It’s been a long time since the Toronto Blue Jays made the playoffs. Stuck in the AL East, with high payroll teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, it’s been a real struggle for the Blue Jays since their last trip to the postseason. They’ve finished above .500 nine times without a playoff berth since that World Series winning season in 1903. The Blue Jays will now get their chance. With help from GM Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays went 40-18 over the final 58 games of the season to secure the AL East crown.
Their opponent, the Texas Rangers, had quite an incredible second half of their own. After hitting the All-Star Break at 42-46, first-year manager Jeff Bannister led his club to a 46-28 second half and the AL West Division title. The trade deadline acquisition of Cole Hamels seemed to spark something in the Rangers, who went 36-20 in August and September and did so without the services of staff ace Yu Darvish. Darvish is recovering from Tommy John surgery and will form an incredible 1-2 punch with Hamels next season. For now, the Rangers are focused on the present, which came a lot earlier than most people expected.
Here’s a look at the schedule for the series:
Game 1 @ TOR: Thursday October 8
Game 2 @ TOR: Friday October 9
Game 3 @ TEX: Sunday October 11
Game 4 @ TEX: Monday October 12*
Game 5 @ TOR: Wednesday October 14*
*- if necessary
The Rangers are a significant under at BetOnline.ag, priced at +185. The Blue Jays are a clear favorite at -215.
For the underdog Texas Rangers, this series could be a real struggle. Their lineup doesn’t have nearly the depth that Toronto’s does and that’s where the difference lies between the two teams. Delino DeShields has been great at the top of the order with a .344 OBP and 25 steals in his 492 plate appearances. His strikeout rate leaves a little bit to be desired at the top of the order, but that’s a byproduct of working counts. Shin-Soo Choo has had a strong bounce back season with a .276/.375/.463 slash. He’s still a defensive liability, but he’s a perfect fit in the #2 spot in the order. He has elite OBP skills and hits right-handed pitching very well. He doesn’t hit lefties well, but he has a good walk against them for a guy with big platoon splits.
Prince Fielder returned from a back and neck issue that cost him almost all of the 2014 season and has had a fine year. He had .305/.378/.463 slash over 693 plate appearances. He was healthy and that’s the important thing. The power production didn’t come back as some people had hoped, but his bat-to-ball skills make him a dangerous hitter in any context. With ageless veteran Adrian Beltre’s .287/.334/.464 slash and Mitch Moreland’s breakout season from a power production standpoint, the Rangers have a really formidable top half of the lineup.
Unfortunately, the bottom half is littered with inconsistent hitters like Mike Napoli, who batted just .191/.283/.320 against righties, and low OBP guys like Robinson Chrinos and Rougned Odor. Odor’s power allowed him to be an above average offensive player, but his 4.9 percent walk rate doesn’t allow much room for improvement. Elvis Andrus continued to provide defensive value, but is a well below average hitter. The fortunate thing for the Rangers is that they should see three right-handed starters in this series. They were seventh as a team in wOBA against righties. They were 10th against lefties, but their park factor played a big role. They were actually 18th in wRC+, four percent below league average.
The Rangers rotation is definitely a concern. Cole Hamels should be fine, even with Toronto’s penchant for blasting left-handers. Hamels shook off a groin issue to go 6-1 in 12 starts for the Rangers with a 3.66 ERA, a 3.79 FIP, and a 3.58 xFIP. Considering he jumped from the National League to the American League, these are very strong numbers and his peripherals all look pretty good.
Outside of Hamels, it’s hard to rely on anybody. Colby Lewis was 17-9, but that came with a 4.66 ERA, a 4.17 FIP, and a 4.62 xFIP. As an extreme fly ball guy with a low strikeout rate, the Blue Jays are about the worst possible matchup he could have drawn. He doesn’t walk many guys, but the Blue Jays aggressively attack pitches in the zone. Yovani Gallardo has carved out a niche as a low-strikeout, high ground ball pitcher and could very well be the team’s second-best option in this series. The Blue Jays have a lot of right-handed bats and Gallardo held righties to a .306 wOBA.
