By Rob Ficiur
On the last day of the regular season the Toronto Blue Jays moved into fourth place, finally out of last place in the American League East. After two dramatic playoff seasons, what went wrong this year? A simple answer could be almost everything. However, here are more specific details:
1. Jose Bautista was not the Joey Bats we knew – At age 36, it was too much to expect Jose Bautista to be the hitting machine he was in 2010 (54 home runs) and 2011 (132 runs batted in). However, fans would have been happy if the 2017 Bautista was a good as the 2016 version. Jose’s batting average dropped from a weak .234 last year to a dismal .201 this year. The biggest reason for the drop was a Blue Jays team record 170 strikeouts. The Jays season did not fall apart solely because of Bautista, but when you have been the franchise player for nearly a decade fans’ expectations are high.
2. Starting pitching depth – In 2016, the Toronto Blue Jays used seven starting pitchers in the team’s 162 games. Their starting five pitched in order the entire season. When they acquired Francisco Liriano at the end of July, he made eight starts. In 2017 the Jays used 14 pitchers to start the same 162 games. It is unrealistic to think you can go an entire season without injuries; but this year the Jays had no reliable starters to fill in when injuries hit. While there are only five starters in the normal rotation, a team has to have eight or nine people to fill those spots when injuries come. They had unusual good luck in 2016 relying on six men to start all but two games. In 2017, they had unusually bad luck when zero of their nine depth starters proved to be reliable.
3. Relief pitching – In 2016 the Blue Jays developed a solid bullpen well into the playoffs. In 2017 glitches in the bullpen cost the team. 2016 fan favorite Jason Grilli saw his earned run average double. His four losses and three blown saves were part of the early season slump that set the team behind from April on. Roberto Osuna set a team record with ten blown saves. If you could eliminate half of the blown saves by these two pitchers, the Jays would have been in a playoff race until the last week of the season. To be fair we should be should be celebrating Osuna’s 39 saves – which rank him fourth in the team’s history. However, when a team loses, the closer gets more of the blame – just like he gets the glory when they win.
4. Injuries everywhere – Injuries are part of any sport. Teams need to have depth to deal with the inevitable injuries. In the case of the 2017 Blue Jays they had long term injuries to most of their starting position players. Russel Martin had fewer at bats than any season in his 12-year major league career. All five back up catchers combined for a .154 batting average. Devon Travis led the team with a .364 in the month of May before having a season ending knee injury. Former all-star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki had a career low batting average of .249 when a freak injury ended his season.
The biggest injury of the season is one that fans might not think about today as we mourn a playoff-less season. In training camp Josh Donaldson (2015 MVP) was slowed down by a leg injury. When Josh went on the disabled list April 13 he was hitting .310. When he returned six weeks later, he was not right. For the next two and a half months he batted a mere .233. Was he still slowed by the April injury? No one will ever tell us. The last two months of the season Donaldson became the player we knew batting .301 hitting 22 home runs in the last eight weeks. With all the injuries, if we had had a healthy Donaldson maybe things could have been different. (Maybe).
5. Young Stars Missing – The biggest thing missing on the team was the lack of young players rising to challenge for major league jobs. Most of the injuries were filled in with cast offs from other teams. This did not work.
Where was the rising young talent? When depth was needed, no up and coming star from the minor leagues came up and took a spot. Five different back up catchers means that no one was a good back up. Fourteen different starters means that no prospect made good on the chance to be a big league pitcher. Several September call-ups looked promising, but by then the team was too far behind to make a playoff run.
When the 2018 Toronto Blue Jays play their first game there will be a different team. Listing all the things that went wrong this season is easy. Finding the right players to correct the on field problems will be a challenge for Jays management all from now until opening day on March 29 in New York.