Last season, the Toronto Blue Jays were a popular pick to win the World Series. That... didn't happen. This year, they are off to a great start. Their 34-24 record and 291 runs scored both rank second in the American League. This week, they come into Detroit hoping to beat up on a Tigers pitching staff that has been a bit shaky over the past couple weeks.
In order to get the lowdown on the Blue Jays, we exchanged questions with Tom Dakers of Bluebird Banter, SB Nation's Blue Jays community. You can read my responses to Tom's questions here.
1. The Blue Jays were on fire in May, winning an AL-best 20 games. Many expected this out of the Jays in 2013, when they were a preseason favorite to win the American League. Are we finally seeing that team, or is this just a blip on the radar?
I'm hoping we are finally seeing that team. One good month does not a season make and all, but we are getting the offense we expected last year. It also looks like the pitching staff is settling out and should be good enough, as long as they keep hitting.
There has been some luck. Juan Francisco was picked up for nothing and filled in when Adam Lind was hurt. Francisco was terrific, hitting .277/.364/.598 over 112 at bats. With Lind back, Francisco has been playing an almost passable third base, moving Brett Lawrie over to second. Francisco's defense has been better than I imagined it would be. He has a strong arm, so if a ball is hit directly at him, he can pick it up and send a good throw across the diamond. If the ball is hit more than a couple of feet either side of him, it's the left fielder's problem.
As well as that, we've had fill in pitchers give us a good start or two when needed. Colby Rasmus gets injured and Anthony Gose comes in and plays far better than he did in Triple-A Buffalo. Last year, when someone was injured, his replacement would forget how to play baseball on the drive between Triple-A Buffalo and Toronto. This year, replacements seem to improve as the cross the border. Maybe the baseball gods are finally on our side.
2. Leading the charge in May was Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 16 home runs and had six games with three RBI or more. He has been great in the past couple years as well, but has anything changed to make him even better in 2014?
I'm not sure how much has changed. Maybe there is a bit more confidence there, but Edwin has always been a streaky hitter. He started the season cold. He only had 2 home runs in April and ended the month with a .250/.333/.413 batting line. He got his timing down and since then he has been hitting the ball hard almost every time up. I'm happy to ride this streak as long as it lasts. And he's having fun and smiling, playing decent defense at first base. He looks to be a good teammate and a good leader on the team.
And how many guys carry a parrot around on their home run trots?
3. As good as Encarnacion has been, his OPS only ranks third on the team, behind Jose Bautista and Adam Lind. Who has been the team's MVP so far, and why?
I'd say Edwin has been the MVP but Jose Bautista is a close second. At the start of the season, everyone was pitching around Bautista because Encarnacion was so cold. Jose ended April with a .467 on-base percentage, along with 8 home runs. As Edwin heated up, they started pitching to Jose more (his OBP dropped all the way to .417 for May) and he drove in 22 base runners in May. The thing he is doing differently, this year, is to occasionally go the other way against the big shift, especially with runners in score position. Jose already has more hits to the opposite field than he had all of last season. That's helped his batting average, he's hitting .311 so far this year, after hitting .259 in an injury shortened 2013.
He has also made some amazing plays in right field. He made 9-3 putouts on batters in consecutive games against the Royals. I doubt that play has ever been made in back-to-back games before. One was a line drive by Billy Butler that bounced in front of Bautista, and he gunned it to first, getting Butler by a couple of steps. The next game Omar Infante hit a short fly to right, Jose dived for it, but just missed. He kept the ball close, popped up and threw to first to get Infante. Both times just terrific throws.
Adam Lind has been very good, in part because he finally has a manager smart enough to platoon him. Lind has always been able to hit right-handed pitching, but his troubles with lefties has kept his batting average down. John Gibbons, unlike our last couple of managers, noticed this and has him sitting against southpaws. You wouldn't think it would have been so tough to find a manager that could figure out something that simple.
So right now Encarnacion would be my choice as MVP, but ask again in a month and you might get a different answer.
