $175 million on four players – Kirby Yates, Marcus Semien, Tyler Chatwood, and big-fish George Springer – the club showed that it was ready to supplement its talented young core, and be taken seriously as a challenger to the Yankees and Rays in the AL East.
When assessing their 7-9 start, it’s important and obvious to note that the club has yet to see an at-bat in blue from Springer, who they hope will make his club debut before the month of April is up. It’s equally important to note that, although he was a bit of a crap-shoot to be effective out of the pen at 34 coming off of major injuries, Kirby Yates will not play for the team this year. For his part, Semien has hit 4 home runs and is still gold glove-caliber in the field, but he is slashing just .182/.247/.364, and hasn’t exactly been setting the table for the hot-hitting heart of the order.
So let’s be fair in our early-season assessment, here. This is a 7-9 team that is middle-middle in most cumulative team hitting stats (T-11th in HR, 16th in AVG, 21st in OPS, T-16th in R), which is doing this without the services of two of its best bats in Springer and COVID-afflicted Teoscar Hernandez. But there are a few things that have definitely worked in the early days, and they are certainly noteworthy
Big Bat, Not-so-big Boy
On the bright side – and it is bright enough to be visible from Dunedin all the way back in T.O. – Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been tearing the cover off the ball in April. Heading into action on Tuesday, he is slashing .389/.507/.667 with 4 HR and 11 RBI through 54 AB’s, with some compelling underlying stats. His 94 mph average exit velocity is 9th in the league, and his increased bat speed is readily evident when you see the contact he is making and the control he is showing at the plate. Much – and I mean much (much, much) – hullabaloo was made about his improved off-season training regimen, and the shedding of roughly 40 pounds off of his substantive frame. And while some of the discourse in the notoriously voracious Toronto media bordered on insensitive, it is clear that having more control over his frame is allowing for a more athletic approach. He is smacking the ball around, and playing at the level many expected he would reach when entering the league as a super-prospect in 2019.
Of course, it’s further important to remember that he’s still just 22 years old, and there’s no reason to believe that this is simply the case of a ‘hot start’. His hitting metrics are in keeping with his profile, as he always profiled as a guy who could hammer the ball to all fields. Importantly, he is also working with a much more patient approach at the plate: while his K rate is still roughly career-average (16.4%), he has greatly improved his walk rate (16.4%, to 8.2 & 8.9% in the last two seasons). Add it all up, and you have a budding superstar who is emerging comfortably in that role, and who looks ready to carry the team on his (significantly leaner) back.
A Little Help?
Alongside Vladdy, Big Bat Bo Bichette has had a comparatively strong start to the season. He’s slashing .266/.304/.516 through 64 AB’s, with 4 HR, 10 RBI, and 3 SB. He has mostly been hitting in the 2-spot behind Semien, and figures to do the same when Springer returns and is plugged into an expected lead-off role. Bichette recently tied some guy named Joe DiMaggio in a unique statistic, posting 14 multi-XBH games in his first 87 games – a stat that seems about as cherry-picked as a cat in an elm tree. Nevertheless, Bo is proving to be an excellent shotgun-rider to Vladito in the early going, and if he can pull his average up to a more expected .280 mark (which his BABIP and underlying metrics suggest is probable), he’ll feature as one of the better contact hitters in the game.
Beyond Bo and Vladdy, it has been a mostly disappointing start to the year for the Jays bats. There was hope that Cavan Biggio could make some changes to his approach to get on base more reliably, but he is slashing just .171/.292/.366 through 41 AB’s, and suffered a knock to his right hand during a game against the Royals last week. Lourdes Gurriel Jr./strong>. has just 1 XBH in 44 AB’s, and has struck out 10 times to just 2 walks. Their two young catchers – Danny Jansen and much-hyped Alejandro Kirk – are a combined 6-for-53, and it has turned into a bit of a turtle-derby as to who the ‘go-to’ guy is in the battery. Rowdy Tellez is much-loved by his teammates, and suffered through an 0-for-21 slump to start the year, but has since gone 8-for-23, and may be turning things around – just in time to lose his DH spot to Teoscar Hernandez. Randal Grichuk may be the only complimentary bat who has shown a bit of spark in the early days, hitting .283 with 10 RBI’s in an everyday role.
— MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (@MLBNetworkRadio) April 18, 2021
All of this is to say that the Jays desperately need a healthy Springer and Hernandez infused into their lineup. Their pitching has actually been remarkably competent to start the year – particularly at the top. The threesome of ace Hyun Jin Ryu, 30-year old Steven Matz, and a healthy and more-controlled Robbie Ray have yielded just 9 earned runs combined across 8 starts and 47.1 IP. The club has had real trouble keeping deep bullpen options healthy, with erstwhile closer options Yates, Julian Merryweather, and Jordan Romano all currently on the IL. Nonetheless, the ‘bullpen-by-committee’ approach is working, with arms like Rafael Dolis, Tim Mazya, and Trent Thornton pitching well when called upon.
A 7-9 start may not suggest that the Blue Jays are ready to be the usurpers to the Yankees’ throne that many pegged them as to start the season, but there are positive signs. As the lineup gets healthier and inserts at least two prominent bats into its midst with Springer and Hernandez, the club will hopefully get some support for Vladito and Bo. And if they can get that, there’s every reason to believe they can take those slow, steady first steps out of the nest in 2021.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)