With changes coming to the roster and the staff, the Blue Jays can finally close the book on an era where only the long ball mattered.
When I was an impressionable kid growing up in the back woods of Nova Scotia, video games were my window to the world. My parents bought me and my brother a SNES and with it came one of my first sports games: Ken Griffey Jr. presents Major League Baseball. Griffey was the only player actually named, which resulted in the likes of Aretha Franklin (John Doherty) trying to strike out James Bond (Dave Nilsson), but it was everything to seven-year-old me. I couldn’t always hit home runs with that power-packed Blue Jays lineup, but I was smart and figured out patterns. One of my favorite tricks was to get runners on 1st and third after a single, and move them back and forth, goading the catcher and second baseman into tossing the ball to each other before making the runner take off for second, and then immediately sending the runner home to score an easy run. No CPU had the arm to stop that play.
So why do I bring up this story of gaming from my youth?
Because I was certain that was the only time I would see the Blue Jays pull off a double steal like that. Until Sept. 11, 2018, that is.
When Jonathan Davis and Devon Travis executed that double steal against the Red Sox, I almost jumped for joy, seeing that real-life enactment of a childhood ploy, one that Ian Kinsler was powerless to stop. However, I was also excited because the Blue Jays are finally getting a roster into place that contains players with enough speed to use that kind of tool kit.
It will be key to their future success.
See, the Blue Jays of the past two seasons have been caught in an awkward position when it comes to offensive strategies. The current staff remembers what made the team successful on offense. Let the sluggers eat and keep the pressure coming throughout the lineup. The Blue Jays led the AL with 232 homers in 2015, and were 3rd in 2016 with 223 taters. Those dingers hurt, too. According to the Globe and Mail, 104 of those 232 home runs in 2015 came with runners aboard. 45% of homers carried extra weight on the scoreboard. A total of 371 of Toronto’s 829 runs (45%) came via the home run.
Fast forward to 2018 and the home runs are not nearly as sweet for this club. There are still plenty of them. Following the stunning ninth-inning heroics of Sept. 20, the Blue Jays have smacked 205 long balls this season. Ten players cracked the 10-homer plateau, including the now-departed Curtis Granderson. But it has not translated into the same offense, because 123 of the 205 home runs have come with no one aboard. It results in a five per cent drop in multi-run bombs, and it means 317 of Toronto’s 678 runs to date (47%) are still coming from the moonshots. The same strategy has yielded a less-bountiful harvest.
Looking at individual home run conversion rates and it shows how barren the bases have been this season. Especially for middle-of-the-lineup hitters. Nine of Yangervis Solarte‘s 15 homers have come with no one on. Kevin Pillar‘s 14 dingers include 11 solo shots. Kendrys Morales, he of the seven-game binge, has a 66 per cent solo shot rate (14/21). The only regular hitters who have been able to make their moonshots count double more than 50 per cent of the time are Teoscar Hernandez (11 of his 20 homers have worth at least two) and Travis (a very efficient 22 RBIs on 11 home runs (7/11 MRHR)).
The Blue Jays stuck with this strategy because they had to. When a club has one of the oldest rosters in baseball, it means no one is moving around the bases quick enough to generate runs that way. However, as the slower bodies are moved to greener pastures, speed has come into play with the younger legs. Billy McKinney has moved into the lead-off spot and shockingly been able to go from first to third on a single. Danny Jansen has not been a guaranteed out on a ground ball. Lourdes Gurriel beat out a bunt for a single!
With the Blue Jays expected to move on from John Gibbons at the end of the season, it’s a chance to clean house and bring in staff members who can help the team diversify its offensive portfolio from its homer-heavy ways. Coaches that don’t have to call for hit and runs just to avoid Morales and Russell Martin being D.O.A. at second base in a double play. People who can judge fly balls well enough to avoid sending every Granderson and McKinney to their doom at home plate.
Announcer emeritus and friend of Jays From the Couch Jerry Howarth took to Sportsnet’s airwaves recently and gave his inside tip on who he felt should be the next Blue Jays manager. Citing the path that Kevin Cash took with the Rays, Howarth gave his blessing to ex-Blue Jays farmhand and current Fisher Cats boss John Schneider to take the reins. Given the success Schneider has had with the Dunedin in 2017 and New Hampshire this season, this writer sees no reason to disagree.
As noted on Locked On Blue Jays on Sept. 20, Schneider not only has experience with the current batch of baby Blue Jays, he has shown he is more willing to weaponize the speed of his players. Consider that Pillar is the current leader for the Toronto crew with 14 stolen bases on the season. That number would place the center fielder seventh on the Fisher Cats. Cavan Biggio was a 20/20 player this season. Bo Bichette had a stellar 32-for-43 success rate on steals. More speed came at the deadline with Forrest Wall in the fold. Schneider has been smart deploying that speed with minimal risk and he could easily bring that to the big club with players like Anthony Alford, McKinney, Gurriel and Bichette available to leg out hits and set the table for Rowdy Tellez and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
It’s a strategy that the Blue Jays have seen work in their own division. The Red Sox’s addition of J.D. Martinez gave them a guy that can slug homers in a lineup with hitters like Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi that can easily get on base ahead of him. Huge counter-punches that have come with two or three runners on have allowed Boston to erase deficits at will this season.
The Blue Jays have the pieces to build something similar. They need someone who can assemble them properly and embrace the new tactics that are available to this club. Moderation will lead the club to offensive success, and maybe they can start racking up scores that would make the scorelines seven-year-old me put up on the SNES a reality as well.
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Andrews has been immersed in sports from a young age, since they could read Jr. Jays comics that filtered into the backwoods of Northern Nova Scotia. The Canadian has been blogging about sports since high school, writing on FOX Sports.com’s blogs as well on the Tailpipe Sports blog. The 20-something has been with Jays From the Couch since its humble beginnings, and continues to contribute while forging a career in the sports journalism industry. Andrews brings a discerning eye, a smoking keyboard, and a brain that made Jeopardy! briefly rethink letting Canadians onto their program.