Sitting at 29-25, the Toronto Blue Jays enter their Thursday offday in the midst of a 2021 season that is tough to interpret.
An optimist might say that the club has weathered a storm of unfortunate injuries and kept themselves in position to challenge for a playoff spot. A pessimist could posit that some of the players they’ve lost aren’t coming back for a long time if ever, the emergence of the Boston Red Sox has made the AL East an even tougher place to compete, and a record around .500 isn’t going to cut it.
That pessimist has a couple of fairly solid points, but for now it’s OK to ignore him. Not only have many Toronto sports fans had their fill of darkness in recent days, there are concrete reasons to look at this Blue Jays team through rose-coloured glasses.
This is a club that’s better than it’s record, for a number of reasons.
The underlying numbers
While 29-25, and more importantly fourth-place position in the AL East, isn’t particularly encouraging, it’s also deceptive. The Blue Jays have a run differential of +47, the second-best mark in the division and the seventh-best in the majors. With that significant gap between runs scored and allowed the team has an expected record of 32-22, which is more reflective of their performance.
There’s no specific explanation for why the team’s record is below its underlying metrics — especially considering its 5-5 record in one-run games is nothing out of the ordinary — meaning there’s no reason to think that’s a trend that’s going to continue.
This club is scoring more than five runs per game — with significant absences from George Springer, Teoscar Hernandez, and Cavan Biggio plus underperformance from Rowdy Tellez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and the catchers. There’s plenty of room for this group to excel even if Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien cool off. There’s also room to grow on the run prevention side.
The bottom of the rotation
Coming into the season it was clear that the rotation behind Hyun-Jin Ryu was the Blue Jays’ greatest weakness and that’s been borne out so far. Even with Ryu doing his thing, Robbie Ray finding the strike zone, and Steven Matz exceeding expectations, the Blue Jays have gotten just 1.6 WAR from their starters, the 28th-best mark in the league.
Toronto starters not named Ryu, Matz, or Ray, have combined for a 6.07 ERA, 6.21 FIP, and -0.9 WAR, but there are a number of reasons to believe that’s going to change.
The first is Alek Manoah. Although the rookie struggled in his second start after producing a thrilling MLB debut, he looks likely to solidify the back end of the Blue Jays rotation. Even if he oscillates between “teachable moment” duds and dominant outings, the overall results should be an upgrade for the Blue Jays. FanGraphs’ Steamer projection system pegs him for a 4.21 ERA and 4.12 FIP for the rest of the season. That could wind up being conservative based on Manoah’s raw talent, but even if he hits that mark it will be solid fourth starter production. The rookie alone vastly improves the team’s starting pitching situation.
Beyond Manoah, the Blue Jays have a couple of intriguing possibilities. In the short term there’s a pretty sizable chance of Ross Stripling giving the team improved production. The veteran right-hander was a disaster in his first six outings (7.20 ERA) before finding a mechanical adjustment prior to his outing on May 24. Since then he’s thrown 12 innings of one-run ball. While the tweak hasn’t made him an ace overnight, it might help him clear the low bar of “serviceable fifth starter”.
Even if Stripling fails to find his groove, the team has Nate Pearson working his way back in Triple-A. He’s far from a sure thing, but still possesses unbelievable stuff. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him bolstering the team’s starting five later in the season.
Lastly, it’s worth remembering that the trade deadline is less than two months away, and if its rotation continues to struggle, the club can find outside help. The Blue Jays have a farm system with enough depth that they can get any rental pitcher they desire, and this front office acquired starters midway through prior competitive seasons like 2016 (Francisco Liriano) and 2020 (Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker). Even if they can’t stomach the acquisition cost of Max Scherzer, there are plenty of possible rentals who could help like Danny Duffy, Jon Gray, or José Ureña.
While playing the AL East is never going to result in an easy schedule — especially with the Red Sox looking far better than expected — the way it’s balanced significantly affects the Blue Jays’ playoff prospects.
In 54 games thus far the Blue Jays have already played the Yankees, Rays, or Red Sox 21 times, meaning they’ve accounted for 38.9 percent of their schedule. In the coming 108 games they only play that trio in 33.3 percent of their games. That’s still significant, but it’s a step down, and the biggest share of those contests come against the Red Sox, who are likely to cool off to some extent.
Within the AL East, the elephant in the room is the Baltimore Orioles. One third of the way through the season the Blue Jays have yet to play the team that FanGraphs, rather astutely, gave a 0 percent chance to make the playoffs before the season even started. Games against the Orioles aren’t automatic wins, but Baltimore just came off a 14-game losing streak and has a .339 winning percentage, so they’re awfully close.
Besides Baltimore, the Blue Jays have yet to tangle with the Detroit Tigers or Minnesota Twins, AL Central cellar dwellers who’ve combined for a 45-65 record this year. Those two comprise 12 percent of their remaining schedule.
Despite residing in the American League’s toughest division, the Blue Jays’ strength of schedule from here on out is slightly below .500, which isn’t something any of their rivals can say. The Red Sox (.516) and Yankees (.510) in particular are looking at the MLB’s second and third toughest slates — just behind the unfortunate Orioles.
While the schedule is something that is well beyond the Blue Jays control, the way it’s drawn up should help their cause.
More from Yahoo Sports