High-scoring Blue Jays sending mixed signals
Back end of rotation a concern, but hitting can make up for it
As the Blue Jays prepare for a three-game weekend series against the world-beating Rangers in Arlington, it's worth noting that quietly Toronto is enjoying a solid season in the game's toughest division. If the season ended now, the Blue Jays would actually be in the postseason for the first time since they won the World Series in 1993.
Of course, the season doesn't end for another four months or so, raising the question of whether they can keep it up. And the answer, as nearly always, is maybe. Toronto's offense has been opportunistic but still has room to be more productive, while the team's pitching staff may be headed for something of a fall.
The Blue Jays' offense makes little sense from most angles, but ultimately it adds up. Sort of.
The most noteworthy aspect of Toronto's hitting performance is its timing. The Blue Jays have an overall team batting line of .241/.310/.408 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage), for a pedestrian OPS of .718 that ranks eighth in the American League. Weighted on-base average (wOBA) and Baseball Prospectus' True Average (TAv), two measures of overall offensive performance, both rank them as a middle-of-the-pack offense. The Blue Jays are sixth in the league in each metric.
And yet in the one number that truly matters, they're doing great. They are third in the AL in runs scored. And it's largely a matter of when the hits have come. With runners in scoring position, the Blue Jays have been exceptional. Their composite batting line in RISP situations is .286/.356/.462, the .818 OPS ranking third in the AL.
Normally, you'd think that was a performance bound to normalize. Teams and players can't simply choose to hit better in big situations. But in Toronto's case, it might be the overall numbers that move to match the performance in the clutch.
That's because many more Blue Jays hitters have underperformed than overperformed. The only player who can really be said to have exceeded expectations is Edwin Encarnacion. Meanwhile, Brett Lawrie, Yunel Escobar, Colby Rasmus and of course Jose Bautista have put up lesser numbers than any reasonable projection would have forecast.
Add that with an overall team BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .267, second lowest in the Majors, and there's very good reason to think that the Toronto lineup has more room to improve than to fall off.
It will need to, because the Blue Jays' pitching does appear to be bound for regression. In some of the same ways as the Toronto offense, the club's pitching has benefited from some exquisite timing.
While the Blue Jays' team strikeout-to-walk ratio is second-to-last in the league, and they've allowed the third-most homers in the AL, the team's ERA stands a solid sixth. That's not especially sustainable.
The Jays are a very solid defensive team, so not all of their .260 BABIP allowed is luck. But some of it is, and that number is likely to normalize. Meanwhile, the team's strand rate, an indication of how many baserunners are being kept from scoring, is the best in the AL at 77.1 percent. That's another number that you can expect to seek its level on a low-strikeout pitching staff.
Brandon Morrow has long been expected to deliver on his promise, as he's doing in 2012, and Ricky Romero will probably in fact improve. But the back of the rotation may be pitching on borrowed time. Kyle Drabek has a nice strikeout rate but is walking far too many batters, while Henderson Alvarez is doing the opposite -- not walking batters, but not striking them out either.
Both pitchers have artificially low ERAs thanks in part to low BABIPs, and both can be expected to come back to earth a bit. That doesn't mean they can't be effective, but neither is likely to remain in the low 3.00s in ERA for the rest of the year.
So overall, odds are that Toronto's finished product on the pitching side will look a little worse as the year goes on. But if the hitters can step forward as it appears they might, perhaps the Jays can grab a playoff spot, even in the brutal AL East.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.