What's the deal with the Blue Jays?
On Tuesday, just before he headed home for the night following yet another disappointing loss, Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Marco Estrada turned to the media horde lurking in the home clubhouse at Rogers Centre and reminded them that this, too, shall pass.
"I promise you it's going to be OK," he said.
Don't panic, in other words. As it happens, "Don't Panic" is the song that blares over the PA system when Roberto Osuna jogs in from the bullpen. It's also the ethos that oozes from manager John Gibbons, affable even if his house were on fire, and a sentiment uttered multiple times by Troy Tulowitzki over the last week, harrowing as it was.
Not panicking is kind of this team's thing.
So while they aren't panicking, they also aren't winning. A week into the 2017 campaign, the Blue Jays are 1-6. Never before - not even in 1977, their inaugural season, when the roster was comprised of expansion-team drek - have the Blue Jays started a season so poorly.
The problem is obvious: they aren't hitting. Hold your nose for the cognitive dissonance, because a lineup that looks like one of the best in baseball - you've got a former MVP, a six-time All-Star, a Silver Slugger-winning DH, a four-time All-Star, another five-time All-Star - ranks last in the majors in OPS (.568), next-to-last in league- and park-adjusted offense (65 wRC+) and batting average (.197), and fourth-last in runs per game (3.33). Collectively, the Blue Jays have hit for as much isolated power (.092) as Alexei Ramirez did last year, when he smacked all of six home runs in 506 plate appearances.
With runners in scoring position, they're hitting .156. Pitchers, as a group, hit .133 in 2016. They're also the only team in baseball without a stolen base. Tommy Joseph, the Philadelphia Phillies' 255-pound first baseman, has one.
Interestingly, though, the Baltimore Orioles, who swept their season-opening two-game series against Toronto, have been pretty bad at the plate, too. With a .610 OPS, even as their hitters reap the benefits of cozy Camden Yards, Baltimore sits fifth-last in league-adjusted offense (75 wRC+). Yet the Orioles sit atop the American League East standings, at 4-2, and it's not like their pitching has been all that stellar.
Baseball is weird, and sometimes wins and losses aren't distributed equitably. The Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets in the 2015 World Series, after all.
So while the Blue Jays are, collectively, in the middle of a convincing Nick Ahmed impression, had they managed a more favorable outcome in just a handful of plate appearances - some which seemed not-all-that-consequential, seemingly - over the last eight days, they'd likely have a better record than they do. Let's take a look at five of those at-bats which contributed to the worst start in franchise history (while also keeping in mind that a bad week is a bad week, and they're probably going to be fine).
Monday, April 3 - Blue Jays 2, Orioles 3
After Devon Travis led off the season with a ducksnort single into shallow right - one of his three hits in 27 at-bats (.111) thus far - Josh Donaldson worked himself into a 3-0 count against Kevin Gausman. Understandably, he had the green light, but Donaldson just missed Gausman's get-me-over fastball, popping it up into foul territory down the first-base line. One out. Ultimately, the Blue Jays were held scoreless that inning. Had Donaldson, say, taken a walk instead, the Blue Jays' odds of scoring a run would've jumped almost 20 percent, and they would've had Jose Bautista at the plate with a runner in scoring position.
Wednesday, April 5 - Blue Jays 1, Orioles 3
Before Dylan Bundy locked in last Wednesday, the Blue Jays cobbled a rally together as the lineup turned over for the first time, with Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar, and Travis notching consecutive one-out singles in the third, giving Toronto a 1-0 lead and putting runners on the corners for Donaldson. A hit wasn't even necessary to dramatically improve Toronto's chance of winning; a sacrifice fly or run-scoring groundout would've sufficed, as visiting teams with a 2-0 lead (and a runner on first) win roughly 70 percent of the time. Alas, Donaldson got rung up on a 94-mph fastball that scraped the inside black of the plate, and the Blue Jays proved unable to extend their lead, with Bautista lining out to first to end the inning in the subsequent at-bat. The Orioles took the lead on a two-run homer from Adam Jones in the bottom of the inning and wouldn't relinquish it.
Saturday, April 8 - Blue Jays 2, Rays 3
Though Chris Archer, as per usual, held Toronto in check Saturday at Tropicana Field, Aaron Sanchez was equally stingy in his season debut, and the Blue Jays had a glorious chance to put the game away late after Archer issued a leadoff walk to Russell Martin and served up a single to Smoak with the game tied at 1-1 in the eighth. When Pillar stepped to the plate with runners on the corners and nobody out, Toronto's win expectancy sat at almost 65 percent, but that figure plummeted nearly 11 points after the light-hitting center fielder popped up to the catcher, keeping Martin at third. The Blue Jays would end up taking the lead two batters later, as Donaldson gave his club a one-run lead with a two-out single up the middle, but the lead evaporated in the bottom of the frame thanks to a shaky outing from Joe Biagini.
Sunday, April 9 - Blue Jays 2, Rays 7
The Blue Jays looked primed to escape Tampa Bay with a series split Sunday after taking a 2-0 lead in the first on a Donaldson solo shot and a run-scoring groundout from Tulowitzki, but lousy command from Estrada saddled Toronto with a 4-2 deficit by the third. In the top of the fourth, however, the Blue Jays' win expectancy jumped nearly five percent when Jake Odorizzi hit Kendrys Morales to lead off the inning, bringing Tulowitzki to the plate for what was then the second-highest-leverage plate appearance of the game. That "rally" ended up being short-lived, though, as Tulowitzki grounded into a double play, cutting the Blue Jays' chances of victory down by almost nine percent while eliminating the only baserunner Toronto would have until Bautista blooped a two-out double in the top of the ninth, with his team down five runs.
Tuesday, April 11 - Brewers 4, Blue Jays 3
J.A. Happ put the Blue Jays in an early hole in Tuesday's home opener, but the top of the lineup responded quickly, as Tulowitzki's one-out double plated Bautista from first to cut a first-inning deficit to 2-1 and put two runners in scoring position for Martin. At this point, the Blue Jays had a win expectancy of 53.7 percent, but they lost their favorable position when Martin failed to drive in the run from third with less than two outs, striking out swinging against Wily Peralta. Smoak ended up whiffing, too, in the subsequent at-bat, and Milwaukee would lead for the rest of the game.
LI - Leverage index. A quantitative indicator of how “on the line” the game is at that particular moment. An LI of 1 is average. Anything above 1 is a higher-leverage situation, and anything below it is a lower-leverage situation.
WPA - Win probability added. The change in a team's (in this case, Toronto's) win expectancy from one plate appearance to the next. That change is assigned to both the pitcher and batter (inversely).
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