4. The Jays rank second in the AL in runs scored per game and are on pace to hit 229 home runs this season. However, their pitching staff has the fifth-highest ERA in the league [Ed.: as of Sunday morning]. Do they have the pitching to win the AL East? Who needs to step up?
If they are going to contend, J.A. Happ and Marcus Stroman are going to have to do the job in the 4 and 5 spots of the rotation. Happ has never been a favorite of mine. In the past he has wanted to nibble at the corners (or, more precisely, just off the corners), and, before the 4th inning is over, he'll be up to 100 pitches. Recently he seems to have found an extra 3 or 4 mph on his fastball (he's been hitting 95) and, with that, he seems to less afraid of the strike zone. We'll see if it lasts. Stroman is one of our top prospects, and we've been waiting for him to get the call to the rotation. Stroman isn't a big guy, he's generously listed at 5'9", but he can throw mid-90s and has a very nice breaking ball.
The first 3 spots in the rotation are good enough. Mark Buehrle's been amazing, R.A. Dickey isn't the same guy that won the NL Cy Young two years ago, but he gives us 6 good innings a start and Drew Hutchison might be our Ace by the end of the season.
5. The Tigers will not see Mark Buehrle, as he pitched on Sunday. However, he leads the AL with 10 wins and has put up a 2.10 ERA and 3.06 FIP in his first 12 starts. Has he changed anything from 2013 to 2014?
In part the improvement has to be credited to a change in catchers. Last year, it took J.P. Arencibia a long time to figure out how to deal with Buehrle's pace. Buehrle likes to get the ball and throw, he doesn't want to spend time thinking about the right pitch for this moment. He says he would rather throw the wrong pitch than to get out of rhythm. J.P. had a hard time with that. By the end of the season they were meshing better. Dioner Navarro seemed to fit with Buehrle right from the start of spring training. They work together well.
Also, in part, I think Buehrle came into this season a little embarrassed about how poor he started last season. There was a lot of talk about how he always gets off to poor starts and he seemed to take that to heart and came to camp looking to start the season better. And he did.
I think too that he is benefiting from an improved defense. At the start of last season our infield defense was terrible. Emilio Bonafacio was awful at second base. Jose Reyes and Brett Lawrie were both hurt and their replacements weren't exactly Gold Glove candidates. Buehrle works fast and he uses his defense. He's not going to get a lot of strikeouts, but he doesn't walk many, he needs the plays made behind him. Also this year, he hasn't been giving up home runs, he's only allowed 2 so far. I'd imagine there will be some regression on that front (he gave up 23 last year).
And maybe he doesn't have as much separation anxiety at being so far away from his pit bulls. Ontario has a ban on the animals that Buehrle owns.
6. From an outsider's perspective, Drew Hutchison seems to be one of the more surprising contributors on the Blue Jays' roster. Did Jays fans expect this from him, or has his solid performance caught you off guard too?
Drew came up to the team in 2012, at just 21, made 11 starts, looked pretty good and then got hurt, needed Tommy John surgery and missed almost all of last year. So, going into spring training, I figured he'd end up at Triple-A, to get a chance to work the kinks out. Wrong again.
Hutchison had a great spring training and the other candidates for the 4th/5th starter spot, what's the technical term, oh right, sucked. So whatever intentions the Jays might have had for Drew, they needed him to start. He's been good, a been on the inconsistent side, but then, he's coming back from Tommy John and he is only 23. He was to start last Saturday but the Jays are a bit concerned about monitoring his innings, so they pushed him back until Tuesday.
7. Manager ejections seem to be the norm when these two teams get together. Jim Leyland was tossed for miming an umpire in 2011, while a tamer John Gibbons got run for arguing a call last July. Any chance we see more fireworks from Gibbons this weekend?
Never know with Gibby, he's had one ejection this season, but with the good play of late he's been a fair bit more relaxed than in the past. He is hot tempered, but he's also got a short memory. By the time he takes the slow walk out to stall for time on plays that might be challenged, he forgets why he was mad in the first place.
Once again, a big thank you to Tom for taking the time to answer our questions. You can read my responses to his queries here. Be sure to check out Bluebird Banter for all your Toronto Blue Jays needs this season!