March 17, 2017
Looking Back on Tomorrow
Toronto Blue Jays
Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
The Blue Jays have come oh-so-close to the top of the baseball world the last two seasons. Thanks to an aggressive trade deadline in 2015 and some tinkering prior to 2016, Toronto made back-to-back appearances in baseball’s Final Four before bowing out in the ALCS to the Royals and the Indians. The 2017 club has experienced some roster turnover—losing Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders, R.A. Dickey, and Brett Cecil—but this team should once again be strong enough to compete in the American League.
Leading the charge is Toronto’s surprisingly successful rotation. Last year’s club was supposed to be supported by the offense, but it was the starting pitchers who carried the load, posting a league-best ERA and leading the AL in innings pitched. Despite PECOTA’s negative outlook on the quintet (its most optimistically projected ERA is Marcus Stroman at 4.07), there are very real reasons for optimism.
With someone like Aaron Sanchez, it’s easy to see how he could outperform his projected numbers; he's just 24 years old and drastically improved his previously spotty command in 2016 en route to a league-leading ERA. As for the other “big stuff” arms, Francisco Liriano has been good for three-and-a-half of the past four years—including a strong finish to 2016 after joining Toronto—and Stroman pitched much better in the second half once he started using all of his pitches. The success of J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada can be a bit tougher to understand. They don’t have electric arms like the other three starters, but both possess unique skills that have helped them out-pitch their peripheral stats.
In the case of Estrada, over the last two years he has used the elite movement on his swift-spinning fastball and bugs bunny changeup combined with incredible deception to induce all sorts of weak contact. That shows up in Baseball Prospectus’ tunnel rating, where Estrada ranks seventh-best when going from fastball to changeup. Estrada’s 16.2 percent popup rate is also a whole 2.5 percentage points ahead of Max Scherzer, who was second-best among qualified starters in 2016.
Happ also possesses some outlier stuff of his own. His two-seam and four-seam fastballs have the biggest difference in vertical movement in baseball, among pitchers who threw 500 of each. The close tunneling and similar velocity make the two pitches look the same out of his hand, which leads to a high variance in break and produces more pop ups and grounders. As a result, Happ’s average stuff plays much better than it should.
The Jays should also continue to be a strong offensive team, despite the aforementioned losses of Encarnacion and Saunders. Perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson leads a group that includes above-average hitters like Kendrys Morales, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, Steve Pearce, and of course, Jose Bautista.
The tools are all there for another season of success, but it’s up in the air as to if they’ll make a push to the later rounds of the playoffs once again. In other words, if the team can’t make it to the World Series, they’ll be remembered for an entirely different reason. Fans won’t look back and remember a third straight miss. Instead, they’ll see the 2017 Blue Jays as the end of an era for the greatest player in franchise history, Bautista.
While he’s considered a pain to some in the league—most notably the Orioles—he’s a hero at home. Bautista was the team’s lone hope in the early parts of this decade. It’s easy to forget now—after his worst season since he was in Pirates colors—that the Toronto right fielder could at one time be considered the best player in baseball. While he wasn’t crowned the MVP, Bautista’s 10.0 WARP in 2011 was MLB's highest. Justin Verlander and Jacoby Ellsbury, who pulled in more award votes, were each more than 1.5 WARP behind the Jays' slugger. It’s unfortunate that his success came at a time in which his next best teammate was Ricky Romero, but he was a hero nonetheless.
In the years that followed. Bautista further embedded himself within Toronto fans’ hearts. He became more outspoken, more fiery, and reaffirmed his commitment to Toronto. For any city that would mean a lot, but for Toronto, a sports town with an inferiority complex borne from star athlete departures, it meant the world. Bautista’s performance has dwindled somewhat since that lofty peak, but he was still a superstar in 2014 and 2015, and he’ll likely leave the team as their best hitter ever. He's produced 36.6 WARP for the Blue Jays and is just 0.6 WARP away from former right fielder Jesse Barfield for the top spot in team history.
However, for a significant portion of 2016 it looked like Bautista might never get the chance to reach the top of that list. Prior to last year, Bautista went from playoff hero to offseason zero when he reportedly asked for a five-year, $150 million contract. He followed up that request with a season in which he posted his worst TAv since 2009 while simultaneously decomposing on defense in right field. His arm wasn’t what it once was and it was supposed to be making up for a lack of speed and average instinct. It seemed like the Bautista era was over without his getting a proper goodbye.
After finding no other desirable landing spot for his services as a free agent, he returned to Toronto on a “three-year deal” that will almost certainly end after one. We call it a “three-year deal” because that’s how it was sold to fans following the signing. However, Bautista’s new contract is for just one guaranteed season with two mutual options that will almost certainly not be exercised. It can be marketed, packaged, and wrapped up with a bow, but fans know that he’s likely gone.
If his spring training and World Baseball Classic results materialize into regular season success and a fully healthy Bautista has a bounce-back year, he hits free agency on a high and gets a bigger contract elsewhere. If he continues his decline, the Jays will likely want to move in another direction. Regardless, it’s hard to see 2017 as anything other than Bautista’s Blue Jays swan song.
That leaves this year’s Blue Jays in an interesting situation. They’ll either be remembered for the loss of the true heart of their team (sorry Josh Donaldson) or for finally cresting that summit and breaking a 24-year World Series drought.
Joshua Howsam is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @JoshuaHowsam