It’s the lefties that are worrisome. Derek Holland had a 4.84 ERA over his 57.2 innings in the second half. He gave up 10 home runs in that span, so his command will be a concern against a Blue Jays lineup that had an historic season against left-handed pitching. Martin Perez has an extreme ground ball rate as a lefty, but righties posted a .300/.352/.425 slash line, while lefties batted just .206/.279/.258.
That will put a lot of strain on the Texas bullpen. Rookie manager Jeff Bannister relied very heavily on his top relievers during the playoff chase. Shawn Tollesen worked five straight days in the final week and he showed definite signs of wear. Sam Dyson worked in 16 of the team’s 28 games in September, while Tollesen and Ohlendorf worked in 13. Mangers pull starters earlier in the playoffs than they do during the season, so this group is worth monitoring.
The Toronto Blue Jays have a prolific offense, but we’ve seen prolific offenses fall short in the playoffs. Remember the 1990s Indians? Some of those lineups had five or six Hall of Fame caliber hitters in the lineup. They never won a World Series. As much potential as there is in the Toronto lineup, they’re still going to need to pitch and play defense. But, the offense is a pretty nice thing to have.
Josh Donaldson, who has a legitimate shot at winning the AL MVP paced the Blue Jays with 41 home runs. His .398 wOBA led the team by six points over teammate Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 39 home runs of his own. Jose Bautista went deep 40 times and walked more than he struck out. The Blue Jays didn’t get much defensive value from Encarnacion or Bautista, but when you hit 79 dongs, you don’t need to worry all that much about that.
There are some interesting players in this Blue Jays lineup that may not get the press that they deserve. Devon Travis played a part-time role, but had a .304/.361/.498 slash. Russell Martin quietly hit 23 home runs and posted a 114 wRC+. Ben Revere isn’t revered by sabermetric stats, but there’s something to be said about a .319 hitter at the top of the order. Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello very quietly combined for 33 home runs.
The most overlooked part about the Blue Jays is how good they are defensively. Kevin Pillar is among the best defensive outfielders in all of baseball. He also stole 25 bases to help out in that respect, but his defense carried a ton of value. Russell Martin’s addition helped out in a lot of ways. He’s an above average pitch framer and controls the running game. It’s not a coincidence that the Blue Jays pitching staff improved throughout the season. Acquiring David Price helped, and so did shoring up the bullpen, but Martin’s fingerprints are all over this pitching staff. That’s an underappreciated element of the game.
Speaking of that pitching staff, David Price amassed 2.7 fWAR in just 11 starts for the Blue Jays. He was dominant, posting a 2.30 ERA, 2.22 FIP, and a 2.89 xFIP. Marcus Stroman’s return will be huge for the Blue Jays. His strikeout stuff isn’t there just yet after missing the majority of the season with a torn ACL, but he was 4-0 in four starts and averaged just shy of seven innings per start. His return allows the Jays to pick and choose spots for RA Dickey and Marco Estrada.
Estrada has been the surprise of the staff. His changeup has allowed him to post a low BABIP against and to keep the ball in the park, two things that he struggled with in Milwaukee. As mentioned above, Estrada’s changeup can keep the Texas lefties at bay and that’s a huge asset for a Toronto rotation that is questionable beyond Price and Stroman. Dickey is an innings eater, but you’re not necessarily looking for that in the playoffs. The goal is to get quality innings, not innings for innings sake.
The Blue Jays bullpen has stepped up in a big way with Roberto Osuna in the closer’s role, Liam Hendriks and Brett Cecil in setup roles, and Aaron Sanchez in a middle relief role as well. It took some work, but the Blue Jays have figured out the roles that they want guys to embrace and they have had one of best bullpens in the second half of the season.
Series Prediction: Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays should advance comfortably to the ALCS. The Blue Jays have a deeper lineup and their lineup strengths give them an advantage over the Rangers rotation. Three of the four starters they will likely face in this series are left-handed and Hamels is the only one with a consistently above average strikeout rate.